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Physically Separated Bike Lanes

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by Tom Revay
edited and formatted by Sheldon Brown

This was originaly a posting on the Massbike email listserv, May 24, 2007

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New York's Streetfilms has a video at Streetfilms.org promoting physically-separated bike lanes.

Well made? Sure.

Entertaining? Maybe.

Persuasive? Probably, so long as we recall Lincoln's quip about "some of the people," and "some of the time."

Worth believing?

Well, put it this way: this slickly-produced video appears to be what advertisers for political candidates spend their time working on in odd-numbered years.

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Herewith is what we're told about the glories of curb-separated bikeways in the video:

  1. Cyclists need to be as far away from motor traffic as possible in order to be safe. This means motor traffic stopped in bike lanes, motor traffic adjacent to bike lanes, and motor traffic that's several feet away from bike lanes.
  2. That's why New York should create a bikeway system that's fully-separated from ordinary traffic lanes, by directing cyclists to the inside of the parked-car lane.
  3. Bike lanes make the cyclist's world wonderful, if only they're kept clear of motor traffic.
  4. Doggone it, people just like bike lanes! And what the heck -- they like fully separated, Jersey-barriered bike lanes even better!
  5. It's always warm and pleasant in New York. Just like Bogota.

What evidence is offered in this video to back up these assertions? Well, simply it's this: the -- -- hey, do you smell pizza? Did someone buy pizza? Famous Ray's? Wow! Yeah, let's get some pizza, I'm hungry!

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If anyone wanted to tell the truth about the facilities presented in this video, they'd add a few things:

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What do we know about bicycling facilities, and specifically, bike lanes and sidepaths (which I'll hereafter refer to as bikeways), as they've existed in cities like New York and Boston for several decades?

First, no-one has ever invented a bikeway facility that makes it possible for people who cannot, or who will not follow simple traffic rules to be safe. It's been tried, but it hasn't been accomplished. What has been created are facilities that require cyclists to ride slowly, and to stop frequently, and that's exactly what the proposed system would produce.

Slower traffic tends to be safer traffic, and thus, any increased safety benefit from this facility will be the result of the inefficiencies introduced for bicyclists, and that I've discussed, above.

But slowing down any form of transport also tends to make it less useful, and people will ordinarily move toward faster transport if it is available and if they can afford to do so. In fact, it is precisely because motor transportation in congested cities is inefficient that bicycle transport becomes an effective alternative for getting around these places. Why, then, should we reduce its efficiency?

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If we limit the debate to Bike Lanes vs. Physically Separated Bike Lanes, as this video does, we appear to be out of options. In fact, if we removed from the piece the sunshiny images and fulsome speeches about the wonders of the physically separated lanes (lie tho' that term be!), we'd end up with a video that pretty much condemns bike lanes as a usable and safe facility for bicycling in New York.

Are we out of options? No, we're not. But the only real alternative to the artificially constrained set of proposals made by this video is never mentioned.

What is it? It's this: Engineering, Education, and Enforcement.

More specifically, this alternative proposes that we:

Is there any reason not to do these things? I think not, and even my bicycling friends who believe that bikeways are the best thing since Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire tell me that we should have good roads, good education and good enforcement, as well as bikeways.

And as my friend Lauren Cooper has said, "Only Vehicular Cycling education protects the cyclist on every road, in every situation, everywhere they go."

So if the three E's are so good, why would this alternative not be presented in this video? We'll find out!

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I'll end this essay by commenting on the start of the video, in which the problem, and the solution, are framed.

Early in the video, we see an endorsement by Enrique Penalosa, the handsome and dynamic mayor of Bogota. Although it's not explained in this piece, Penalosa is a guy who became famous by "waging war on cars":

The Penalosa administration outlined a clear position regarding private automobiles; it regarded them as "the worst threat to quality of life of this city." One of Mayor Penalosa's main aims was to get automobile drivers and riders to use public transport. The "pico y placa" program considerably reduced congestion at peak times with a 40% reduction in private automobile use. Twice a week, private automobiles were prohibited from circulating: license plates ending in 1, 2, 3, and 4 were prohibited to circulate on Monday; 5, 6, 7, and 8 on Tuesday; 9, 0, 1, and 2 on Wednesday; 3, 4, 5, and 6 on Thursday; and 7, 8, 9, and 0 on Friday.

[Ricardo Montezuma, "The Transformation Of Bogota, Colombia, 1995-2000: Investing in Citizenship and Urban Mobility." Global Urban Development Magazine (May 24, 2007)

What can we say about this policy, except that, if someone is prohibited by law from motoring, he or she will have to find some other way to get around? For some people, that will mean turning to the bicycle, albeit reluctantly.

With Bogota battling gridlock despite its motor restrictions (which were largely aimed at preventing motorists from parking on sidewalks and on other parcels of publicly owned, pedestrian-intended land), bikes become a useful alternative -- if people are willing to use them.

But Penalosa's campaign to promote bicycling wasn't entirely successful. Dr. Ricardo Montezuma, who has participated in the revitalization of Bogota in several public and private offices, and whom I quoted above, writes:

Although there is an average of one bicycle per three families, bicycles have been absent from transport studies of Bogota. Residents currently use bicycles frequently for leisure, especially on Sundays during the "ciclo-via," when many roads are closed to motorized vehicles. Although this event is the largest of its kind worldwide and often attracts more than two million participants, when it comes to commuting to work, residents perceive bicycles as a less important mode of transport and a sign of economic destitution. Recent educational campaigns to change this perception have had important effects and must be continued to reach more of the population. Only when members of all social classes use bicycles will the notion of the bicycle as a step below motorization (a common idea in the developing world) be erased. When Mayor Penalosa and members of his administration periodically rode bicycles to work, they helped to de-stigmatize the bicycle to a large degree. As the failure of bicycle lanes in Paris and other cities in the 1980s has taught us, the same investment made in infrastructure must be made in education, supervision, and safety. [Ibid.]

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This paragraph, and especially, its final sentence, stands in contrast to the "if we build it, they will come" point-of-view presented by the video. And while culture surely has a lot to do with our tastes, if a city that stands at nearly 8000 feet elevation (thereby making auto engine operation problematic), where gasoline prices are markedly greater than they are in the USA, where the government forbids at least one car in five from operating every day of the week, and where the weather is a lot more pleasant than New York, struggles to get commuters to ride a bike, how likely is it that Jersey barriers and rows of parked cars will bring enough of our gritty-city-tough friends in New York onto two wheels to do much of anything about congestion, pollution, and the other evils of urban life?

Maybe global warming will improve New York's weather, but even so, I say, good luck, guys, in changing the hearts and minds of New Yorkers! How much is this going to cost?

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When it comes to safety, which is the primary selling-point of this video, what does Mayor Penalosa say?

About forty seconds in, after we're told "it's a war zone out there!" by an unidentified person, and after we've been shown moving images of cyclists swaying back and forth in congestion, moving laterally with never a head turn or shoulder check in sight, he declares:

"A true bicycle network is one that can be safely used by a child. Otherwise, what we have today, those bicycle lanes we have today, in my opinion, are almost useless. It's either to have that, or not to have anything, it's almost the same."

Safe bicycle transportation to and from work -- commuting -- is what this video tells us we need this network to achieve. We're told that bicycle commuting along this slightly-separated system will relieve gridlock, lessen air pollution, and produce a myriad of other social blessings -- because it will draw motorists from their automobiles.

Question: how many of those motoring commuters are children? Like,what, tell me -- ten year olds are driving cars in New York?

We build playgrounds for children. We build schools, too. (And to his credit, Mayor Penalosa built many of both during his tenure.) But we build traffic and commuting infrastructure for adults.

So are children truly the "model user" for this network? And even if they were, would you want your ten your old -- your eight year old, your seven year old -- riding around New York City on their own?

If not, then why would this statement be presented at the top of the video?

The answer is simple, and goes to demonstrate my statements about the slanted political nature of this video that I made at the outset. The reason why children are the given as the modal use group for this network is because their tender years avoids discussion of bicyclist education as an alternative to building a scores-of-millions of dollar bikeway network.

Indeed, by presenting the proposed network as being something for use by an individual who cannot be relied upon to understand basic traffic principles and to make good judgments based on that understanding, the video sidesteps the need to discuss bicyclist education at all.

Simply put, we former-motoring commuters on the proposed bicycle network are expected to be no more educated, or educable, than children. We cyclists simply cannot be expected to know anything about traffic! Even though we have passed written and road exams, and hold driver's licenses, we're just too dumb to learn how to operate a bicycle in traffic! (How absurd!)

And so, for our own good, and whether or not we think this is right, we don't belong in the road. The road that's owned by all, and that is paid for by all, but that is made for cars. That's why we need this network.

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