Bicycling is sustainability in motion, and bike lanes are designed to encourage people to choose bike riding by making it more comfortable. There is more to bike lanes than casually meets the eye, however. All road users benefit from increased mindfulness of how bike lanes impact the interactions of different kinds of transit modes on the shared road.
The most dangerous interpretation of bike lanes is viewing them as separating out bicycles from motor vehicle traffic. Bicyclists are still part of traffic when a bike lane is present, and the lane doesn’t protect them from a conflict, especially from a distracted, impaired, or emotionally disturbed driver. Bike lanes sometimes accentuate conflicts stemming from traffic flow at intersections, from adjoining driveways, and can lower visibility. Motor vehicle drivers can be lulled into thinking they don’t have to be on the lookout for bicyclists as much when bike lanes are present, but safe passing laws and share the road guidelines still fully apply. It is convenient for motorists to believe that bike lanes segregate out slower moving bicyclists from due considerations from traffic moving in the general travel lanes, but bicyclists still have full access to the general lanes and often times their safety depends on maneuverability and access to general travel lanes. Thinking that bicyclists are limited to the bike lane would be like thinking multiple passenger vehicles are locked into a “High Occupancy Vehicle” or HOV lane—another type of preferential use lane specified in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD)—which would be totally absurd. Multi passenger vehicles can use any lane depending on their needs, and so can bicyclists when circumstances necessitate.
Bicyclists can’t assume that if they stay in a bike lane it guarantees their safety. For instance, the bike lanes on San Francisco St. and Beaver St. north of downtown Flagstaff are adjacent to parking zones. Bicyclists should not ride in the bike lane if it subjects them to the possibility of an opening car door. These parking spots have high turnover, doors open all the time, and no one looks back until they are ready to climb out of the car! Around intersections and driveways bicyclists should be extra careful to be visible. Butler Avenue is a great example of a busy road that includes a bike lane with lots of driveways and intersections where bicyclists and motorists should be on heightened alert for one another’s safety. Another area of conflict occurs when a right hand turn lane is engineered to the left of a through bicycle lane. This practice was prohibited by the MUTCD in 2003 but Flagstaff still has several of them. The one I notice all the time is on the university campus where northbound University Drive intersects with West University Drive. Bikes can go straight but cars have to turn right, as University Drive becomes a dedicated bike, bus and service vehicle route. Bicycles going straight should not remain in the bike lane, but should merge left into the general lane well before the intersection to prevent conflict. Here’s a picture of this intersection. Markings on the road must be coupled with careful thinking and education as well as adaptive, cooperative, real-time interpretive skills to make the road a safe and healthy driving environment.
Bicycle lanes sometimes decrease sight lines for other traffic to see bicycles, and create a wider visual span for drivers to scan. As a bicyclist, moving left into an open general purpose travel lane increases visibility and can provide a safer berth away from vehicles looking to drive out onto the busy street from intersecting driveways. Be extra cautious when a vehicle from the opposite direction is turning left across your path. If you are in a bike lane they may have a harder time seeing you. Sometimes we scan for car traffic but forget to look for people. Bicyclists traveling in a bike lane need to watch for adjacent cars traveling in the same direction that want to turn right. Cars often times pass a bicyclist before wanting to turn right, but did not anticipate the speed of the bicyclist to make the turn without cutting the bicyclist off. This is referred to as a “right hook” and is common crash type in city driving, and is very dangerous. Never position yourself as a bicyclist in the danger zone adjacent to a car turning right at an intersection or into a driveway. If a car passes you then turns the right blinker on, yield and let the car turn right, and forgive them for misjudging and for failing to yield the right of way. Be adaptive, avoid danger zones, and carry a diplomatic poise. It is challenging for everyone on busy streets. Be prepared to maneuver for safety, including sharing the bike lane, and leaving the bike lane when a situation calls for it. Bicyclists can feel comfortable using the general purpose travel lane when it is safer knowing confidently that you are a regular part of traffic and your needs are fully included and respected.
Bike lanes can work against a cooperative atmosphere if they are seen as lessening the requirement for sharing and respect, decreasing the need for good judgment, used to insist upon a rigid territorial mind set, or viewed as a justification for the attitude that faster traffic has priority on roads. The best way to maximize the benefits of bike lanes for all is to recognize their limitations, use them with caution and active critical thinking, and to be considerate to the different needs of all types of traffic on the roads. Bike lanes are designed for better including bicyclists in the road environment, not for marginalizing or prohibiting them from being legitimate traffic. The solidarity all users feel to cooperate to create a safe and healthy environment on our shared roads remains a total commitment and one requiring our complete attention. A bike lane does not change that.
Where to Ride on Arizona Street Smarts http://www.azbikeped.org/chapter2a.asp
Check out the League of American Bicyclist’s position on right to the road for bicyclists
The Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety urges bicyclists to prioritize safety when making lane decision choices:
Bicycle lanes are one type of “preferential use lane” described in the MUTCD. Other examples are HOV lanes and bus lanes.
A special thanks to Justin P. and all the work he did to improve bicycling in Flagstaff