Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tour de Bike Lanes

If they haven't hit your town yet, don't worry: they probably will soon.

Bike lanes.

Not for motorcyclists, but bicyclists.

From New York City to Los Angeles, bike lanes have been gobbling up existing lanes for motorized vehicles in a disarmingly furtive push to re-establish the lowly bicycle as a legitimate form of commuter transport.

What used to be a pet project of environmentalists and liberal city planners has become the stealth darling of city halls eager to re-brand their communities as hip, relevant, and athletic.

Not necessarily healthy - city leaders still want people to bike over to their nearest bar or gastronomic delight, after all - but athletic. Meanwhile, having a street full of buff, tan bike riders looks a lot better on your marketing material than politically-incorrect SUVs.

Pedal Pushers

For generations, bike-riding has been pretty much confined to conventional city parks, and recently, to linear parks and off-road trail systems. Now, after we saw gas spike at $5 per gallon in some parts of the country a couple of years ago, the bicycle industry has seized the momentum brewing in Americans, hungry for some economic thrills close to home, to expand the bike-riding experience on city streets.

And it doesn't hurt that bike riding has become fashionable again.

Indeed, there's more than one reason why bicyclists tend to be hip and young. And why bicyclists have come to demand bike lanes like never before in the United States. Might that have something to do with our country's thirst for adventure and the appeal of outdorsy fun? They're what helped spark our unfortunate SUV craze 20 years ago. These days, what better way to pump those endorphins than get your kicks riding your bicycle alongside boxy hunks of steel and glass that can flatten you like a pancake?

Except, actually, most bicyclists have hesitated about venturing out onto city streets precisely because they don't really want to be flattened like a pancake by a Ford Taurus or Lexus SUV. They want their thrills diluted by bike lanes, since we all know that thin strips of paint on any pavement provide incredible protection against a turning 18-wheeler.

Bicycle Built for Who?

Now, although it may sound like it, I'm actually not against bike lanes as a concept. I just don't think unprotected bike lanes belong on the same streets as motor vehicles. How can bikes and cars sharing the roadway be safe for anybody, let alone resolve traffic congestion, as some people claim? If city streets could be designed to allow for sufficient vehicular traffic flow, with bike lanes added to the sides and separated from the motorized vehicle lanes by a concrete barricade, then cars and bikes might be able to co-exist fairly well.

The problem is most existing city streets can't be reconfigured that way. And no matter what any bike lane advocate likes to say, reducing traffic lanes does not help relieve traffic congestion. Unless, by reducing the ease with which drivers can navigate certain streets, you force people to find new ways to drive to their destinations. But doesn't that obscure the real problem with congestion, and deprive businesses located on streets with bike lanes the commerce automobile drivers give them?

Not surprisingly, many people who oppose bike lanes on existing city streets tend to be the cantankerous sort of grumblers who don't like change of any kind. Some of them have developed wacky conspiracy theories about how environmentalists are trying to divide and conquer communities by stuffing bike lanes down their throats. Still others say that since bikes aren't taxed like cars, they don't deserve any more road space than they already have.

I realize many readers of my essays would try to put me in the "intransigent to change" category, but here in Arlington, where the bike lane debate suddenly burst onto the scene earlier this year, I support the creation of dedicated bike lanes on certain streets around town. Some streets are currently under-used 4-lane thoroughfares, and the City wants to make them one-lane each way with a center turn lane, with bike lanes added to the left-over space on the sides. I think that's a practical solution on those streets which currently lack the justification for two full lanes in each direction, which means that conflicts between bikes and cars should be negligible.

About the only conspiracy - if you could call it that - regarding bike lanes comes, I suspect, from the bicycle manufacturing lobby. They likely sees the threat of sky-high gas prices real enough to juice up their business, and getting more bike lanes is great advertisement for which they hardly pay anything out-of-pocket. And if you really want to explore the conspiracy angle, be thankful the cycling enthusiasts are enjoying more success than environmentalists pushing for lavish mass transit projects. Not that I'm against mass transit per say, but most of America's suburban subdivisions can't support things like bus routes.

I also don't buy the argument that since bikes aren't taxed like cars, they don't deserve more space on our roadways. Yes, motor vehicle drivers pay taxes when purchasing gasoline, but most roads are heavily subsidized by the Federal government, so people who own bikes still pay for our roads through their income taxes. Bikes also inflict far less wear and tear on concrete and pavement, so people who are worried about our aging street infrastructure should consider ditching their oversized cars before continuing that line of reasoning.

Balancing the Wheels

What a lot of people don't like talking about, though, involves a certain air of entitlement that seems to exude from many bicycle riders. This cocky attitude tends to pretend some things exist while ignoring those things that really do.

Bike lane advocates like to camp on the reality that bicycle riders enjoy the same legal rights as automobile drivers on public streets. Enthusiasts assert that both drivers and bikers should respect each other's prerogatives when sharing the same stretch of asphalt.

However, having the right to share space on roadways doesn't mean everything else balances out, too. Neither bikers nor drivers can avoid some obvious differences which no law can invalidate. Bikes offer inferior protection to cars. Bikes are also slower than cars, and they're less visible than cars. This means that in our ever-congested roadways, the heavier vehicle always wins. Why else have some SUV manufacturers begun installing bars below their vehicles to prevent their SUVs from completely rolling over smaller cars they might hit? The safety game is already lopsided on our streets, and adding more bicycles to the mix can't possibly keep people safe.

Of course, the emergence of bike lanes could force some changes that help make all of us in safer. Texting while driving, as well as other habits of distracted driving, could become fodder for stricter traffic safety laws as law enforcement agencies try to equalize the roadway battlefield as much as possible. Here in Arlington, I've advocated for street signs reminding drivers that bikers have a right to share our streets.

But although a great deal of responsibility rests with drivers to make sure we're all safe on the roads, bikers often don't like the restrictions and responsibilities drivers would like to see from them.

For example, why shouldn't bicycles be licensed? Shouldn't their mechanical functions be subject to inspections just like cars? Shouldn't they be required to have working lights and brakes? How about even turn signals? After all, they're sharing the same road with motorcycles and automobiles that have to pass annual inspections - why shouldn't bicycles?

And why shouldn't bicycle riders be licensed? Shouldn't they take a class and pass a test to prove their basic competence? Maybe they should also be required to purchase liability insurance. How many kids who've never taken a driving class peel out onto the street, completely oblivious to traffic laws, rights-of-way protocols, and other safety rules? We expect motorcyclists and car drivers to be licensed if they want to use our roadways - why not bicyclists?

Shall This, Too, Pass?

Perhaps one of the reasons bike enthusiasts chafe at restrictions and regulations involves their underlying understanding that all of this bike hooplah might just be another fad. It might not command this much attention again for a long time.

Bike riding resurfaced from the World War eras, rechristened not as rudimentary transportation but a hobby, and hung around through the Boomer's golden era of the 1950's. It made a brief appearance in the ecology angst of the 1970's, and has endured a prolonged dry spell since then.

For better or worse, very little exists in North America's post-modern society to sustain bike riding as a permanent replacement for the automobile. It's still mostly a fair-weather activity, since most employers don't want their workers showing up hot and sweaty, expecting to take showers in the company locker room before getting down to business. Anyway, most people commute 30 minutes by car - a trip that would become even longer by taking a bike on city streets instead of freeways.  And why bike to the grocery store when your spacious car sitting in the garage can get your purchases home before the ice cream melts?

Why take up precious road space - that most cities have had to fight to acquire in the first place - with something that likely will prove to be a fad? It makes about as much sense as creating a lane for roller-bladers (remember when that was all the rage?).  I'd almost think motorized scooters and motorcycles deserve their own lanes before cities gave bicycles one.  Motorized bikes are only marginally less-dangerous than bicycles on city streets.

Still, even here in Arlington, there are some quiet residential streets and even some commercial side streets where congestion and safety wouldn't be terribly compromised by the introduction of bike lanes. Tossing the bike lane lobby some crumbs for their hobby can't hurt too much, I suppose. After all, even in large urban areas, where population densities would seem to enhance the popularity of bike lanes, they're not really used as much as the vehicular traffic lanes right alongside them.

Meanwhile, the mostly young, mostly adventurous Lance Armstrong groupies who are agitating for bike lanes will begin to age and worry about their kids riding on busy streets. They'll discover that sweaty bike shorts aren't the best asset to help them move up the corporate ladder. And that the new generation of hipsters coming along behind them have found yet another youthful infatuation.

Wouldn't it be funny if it was muscle cars?

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