Home > Bicycles, Transportation > The Myth of Bike Lanes

The Myth of Bike Lanes

bike lane

Bike Lane in downtown Lexington

Bike lanes are not for cyclists. Bike lanes are for motorists.*

I realized this following a discussion about shared-use roadways (ie the majority of non-Interstate highways and roads in America). I have quite a few friends who don’t understand my choice to ride a bike on the road, partly because the see it as a choice. Where I live, it’s often not a choice, it’s the law. With the exception of bicycle police, cyclists are not allowed to ride on sidewalks. That’s why they’re called sideWALKs, they’re meant for pedestrians. Thus, when I ride my bike on the road, I’m riding it where I’m supposed to be riding it. And, by law, I have the same privilege (yes, “privilege”, not “right”) to operate my human-powered vehicle on the road as those who choose to operate motorized vehicles.

When I’m riding my bike, I view myself as a person who happens to be on a bike. When I’m driving my car, I view myself as a person, who happens to be in a car. Between those two states, I view my life, my sense of urgency, and the importance of my travel to be equal. And I view the lives, deadlines, and importance of everyone around me, in cars, on busses, on bikes, and on foot to be equal.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the currently prevailing viewpoint.

When talking with friends who are motorists, but not cyclists, they consider their trips in cars to be more important than the simultaneous trips taken by cyclists. One argument is that cycling is multi-functional: while some cyclists are in the act of commuting, others are on their bikes for the purpose of exercise. And in this argument, commuting is considered to be more important than exercising.** While I disagree with that particular assertion, a more relevant disagreement is that the associated assumption that all trips in cars are for the singly important purpose of getting to work. Do these motorists hold the same disdain for fellow motorists transporting themselves in search of entertainment? Likely, yes. It wouldn’t surprise me if they also became upset when their potentially fluid rides are stalled by farm implements, and then show up to the ever-important work and eat a few corn chips, never making the connection.

I would assert that there are 3 reasons for which the journey of a particular vehicle on the road would be more important that that of other vehicles. First, emergency vehicles. There’s a reason they get flashing lights, and permission to blow through stop signs: they are operating in potentially life-or-death situations. Second, commercial vehicles (particularly, tractor-trailers). Think of something that you use in your daily life. Vacuum cleaner. iPhone. Banana. Socks. To quote a friend, “Almost everything you use in a day was on a truck at some point.” Often, those trucks are not just carrying Timmy’s stuff, or Susie’s stuff, but hundreds of people’s stuff. That’s important. Finally, buses. Sorry dude-in-a-Porshe, those 20 people on the city bus may not seem as stylish as you, but I’d like for you to convince me that their twenty lives have less collective influence on their world than your one. As you may have noticed, the importance I assigned here was not due not to some personified needs of the vehicle, but to the needs of the people that the vehicle was serving.

But maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe their frustration is misdirected at non-conforming cyclists, when in fact the true source of their frustration is an incorrect assumption about the predictability of our transportation system. I am guilty of this as well. When I am trying to drive from my house to a destination that is 30 miles away (separated mostly by rural highways), I mistakenly expect that this journey will take me only 30 minutes. But I am wrong. There are all sorts of factors, like stoplights, detours, accidents, and…traffic that can make my trip unpredictable. In fact, this unpredictability is the norm, although I tend to fool myself into thinking that it is the exception.

Which brings me to traffic. Traffic moves according to what I like to call the slowest common denominator (SCD). In my definition, this means that the slowest vehicles in a traffic flow determine the average speed of the traffic flow. This defies the assumption that aggressive, fast drivers are in control of the road. I have yet to see one of these vehicles successfully push traffic forward, bulldozer-style. Yet, I’ve been caught behind many an meandering, elderly motorist who has taken complete control of the rate of traffic on a two-lane road.

And this is where Bike Lanes come in. Bike Lanes are not for the benefit of cyclists. Bike Lanes are for the benefit of motorists. If sharing the road with cars were not a factor, a cyclist presented with the choice of riding in the normal lane or in the bike lane would be unlikely to choose the inferior, shoulder-esque mini-pathway. They would choose the main lane! The reason that bike lanes matter is because of cars. Bike lanes make it so that automotive traffic can continue with minimal impediment from cyclists. That’s right, bike lanes are a means of making it more fair for motorists, who wish to travel at a rate faster than the SCD of a bicycle. So, from someone who, whether I’m hypermiling or riding a bike, is often the SCD, you’re welcome 😉

* To avoid any unnecessary personal banter, I’d like to clarify that I distinguish the difference between a cyclist and motorist as the present (thus, temporary) selection of mode of transportation. Personally, there are different occasions on which I choose to be a cyclist, motorist, pedestrian, and transit rider. Regardless of this choice, I retain my own unique identity, not one assigned to me by my mode of transport. Sure, there are differentiating personality characteristics that people choose to associate with their preferred form of transportation, but we’re all just a flat tire away from being united as pedestrians 🙂

** I understand the economically-minded intent of the argument that commuting (to work) is more valuable to society than exercising. Yet, with the disproportionately high costs of healthcare, especially the reactive medicine needed to compensate for generally sedentary lives in America, I think I could make a case that the economically logical choice is that we all exercise for 30 minutes in the morning, and show up late for work.

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  1. Matt Hatfield
    2012/04/08 at 11:29 pm

    Nick,

    I enjoyed your post, but want to make one correction. It is legal to ride on the sidewalk in Lexington with the exception of the downtown business district (Sec. 18-155).

    http://www.lexingtonky.gov/modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=12083

    • 2012/04/09 at 12:00 am

      Matt – thanks for that clarification! It’s interesting that the designation is made between the Downtown Business District, and rest of Lexington – Fayette County. There are some places (Nicholasville Rd comes to mind) where riding on the sidewalk seems like the sane thing to do.

      Our similarly bicycle-friendly city to the West is more restrictive to sidewalk riding. Louisville makes two sidewalk-riding designations, one by geography (a similar “downtown district”, sidewalk is off-limits to all), and one by age (ok to ride on sidewalk only if under age 11)
      http://www.louisvilleky.gov/BikeLouisville/bike_laws/

      Personally, I will continue to ride on the road based on the suggestions of the League of American Bicyclists, and other safety stats. I would rather be a temporary, mild frustration for motorists than an unpredictable obstacle. Often, choosing to ride on roads with less traffic (Lexington is covered with a convenient network of residential areas) makes the situation better for all involved parties.
      http://www.commutebybike.com/2008/03/18/top-5-reasons-to-claim-the-lane-and-why-its-safer/

  2. 2012/04/09 at 11:07 am

    @Matt – thanks for posting that. I was always under the assumption that it was illegal to ride your bikes on the sidewalk except on UK’s campus. I need to be less critical of my friends who choose to ride on the sidewalk instead of the road!

    @nick – great write-up as always. I’d be interested to see how bike lanes influence the accident rates involving bicyclists. I would guess accident rates are reduced when bike lanes are used. Bike lanes make it more fair for the motorists by removing cyclists from the SCD, but I believe this benefits cyclists more. From first hand experience, motorists are more friendly (read less road rage) when you aren’t in their way.

  3. 2012/04/09 at 11:39 am

    Great article and a good way to present an argument that we can all agree on.

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to add, and shamelessly promote that the High Street YMCA has American League of Bicyclist classes called the Better Biking Program. It’s backed by the Kentucky Bicycle and Bikeway Commison to help grow cycling in Fayette County and help people to ride confidently and safely on our roads.

    Call the High Street YMCA for more information (859) 254-9622

    http://www.facebook.com/events/145138532282165/

    • 2012/04/09 at 2:07 pm

      Jason – thanks for sharing! Education opportunities like this are an important part of making our roads safer for both cyclists and motorists.

  4. 2012/05/10 at 9:36 pm

    Just found a relevant post from Louisville’s BrokenSidewalk blog: http://brokensidewalk.com/2011/08/09/when-bike-infrastructure-is-designed-by-drivers/

  1. 2012/04/08 at 7:50 pm

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