Are bike lanes a haven or a hazard?

Benson Hotel bike lane, Portland OR
[The infamous Broadway Blvd.
bike lane in front of the
Benson Hotel.]

The use and installation of bike lanes has long been a debate within bike advocacy circles.

On one side, you’ve got some cyclists who feel we should ride defensively on the roadway and that bike lanes offer only a dangerous and false sense of security. They believe bike lanes actually cause more accidents than they prevent.

On the other side are most bike advocacy groups and transportation planners. Their more widely accepted view is that bike lanes afford real safety benefits that encourage more people to ride. They would point to surveys and research that shows more bike lanes cause an increase in ridership, which in turns causes a decrease in crashes, thus making the roads safer (see chart below for an example of this).

[Click chart to enlarge.]

Without bike lanes, I wonder what would be come of the riders do not possess the skills and comfort level to ride among motor vehicles. What about kids, families, my Mom? They will simply not ride on a busy road if it doesn’t have a bike lane.

This issue surfaced recently after several local cyclists were cited for various bike lane infractions during Wednesday morning’s Police enforcement mission (In particular there has been a discussion about the bike lanes on SW Broadway Blvd.).

The comments on my report on that event included the following from a reader named Randy:

“I have repeatedly advocated that the City NOT install bike lanes in the downtown core. The City has chosen to ignore this advice and instead install a variety of mostly unsafe bike lanes within the downtown area, the worst case probably being SW Broadway.

Randy thinks all downtown bike lanes are unsafe for the following reasons:

  • Conflicts with parked vehicles; I am personally aware of numerous dooring incidents and at least one fatality involving the SW Broadway bike lane.
  • Conflicts with turning vehicles.
  • Conflicts with delivery vehicles and valet parking operations.

The downtown bike lanes are unnecessary for the following reason: In most cases you can ride at the speed of traffic, since the downtown signals are timed for 12-15 mph.”

[Riding south on SW Broadway Blvd.]

In defense of the bike lanes on SW Broadway (site of the infamous Martini saga) is long-time PDOT bike guy Jeff Smith. Jeff (who ironically was cited for a bike lane infraction yesterday morning) was instrumental in the striping of the Broadway bike lane. He contends that the decision to stripe that street was based on observing how cyclists used the road:

“The design was vetted by the City’s Bike Advisory Committee to make sure this was something they were supportive of (incidentally, the BAC rejected an opportunity to provide a bike lane on SW 3rd between Burnside and Madison, mostly because the grade is so much less steep than Broadway). We also took a quick look at where in the street people where riding pre-bike-lane.

I don’t have the numbers in front of me right now, but my recollection is that more than half of the cyclists on Broadway at that time were riding in the right-hand third of the right lane; which is to say, essentially where a bike lane would be. Now, this was a fairly small (about 100 cyclists) sample, and the coding of rider postion was done by eye, so it doesn’t prove anything conclusively – but we have similar results on other streets (Sw 3rd, Sw Madison) when looking at cyclist lane position pre-bike-lane.

If you were going to ride in the right-hand third of the right lane, wouldn’t you prefer to have a bike lane?”

With an update of Portland’s Bicycle Master Plan in the works, I think this is a great time to have this discussion.

How do you feel about bike lanes?
Do you seek them out or avoid them?
Do you think advocates and planners should look at other solutions to encourage ridership and keep us safe?

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