Bike Lanes Are Either Keeping Bikes In Or Keeping Cars Out

Cars Parked In Bike Lane


With budgets tight and populations soaring, competition for resources has grown fierce. Around the world, competing interests dominate discussions about how a country’s revenues should be spent. Money can be allocated in many ways; what constitutes the right way is subject to debate. But, one thing’s infinitely clear: everyone has an opinion about what is most important for a society to invest in.

As we inch farther into the 21st century, new technologies and changing lifestyles drive demands for what’s most important. Central to that debate is the issue of quality of life, including health and protection of the environment. In industrialized societies, the environment one lives in determines how well one can live.

With that in mind, we must consider the issue of congestion, the stress it causes and how it can be alleviated. One way to do this is to reduce congestion at its source. In urban areas, for instance, much of the congestion comes in the form of traffic. Cars have dominated urban roads for decades, with the problem growing worse every year.

To combat this problem, many people have begun to focus on ways to reduce the number of cars on the roads. The most practical approach, and one which has a lot of support, is to increase facilities for other forms of transportation such as bicycling, public transportation and walking.

On a theoretical level, most people agree with the idea of reducing congestion, but some are unwilling to make any concessions, with respect to their lifestyle, to allow progress in this direction. Consequently, with every step taken in the direction of creating a more user-friendly environment, replete with transportation choices, there is a backlash.

A good example is the subject of bike lanes, particularly on urban or suburban roads. When bike lanes are installed, complaints ensue because by adding something to the road,  something is being taken away.

If bike lanes could be added without disrupting the lives and habits of drivers, then there would be nothing for them to complain about. But drivers see bike lanes as something given to a select few at the expense of the majority. They do not see the big picture, which is that taking cars off of the road benefits them by creating less traffic.

Too often, they cite as an example, a street where bike lanes were installed. They use this street to claim that the removal of a driving lane or parking spaces has “made traffic worse.” What they fail to consider is how much worse the traffic would be if everyone riding a bicycle or walking was driving a car. Ultimately, the decrease in driving area is less of a negative factor than an increase in cars.

This brings us to an interesting and unending debate, namely, what the purpose of the bike lanes is. Everyone agrees that bike lanes are sections of the road where bicycles can ride outside of the path of cars. But, what bike lanes mean and how they should be used has been hotly contested.

Many drivers believe that bicycles are required to ride in bike lanes, if they are present, and can’t leave them to ride in the road. They see the bike lanes as existing to keep the bicycles in a certain area — to corral them, so to speak.

Bicyclists see bike lanes as places for bikes to ride, away from the cars, but cite the laws which give cyclists the right to use the driving lane, if the bike lane is unsafe. Anything from potholes, to debris, to parked vehicles can make a bike lane unusable. Therefore, to demand that bicycles stay in them at all times is ludicrous. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop drivers from demanding that bikes stay in their own lanes and out of the way of cars.

Now, a third group of people, whether drivers or cyclists, sees the bike lanes another way  —  as a line to keep cars out of the path of bikes. In other words, it shows drivers where to drive to avoid conflict with bicycles.

This view is the most accurate of all. The greatest value of a bike lane is keeping cars away from bikes. Having a line on the road, helps drivers to guide their cars and usually, but not always, creates a safer passing distance between cars and bikes.

As innocuous as this seems, there are people who fight over it. They can’t accept bike lanes as having anything to do with cars. They see cars as having the right to cross over into bike lanes, or even park in them, because they believe the entire width of  a road should be usable for cars.

Listening to people go back and forth arguing about bike lanes, who they benefit, and whether they should be installed, reminds me of an argument often engaged in by kids — the innie versus outie debate (not too different from the bike lanes keeping bikes in or cars out debate).

Kids are fascinated by things like human navels (informally referred to as belly buttons). And, as kids are wont to do, they argue over them, claiming that one form of navel is better than the other. Navels pointing inward (innies) are more common than navels pointing outward (outies), making them the majority. Kids can be cruel to outies (who are, ironically, the out group — as the name implies) because, as the minority, they are different.

Now, of course, there is a difference between bike lanes and navels; the former have a function while the latter are valued only in terms of aesthetics. But, what they share in common is that their value is relative to the perspective of the majority.

The majority of road users are drivers, who perceive bike lanes as existing to keep bicyles in “their own lane.” And, if they tolerate bike lanes at all, it is usually because they keep bikes in one place (most of the time). This helps drivers to predict the behavior of cyclists.

The minority, bicyclists, see bike lanes as keeping cars out. One of the major impediments to getting more people to use bikes as transportation is a cyclist’s fear of sharing the road with cars. Bike lanes make novice cyclists feel safer because they keep the cars at a safe distance.

So there we have it. Do bike lanes keep bikes in or keep cars out? It depends upon who you ask.

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2 Responses to Bike Lanes Are Either Keeping Bikes In Or Keeping Cars Out

  1. Timur Ender says:

    I’d be interested in hearing your views on sharrows.
    There’s a lot of debate w/i the cycling community about bike lanes vs. sharrows.

    Also, FL passed a law a few years ago REQUIRING cyclists to ride in the bike lane if there is one. There are a lot of ways to do a wrong bike lane: too skinny, potholes, door zone, debris, etc.

  2. Pingback: Sharrows: Confusion and Compromise | IsolateCyclist

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