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American Biker Blues: Do Bike Lanes Work in the United States?

As a city dweller of Baltimore, and an occasional cyclist, I find biking to be an enjoyable – and in most cases – easier way to get around the city. I save money on gas, I don’t have trouble looking for parking during the day, and traffic is pretty much avoidable. However, I find it very nerve-wracking knowing that a tractor-trailer is literally two feet away from me while I’m biking down St Paul or Charles Street, or when a UPS or Fed-X truck decides to make a bike lane into a 15-minute parking spot. You would think that with all the work that major cities have done to assure bikers a space where they can move, accidents and fatalities would not be such a problem among bikers. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for many cities and towns in the US. In fact, the increased level of riders has lead to the increased level of bike accidents in large metropolitan areas. So what’s the problem? Why is providing space for bikers on the road such a challenge and do bike lanes actually work?

Bikes and cars for the most part, share the road. In most cases, bike lanes are at the same grade as cars and despite being indicated by a white line, drivers sometimes obstruct these indicated areas. Some streets are only marked with a small bike symbol that most drivers disregard. In an idealist world, simply creating a lane for bikes with a painted street path would be the perfect solution to the woes of bikers and drivers alike. Unfortunately, real-world cases and incidents have revealed otherwise.

According to the NY Department of Transportation, over 54 thousand biking incidents were reported for the year of 2012.  Among them were 275 accidents caused by motor vehicles. Los Angeles reported 2,043 accidents for the year of 2013. Much less than New York but still a high number. In Chicago, between 2007-2009, 4,931 bike incidents have been reported, ranging from minor scuffs to fatal accidents within the city limits. All three cities have reported bike incidents along major bike routes near large roadways leading to the city. These numbers point out that something may be wrong with the idea of bikes sharing the road with cars in the US.

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The Copenhagen bike lane design. Image via Transportgooru.

I had the opportunity to go to Copenhagen for my final undergraduate year in school. I had done some research about their infrastructure and how bikable the city was in comparison to many places in the world. A bit skeptical of how the experience of would be, I decided to travel through the city on bike to understand what I had learned in my previous research. While biking in the city, I may have found what might the most simple way to solve issues relating to bike and car accidents in the US and possibly anywhere for that matter. The bike lanes had been raised by about 6 inches from the street, creating a sense of designated space for bikers as well as an elevated border for cars. Bike lanes were also on the left side of parallel parking spots, creating a barrier between the biker and the road, limiting the possibility of bike and car interaction.

So why haven’t we adopted this model in the States?  In some places it has been adopted but not to the same extent. San Francisco separates bike lanes from the roads with plastic separators in some areas of the city. Washington DC does as well to a certain extent. In other areas this is not the case and bike lanes are pretty much exposed.

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Chicago’s Kinzie Street protected bike lane. Image via Chicago Department of Transportation.

Previously, I had written an article about bike lanes in DC and how the nation’s capital is becoming a great spot for local residents and tourists alike. I also mentioned the accidents that occurred with the increased riderships. This article may seem a bit of a contradiction to the previous article that I wrote since I’m pointing out some flaws of the biking infrastructure. Providing bike lanes isn’t a bad thing, nor am I trying to say such. I do think that we have to re-evaluate how we are designing them and how we can adjust our infrastructure so that bikes, cars, and pedestrians can coexist without causing problems for each other.

Cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major metropolitan areas, have managed to at least express how bike conscious they are to their residences. However, they have failed to create adequate bike lanes that provide incentive to cars and pedestrians not to obstruct bike paths. In creating bike lanes, there has to be consideration for the car as well as pedestrians. There also needs to be some consideration in who uses what. It has to be more than just white paint on the street or a simple bike symbol. Accidents and complaints from bikers and cars have proven that these methods don’t work. It’s imperative that we look at more design alternatives as well as policies that would provide safe spaces for bike transportation and reduce the amount of accidents that occur.

Feature Image: San Francisco’s bike lanes try to be buffered from traffic. Image via Mike Koozmin, S.F. Examiner. 

About The Author

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Originally from the rural suburbs of Maryland, Jonathan Terrell Midgett has always had a curiosity for urban life. His exposure to city life in the areas of Richmond, Washington D.C and Baltimore, would later lead him to travel throughout his college career. Jonathan began studying at Virginia Commonwealth University and then later transferred to Towson University where he would gain his Bachelors of Science in Metropolitan Studies. While studying at Towson, Jonathan studied urban design in Denmark at the Danish Institute for Studies Abroad. Currently, Jonathan is a freelance photographer and is enrolled in the Graduate Architecture program at Morgan State. He continues to express his love for urbanism and sustainable design through academics, Research, and freelance photography.