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Bicycling Tue Jul 02 2013

Protected Bike Lanes: Who Needs Them? We Do!

Why do Chicagoans need protected bike lanes? Recently, there was a car vs. bicycle accident on Clybourn Avenue in Old Town. The driver of the bicycle, Bobby Cann, 26, was killed, sending shivers through the biking community. Some think this accident could have been avoided if this stretch of Clybourn had protected bike lanes (PBLs).

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) has proposed building PBLs on Clybourn. However, the street is under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and IDOT has "red lighted" PBLs on roads under its jurisdiction until 2014, when there's three years of safety data in Chicago to consider. Many question why IDOT needs years of data to study when it's quite obvious that designated bike lanes help keep cyclists out of harm's way.

This is the first article of a short series of guest articles on bicycle safety in the City of Chicago by Matthew Willens of the Willens Law Offices. The articles will be coming to you weekly over the summer of 2013.

But what are they?

First of all, when talking about bike lanes, I think it's important to define some terms. While many cyclists know the lingo when it comes to bike safety, many (both cyclists and non-cyclists) do not. In order for bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians to all co-exist safely in Chicago, bike lanes are going to be part of the puzzle. Below is some of the terminology as it pertains to bike lanes, and therefore bike safety.

Protected Bike Lanes or PBLs
protected-bike-lanes-chicago.jpgFirst of all, PBLs are hands-down, the best kind of bike lanes. They provide bicyclists exclusive space in the roadway by separating bicyclists from motor vehicle traffic with on-street parking, flex posts, and/or raised medians. See this picture of a nice young lady riding in one (judging by the trolley in back -- I'm guessing she's in San Francisco)? She doesn't need to worry about a car swerving into her lane or someone opening a car door in front of her, or a vehicle double parked in her lane of travel, forcing her into traffic or onto the sidewalk. Nice, huh? There would be many more people taking advantage of the countless benefits of biking if these types of lanes were all over Chicago. Think of the wonders that this bike ride is doing for her mind, body, spirit, and oh yeah, the planet.

Please note that some use protected bike lanes and buffered bike lanes synonymously. However, talk to most avid cyclists and they would tell you that a protected bike lane is not a buffered bike lane. They'll tell you that emphatically. I'll talk about buffered bike lanes momentarily.

Regular old bike lanes
A conventional bike lane designates a space for bicyclists through the use of pavement markings and signage (usually white paint -- picture a crosswalk if you will). The lane is next to and flows in the same direction as motor vehicle traffic. Bike lanes are usually on the right side of the street, between the adjacent travel lane and curb or parking lane.

Buffered Bike Lanes (often confused with PBLs)
A buffered bike lane is a conventional bike lane paired with a designated buffer space (usually just lines of white street paint) separating the bicycle lane from the adjacent motor vehicle travel lane and/or parking lane. See below for what a buffered bike lane looks like.

Sometimes, streets are marked with a shared lane marking or a "sharrow" which is a street marking depicting a cyclist and a couple of arrows placed in the center of a travel lane to indicate that a bicyclist may use the full lane.

Why so many choices?

Of course, most cyclists would prefer protected bike lanes rather than conventional or buffered lanes or sharrows. Many bicycle safety enthusiasts would say that protected lanes are really the only way to provide cyclists with "real" protection. They would argue that the other types of bike lanes have little to no value. Of course, some would say they have great value. Everyone can agree, however, that any type of bike designated lanes are better than nothing.

Most designated bike lanes tend to calm traffic to an extent. Motorists drive slower when there is a designated bike lane. They also drive more cautiously when they have to drive closer to the center line because of a bike lane to their right. The painted lines for the bicycles also encourage drivers to give the cyclists some space. Some types of designated bike lanes such as conventional lanes plus the striped buffer helps keep cyclists out of the door zone. The buffer also encourages motorists to stay even farther away from bikes.

Even sharrows encourage cyclists to stay out of the door zone. They also signal the presence of bikes to motorists. I have interviewed many people who have struck bicyclists causing injury. They usually tell me something along the lines of "I just didn't see the bicyclist until it was too late." Anything we can do to alert motorists to be on the lookout for bikes is a step forward in increasing peace and harmony between motorists and cyclists.

But, are we protecting Chicagoans enough?

Of course, those in the bike safety world would like to see PBLs rather than the other types. They keep out the motorists who still choose to use the more conventional bike lanes as a passing lane or a place to double park or a lane to wait in while waiting to make a right turn.

In a perfect world, there would be more PBLs, lanes which actually provide physical protection, all across the streets of the greatest city in the world -- Chicago. However, it's not a perfect world. It's our world. We have to work with what we have right now. Instead of waiting for protected lanes, we should make sure that we, at a minimum, are installing bike lanes like buffered lanes. By calming traffic, any type of bike lanes will help prevent crashes. We can hope and we can press the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Transportation to upgrade all bike lanes to protected lanes but let's not discourage peace between motorists and cyclists anyway we can get it in the meantime.

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Lizzy / July 2, 2013 10:51 AM

Drivers also prefer separated/physically protected bike lanes--in part because drivers don't understand cyclist behavior and find it stressful to try to predict it. Here's a report on one study conducted in California:

Personally, I love it when the city does anything to encourage pedestrian safety, cycling safety, and the use of transit over increasing road capacity and parking convenience.

Matt / July 2, 2013 6:08 PM

Thanks for your comment Lizzy. Interesting article. The more we can educate the public in general, not only cyclists, but motorists and pedestrians as well, the better off we'll all be.

latest Bike / July 3, 2013 3:23 AM

Interesting article. very nice infomation

John Brooking / September 17, 2013 8:54 PM

Not once does your essay mention intersections, where most car/bike crashes occur. Cycle tracks keep the cyclists irrelevant to the motorists until the last minute, and thus increase the right hook danger at every intersection and driveway. If what if the cyclist needs to access a destination on the other side of the street?

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