In recent years, there has been an insane amount of effort to improve cities with respect to non-automobile traffic. Most of this effort has been focused on bicycles, often to the exclusion of even pedestrians. Now, don’t get me wrong. Bicycles are a good idea. So are tricycles, which, in my opinion, are a bit safer in stop and go traffic. However, it is my considered opinion that while encouraging bicycle use is a good idea, we’re going about it the wrong way.
First off, there is a major conflict between bicycle traffic and automobile traffic. The fact that automobiles can travel upwards of 100 km/h while bicycles are limited to much lower speeds (in most circumstances) causes an irreconcilable conflict. Have you ever wondered why slow moving vehicles are not permitted on many freeways? Think about it for a bit and you’ll understand. The same applies to bicycles.
Now, this problem is not inherently unsolvable. (Well, it might be in some well built up areas.) But the solution of painting a bike lane on the right hand side of a road and somehow magically expecting that to solve things is, pardon the language, fucking stupid. This solution works well on a through road with no cross traffic and a sufficient buffer space between the bike lane and the rest of the traffic. However, that’s not the usual case. More usually, the bike lane is painted on the right hand side of a regular street with fairly closely packed cross streets. At each intersection, right turning automobiles have to cross the bike lane. Sounds find to you? Think about this. Why are right turns only permitted from lanes where all traffic to the right (if any) also turns right? That’s right. Safety. Yet we somehow think that a through lane for bicycles to the right of right turning autombiles is a good idea. Are we fucking stupid‽ And better yet, we legislate that the bicycle has the right of way.
If that still sounds reasonable to you, let’s examine a very common situation. I will be driving the autombile and you will be riding the bicycle. I want to turn right but there are pedestrians in the crosswalk and I have to wait for them. I have my blinker on and I am waiting. Finally, the crosswalk clears and I proceed. I checked the bike lane as much as I can reasonably see but it disappears around a curve a short distance behind me. Unimpeded by the traffic snarl caused by my wait for the pedestrians, you are travelling along the bike lane at 40 km/h (which is not much of a stretch for someone in decent condition). By the time I am half way across the bike lane (automobiles take a bit to get moving from a standing start), you appear to my right and one of three things happens: you smash into me, you swerve in front of me and I hit you, or you stop. After all, I am not going to see you because once I have entered the bike lane, there is no point watching it any more. Instead, I absolutely must be watching the road ahead of me to avoid any obstacle there.
Now you’re thinking that in that accident, I am at fault because I crossed the bike lane when it was unsafe to do so. And, legally, you would probably be correct. Yet it was clear when I entered it based on the visibility I have in the automobile. The geometry of the roads prevented me from seeing you. (Maybe it wasn’t a curve. Maybe it was the crest of a hill or a massive delivery vehicle blocking the view.) Even if it were your responsibility to avoid me (an arguably reasonable position), the same thing that blocked my view would likely also block yours. While your stopping distance and maneuverability might be superior, it might still be difficult or impossible to safely avoid a collision.
The problem gets even worse when you introduce street side parking since the bike lane is almost certainly to the left of the parked cars. Now the cyclist has to worry about parked cars coming from standing start trying to get into traffic. And traffic coming at speed trying to park. Both such activities are complex and require looking in multiple places. It becomes very easy to miss that bicycle coming along from the rear. Even if the cyclist must yield, there is still the problem of car doors flinging open and other such hazards. Of course, if you put the bike lane on the right hand side of the parked cars, you can avoid a lot of this, leaving only the previous issue at intersections and possibly car doors opening. And that also assumes that I, the motorist, can actually park correctly, which is doubtful.
The solution is fairly obvious. For roads with any amount of traffic, cyclists and motor vehicles need to be separated, much the same way pedestrians and motor vehicles already are. The notion that a bicycle is a “vehicle” that should be treated like all others is patently absurd (or fucking stupid). It may be that pedestrians and bicycles also need to be separated (for similar reasons) but pedestrians and sensibly operated bicycles can more easily coexist than bicycles and automobile traffic for the simple reason that collisions between the two are, on the whole, less dangerous due to a more equal weight distribution. Of course, there is still a conflict at intersections but that can be generally solved with signal phasing, grade separation, or other things that work fairly well for pedestrians. As with all cases of conflicting traffic, there will be no ideal solution.
Now let’s assume that what we’re doing with bike lanes, paths, etc., is all brilliantly workable. Cyclists themselves need to take some responsibility for their own safety and realize that they are participating in a larger traffic system. The number of times I’ve seen cyclists blasting along at unsafe speeds, going the wrong way on one way roads, ignoring traffic signals, crossing lanes of traffic without looking, mowing pedestrians down in crosswalks and on sidewalks, and generally ignoring even the rules of sanity let alone the rules of the road is depressing. Until we force cyclists to obey the rules, there is no way motorists or pedestrians are going to be pleased with more of them out there. There needs to be consquences for violating the rules. Speeding? You get a ticket. Ignore a signal? Get a ticket. Cause an injury? See you in court. Unsafe riding? Get a ticket. Improper equipment on the bicycle (lack of brakes, no lights, etc.)? The bike is impounded. Perhaps bicycles should require registration just like motor vehicles? Clearly, we need to do something to get cyclists to behave.
So what is the point of this rant? Well, I am all for improved safety for cyclists. But it requires more thought than simply throwing unfair rules at motorists or painting a few lines on roads that are already too narrow for the traffic they have. It requires effort from the cyclists, too. And it also requires that we recognize that cycling is not practical in all climates. In a Calgary winter, for instance, cycling is suicidal even without motor vehicles. It’s simply too cold or too variable a lot of the time.
So let’s be smart about this shall we?