Bike lane maintenance in Toronto, 2008
For Azure, September 2008:
H.G. Wells once wrote, “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.” Many today are equally optimistic that getting people out of cars and onto bikes may well become a major factor in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions and urban vehicular gridlock. But cyclists are often wary of riding in traffic, knowing all too well how vulnerable they are beside a tonne of fast-moving metal. In the Netherlands and parts of Scandinavia, cyclists need not worry. There, bike lanes fully separated from traffic form an integral part of the transportation infrastructure, and have been a reality for almost a century. The Netherlands alone counts more than 15,000 kilometres of dedicated bike paths.
In most of North America, however, bike lanes are a novel concept, with the most common type being the “door zone” bike path – a line painted on the roadway to create a path between curbside parking spots and the traffic lane. Cars are free to travel at high speed because the bikes are technically separated from the traffic lane. But if the door of a parked car suddenly opens, there’s nowhere to go for the cyclist trapped in this narrow strip. Called the “door prize,” this type of accident represents the most common cause of bicycling injury and death. John Forester, a Lemon Grove, California cycling transportation engineer and author of Effective Cycling, suggests cyclists are better off in the traffic lane, where drivers must acknowledge their existence and either pass them safely or slow down. He argues most bike lanes are designed according to standards that push cyclists to the side of the road, without regard to their safety. Fortunately, not all bike lanes are created equal.
Going against the flow
Despite its cold and snowy winters, Montreal boasts a surprisingly sophisticated and extensive bike lane system, due in large part to the work of Vélo Québec. The non-profit organization has been promoting pedalling as a clean and active transportation mode since 1967. Many of the ideas spelled out in its Technical Handbook of Bikeway Design have been implemented, including “sharrows,” bike symbols that, painted on roads too narrow support full bike lanes, act as reminders for drivers to share the road; and contra-flow bike lanes that go against the traffic on one-way streets. “You feel safer going against the traffic, because you can see the cars coming toward you,” says local journalist Christopher DeWolf. “Montreal has a lot of one way streets where cyclists ride against the traffic all the time, so this really just legalizes it.”
Wrapped in a box
One of the biggest dangers to urban cyclists is the “right hook,” an accident that occurs when drivers make right turns without checking their passenger side mirrors for bicycles. Officials in Portland, Oregon, searched for a solution to this problem after two cyclists died in right hooks within the month of October 2007. They turned to bike boxes, which are common in Victoria, British Columbia, and in New York City, where they’ve been around since 2003. Dedicated to cyclists, the box, which is painted on the pavement, extends to occupy the full width of the traffic lane at stop signs and traffic lights, forcing drivers to stop behind it. “The box gives drivers that visual cue to take a look over their shoulder,” says Roger Geller of the Portland Office of Transportation, “and it lets cyclists know this is an area for potential conflict.” Jonathan Maus, the founder and editor of BikePortland.org, points out that “door-zone lanes are an old way of thinking about bike planning. We don’t do that anymore. Everyone is moving beyond bike lanes to bike boxes and bike boulevards.”
Fast-forward to the future
Toronto architect Chris Hardwicke takes the European separated bike lane to a new, three-dimensional level with his futuristic concept for Velo-City. An infrastructure of enclosed, elevated cycle paths, it segregates cyclists from cars, making transportation safer and faster, much like putting trains under ground did for rail commuting. The aboveground network functions as a subway, its glazed tunnels affording travellers views of the surroundings while efficiently transporting them to hubs where they re-enter the city streets. “The more people who use Velo-City, the greater the tailwind. It’s the only transit system that gets better as more people use it,” says Hardwicke, who considered the advantage of fluid dynamics. He adds, “Pedestrians have sidewalks, cars have roads and trains have rails. Bikes deserve their own infrastructure, too.”
From Hardwicke’s vision of a transportation network to nearly a century of planning for cycle use in the Netherlands, it’s clear bike lanes are more than just a strip of paint; they are a serious investment in infrastructure. And with oil running out and greenhouse gas emissions growing, it may just be the best investment we can make.