Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bike Path of Least Resistance



DAY 22 OF 46





New York Magazine has called it urban America's "newest culture war."

But unlike many culture wars, this one didn't start in New York.  And it certainly didn't start in car-crazy Los Angeles!

No, the war over bike lanes probably started in the politically liberal bastion of Portland, Oregon.  But it wasn't so much of a war there as it was a revolt against fossil-fuel-burning beasts.  Those evil contraptions the rest of us know as "cars."

Portland boasts that up to 9% of people who commute in its city commute by bike.  If you're as underwhelmed by that statistic as I am, you can see why plenty of people across the country aren't as crazy about bike lanes as Oregonians.  And that nine percent even benefits from a program which gives poor people a free bike including all of the requisite safety equipment.

Good luck getting a free bike in New York City, the latest North American town to be torn asunder by the zeitgeist of reducing traffic lanes to increase bike lanes.  It may be the welfare capital of the country, but the only people cheering for bike lanes in Gotham are folks who pay more for their carbon-fiber bicycles than some motorcyclists do for their machines which stomp out a carbon footprint. And something tells me that if all those kids from the Projects started wheeling through the green-painted bike lanes in Brownstone Brooklyn or Manhattan, plenty of New York's cycling elite would have second thoughts about bike lanes themselves.

Bike Lanes in Truck-Happy Texas

But, thankfully, New York's problems are New York's.  Even, ironically, the lawsuit over one bike lane near Brooklyn's verdant Prospect Park, which is sponsored in part by the wife of New York's Democratic senior Senator. It seems that even some liberals can't stand bike lanes. Which makes for a particularly complex battle being fought by the Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who's using federal funds to pay for his city's newest fad.

Here in Arlington, Texas, the bike lane wars have started heating up, too. Even though our summertime heat will probably fry the bike lanes city staffers have proposed to overlay on our street grid. As if being the largest city in the United States without mass transit didn't create enough private car congestion, a small but noisy pro-bike lobby has been pushing for some city streets to be designated exclusively for bikes.

Now, something tells me that in a city as temperate as Portland, if only 9% of commuters ride bikes, that figure will be far less here in Arlington, where more than half the population commutes daily to jobs in other cities. In weather that ranges from sub-freezing sleet in the winter to months of high-90's heat in the summer. And believe me, it's not always a dry heat.

Personally, I wonder how adding even more bikes to our streets prowled by behemoth SUV's and pickup trucks - this is Texas, after all - will increase anybody's safety.  Which, after all, is what bike advocates claim is one of the big attractions of bike lanes.  They also claim bike lanes will reduce traffic accidents because motorized vehicles will have to travel slower, due to the decrease in lanes they'll be allotted.  But nobody's been able to explain how making cars move more slowly helps reduce traffic congestion.

At a local citizens meeting on the issue last night, things got a little animated at times, such as when one man claimed bike lanes were the city's subversive way of maneuvering for a massive land grab to widen streets in the future.  Plenty of skinny bike advocates showed up wearing yellow shirts, but giving precious little credible evidence that bike lanes will do anything other than help an athletic subset of the population enjoy their weekends a bit more.

Of course, me being me, I felt compelled to grace the occasion with my own wisdom and insight, which included concerns about increased vehicular traffic congestion and pollution.  I also wondered about all of the tourists Arlington draws every year to our various entertainment venues: drivers coming to town from places without bike lanes might not know what they are or how to accommodate them.

How About a Compromise?

The more I listened to people last night, however, the more I began to see how a compromise might be unfolding from what both the bike lane opponents and proponents were saying.  For lack of a better term, I've dubbed it "lane share."

Instead of taking away vehicle lanes and turning them into underused bike lanes, why can't we simply encourage a better road-share environment between drivers and bicyclists? After all, like several speakers pointed out last night, bikes already have a legal right to the same roadways as cars. Why not capitalize on that, and encourage lane share? That way, entire lanes won't be taken away from vehicles during periods of high demand, visitors to the city won't have to figure out a new set of street rules, and no matter what street bicyclists decide to use, they will know motorists have been given fair warning to keep the streets safe for them.

It will be a lot cheaper, because it won't require extra maintenance, construction, restriping, or resurfacing. Preliminary estimates put the cost of converting existing traffic lanes into bike lanes at nearly $1 million over several years, plus maintenance after the program is in place.  In tough budget times like these, that amount of money seems like a lot to spend on something that will benefit only a handful of residents while inconveniencing everybody else.

Lane share would also be a much easier sell to the general populace, since no infrastructure work will threaten the status-quo or cost a lot.  Plus, promoting lane share might even make bike riding safer for bicyclists riding on streets that wouldn't otherwise have designated bike lanes.  After all, with designated bike lanes, might motorists be encouraged to become complacent in tolerating bikes on streets without bike lanes?  Understanding the need to accommodate bikes on any city road could make Arlington's drivers that much more cautious wherever they drive.  Right now, however, I'm not sure many drivers know about how existing bike laws affect them.

Indeed, the city has already admitted it's going to have to run an aggressive re-education and information campaign with its proposed bike lanes.  Instead, the city could publicize the lane share initiative with far less resistance by sending out inserts in water bills, running announcements on its cable station and website, and attaching colorful reminder signs to existing street sign poles.  Marketing language could encourage residents that drivers are saving money - literally - by sharing streets with bikes. Maybe our local school district could come up with a catchy way for schoolkids to promote lane share safety. Bike lane promoters could put up temporary lawn signs promoting lane share to remind motorists plying the streets. And the traffic fines involving motor vehicles and bicycles could be increased as an additional incentive for drivers - and bicyclists - to watch out for each other.

After all, isn't that the basic intent of bike lanes anyway?  Getting drivers to respect the rights bicyclists have to be sharing the same road surface?  Will giving traffic lanes to bike riders automatically make drivers more accommodating to them?  It may confuse or enrage drivers, and remind them that a small minority of people have been able to co-opt a major congestion-inducing change on them against their will. 

How much better would it be for bicycle advocates to embrace the path of least resistance?  And in this case, the path would be shared by cars, only with a pronounced campaign for road safety, civility, and even harmony.  Attributes that will only hold us in better stead as a community anyway.

After all, signs at the state line already say, "Drive friendly, the Texas Way!"

Some of them also say, "Don't mess with Texas."
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FYI:  I am aware that there is an illegal maneuver practiced by some motorcyclists called "lane sharing." This is when motorcyclists travel between lines of cars stuck in traffic.  So I'm not committed to calling my idea lane share if it will invite confusion with what motorcyclists already do - against the law.

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