Sunday, June 3, 2012

Biking in the Street---Safe or Stupid?

I recently tried out Washington’s Capital Bikeshare (see previous post for description), and I lived to write about it. It’s not as difficult as you might think to bike in some neighborhoods of DC. In other neighborhoods, well, let’s just say that some street designs are better than others.

I wanted to enjoy the weather and still be a cheap so-and-so. My roughly 1.5 mile expedition was to start at Eastern Market and end near my wife’s office at Union Station. It was a fairly warm day, and I was wearing business attire, but that sort of distance on a bike is pretty tiny. The ride took me through quiet residential streets along the eastern edge of the Capitol fortress and its glowering guards, so traffic wasn’t an issue. At least, it wasn’t until I reached Columbus Circle in front of Union Station.

Columbus Circle is currently undergoing a major rehabilitation as part of an 18-month project to fix the plaza in front of the station and create some semblance of order to traffic flow in the area. To get to the bike-share location and turn in my bike, I had to cross this major construction zone and contend with erratic taxis, meandering buses, hordes of cars, and pedestrians who were just as hapless as I was.  All considered cyclists to be intruding on their space, based on the glares I received. So, this was a bad idea, right?

No, it just points out how one-size-fits-all solutions seldom work. In the quiet neighborhoods, riding in traffic is a perfectly safe and comfortable option, because there was so little traffic. Where the problem develops is in a confusing construction area with heavy, assorted traffic. Cyclists, such as myself, are put in a situation that feels unsafe. A solution to this would be a separate path for cycles, typically referred to as a cycletrack. Luckily, that’s exactly what is being installed nearby.
An example of a two-way cycletrack. Photo courtesy of NACTO.

On First Street, running north from Columbus Circle along the west side of Union Station to New York Avenue, DC intends to build a 2-way cycletrack that would allow cyclists to move through at least part of this congested area in dedicated lanes. Instead of dodging taxis, cyclists will be able to ride in peace…until they reach the end of the cycletrack, at which point the debate among cyclists begins.

You were probably expecting a debate between motorists and cyclists. Oh, no, this one is much odder.  While occasional cyclists might relish the idea of being off by themselves, some hardcore cycling commuters (these can travel 20+ miles each day) insist that they should be treated as exact equals to motorists. They have lost their fear of the car and view efforts to separate them from traffic as weakening their position in the traffic hierarchy. 

Perhaps they have a point, but would adopting their agenda really help get cities get people out of their cars and onto bikes? How many people reading this feel confident enough to bike in traffic?
The Federal Highway Administration ran a study a few years ago that showed how a lack of separate bike lanes can suppress bicycle commuting. The study showed that “cities with higher levels of bicycle
bike lanes per arterial mile.” In other words, if your city doesn’t have cycletracks, don’t expect to maximize the number of people biking to work. 
Atlanta's Beltline under construction. Photo courtesy of Keizers/Wikipedia.

Other cities are realizing that separate bike facilities are the way to go. In Atlanta the Beltline project will combine a bike path with capacity for the future addition of light rail. As the name implies, it will loop around downtown Atlanta and connect the nearby revitalized neighborhoods. Because it runs along an abandoned railroad, some of the street crossings will be at separated grades (via bridges). In essence, it will be an expressway for bikes. That may help promote the use of their existing bike lanes, but only if Atlanta ramps up enforcement. At least one local blog posts pictures of violators’ cars to shame the city government into doing just that.
Who do you call when it's a police car blocking the bike lane? Photo courtesy of MidtownCommuter/

In the end, whether biking in the street is a good idea depends on traffic conditions, the type of facilities offered, and personal comfort. The cyclist who bikes across an entire metropolitan area on a racing bike at speeds averaging over 20 mph will probably never use a cycletrack, so motorists will have to be firmly encouraged to share the road through stiff penalties if they fail to do so. Cyclists who are more occasional or at least less aggressive in their habits will need a separate facility. Given that this latter group is clearly the one where the growth potential is, cities need to get serious about catering to their preferences.


  1. Kevin,

    I understand your point about the separated facilities and support the expansion of infrastructure dedicated to cycling. Nonetheless, I find it often works out better to ride with motorized traffic because of obstructions in the bike lanes or cycletracks. These can range from pedestrians standing in the lane to a MetroAccess van driving 150 feet down the separated cycletrack to drop off a passenger... As an aside: The timing of the traffic lights on the 15th Street cycletrack North of the White House is abysmal for cyclists. However, I am not sure whether riding on the street would make a difference in catching the light while it is still green, I do not ride that stretch often enough.

    I do this not because I am "aggressive in my habits". I would say that I am confident in my abilities to practice safe and predictable cycling at a decent speed.

  2. I understand entirely. I personally will ride in the street if I am able to keep up with traffic. But, I'm reasonably experienced as a cyclist. The problem we face is getting others to ride. Unfortunately, few of them are willing to take the perceived risk of doing so if they don't have some separation, however illusory.

    Signal timing is definitely an issue for cyclists. Whenever I ride on Prince Street in Alexandria and manage to catch the light at Fayette Street, I know that I will have to really dig in to catch the remaining lights. I also know that there is no way I will catch the light at S. Columbus Street, unless Lance Armstrong gives me a tow. Clearly, traffic planners are going to have to start factoring in cyclists' speeds when they set the timing, especially on marked bike routes such as 15th Street and Prince Street.

    Thanks for the comment!