Everybody loves protected bike lanes

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doo dah parade bike

The not remotely funny entry in question from the Columbus Doo Dah Parade (courtesy of the Columbus Dispatch).

It’s generally taken as an article of faith that drivers and cyclists don’t get along. I can’t count the number of times that I have been buzzed, honked at, or sworn at by people in passing cars or that I have seen it happen to other cyclists. And, if I’m honest, I’ve responded to drivers in kind.

If you’ve ever read the comments on almost any article about biking issues or project (pro tip: don’t), you quickly discover that, in the darkest reaches of society, certain drivers harbor homicidal fantasies about running down cyclists in the streets.

These secret perversions came into the light of day during Columbus’s Doo Dah Parade on July 4, which featured a supposedly “satirical” participant driving an SUV with a damaged bicycle, a mangled dummy, and a sign that read “I’ll share the road when you follow the rules.”

Despite that fact that, as Bike Cleveland rightly points out, the overwhelming majority of cyclists also drive, the world is simply a different place from behind a windshield than it is from behind a set of handlebars. And people tend to act accordingly.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if driver sand cyclists could actually get along? Well, maybe not get along per se, but at least see eye-to-eye on certain things. Like bike infrastructure.

Maybe protected bike lanes are the path to peace

Typically, this isn’t the case. Cyclists push for more investment in bike infrastructure, while drivers, in turn, demand more spending on road construction and maintenance. It’s all too common to hear drivers swap down suggestions for bike infrastructure by claiming it’s a waste of money because no one bikes anyways. Or that it’s diverting money from gas taxes that should be spent on roads. Sure, both of these arguments are misguided, but I’m not going to relitigate those fights here.

Instead, I want to focus on a recent study (paywall) from Rebecca L. Sanders, a transportation researcher at the Toole Design Group, which appears in the September issue of the journal Transportation Research Part A.

According to Sanders, hers is the first study to ask drivers about their preferences for roadway design when it comes to sharing the road with cyclists.

She and her colleagues sent out a survey to 1,177 people in the San Francisco Bay Area in July 2011, asking respondents to rate their level of comfort on a series of different commercial road designs when driving near cyclists or cycling near near cars going 25-30 miles per hour. The various road designs included no bike infrastructure, sharrows, on-road bike lanes, and separated bike lanes. Sanders then followed up by holding a series of focus groups with respondents to get additional information.

The results of the study were clear.

There are only two roadway designs for bicycling that evenly appeal to all groups, regardless of cycling frequency: the two barrier-separated bicycle lane designs…

In other words, while drivers and cyclists disagree on almost everything, they can both agree on the value of investing in separated/protected bike lanes. More than 80% of respondents in every user group agreed that separated lanes make cyclists more predictable on the road, which “runs counter to the idea that bicycle lanes only benefit bicyclists.”

This design is also key for attracting potential cyclists, as their level of comfort drops precipitously once you remove separation from the road design.

Majorities of both casual cyclists and non-cycling drivers were uncomfortable with sharrows, in turn. And contrary to the belief that just striping a bike lane is sufficient to ending driver-cyclist conflicts, nearly 40% of non-cyclists and potential cyclists think that traditional, unprotected bike lanes signal to drivers that cyclists don’t belong on other streets. This result would seem to undermine the arguments of vehicular cycling advocates.

Sanders concludes,

The findings presented here suggest alignment between drivers and cyclists for roadway designs that can meet the needs of both user groups while sharing the road, with both groups preferring greater separation on multi-lane roadways.

So, maybe drivers and cyclists really can get along, at least if we have barriers between us. I get that Robert Frost was being ironic, but maybe good fences do make good neighbors, at least on the roads.