Designated lanes for bicyclists have long been a source of debate for commuters. Are they really safer? Do they make drivers feel more or less comfortable? Do they provide more protection for bicyclists? These questions have plagued city planners and local governments for years, and bike lanes continue to divide commuters around the country.
Interestingly enough, California drivers seem to want more bike lanes throughout the state,according to research by Rebecca Sanders, a doctoral candidate in transportation planning and urban design at University of California-Berkeley. Most drivers outside the Los Angeles area told Sanders that their top priority for street improvements (when given a list to choose from) would be bike lanes; within Los Angeles the top priority was improved pedestrian crossings, but bike lanes came in a close second.
“What was interesting about that study was that in the San Francisco Bay Area, the most requested item, across the board, was a bicycle lane on the corridor,” Sanders told Streetsblog. “It was the most requested item by drivers, it was the most requested item by pedestrians, and it was the most requested item by bicyclists. That was quite surprising to us.”
Bike lanes are a good safety measure because they keep bicycles off the sidewalk, which pleases pedestrians, without putting bicyclists in the same lane as regular vehicles. Bike lanes allow commuters to be more aware of cyclists and it makes bicyclists’ behavior more predictable. At the end of the day, when bicyclists and drivers have their own space on the road, there is less of a potential for conflict.
“We have not done a good job of recognizing and validating the concerns of drivers about predictability,” Sanders said. “For a long time, cyclists have been defensive; they’ve been fighting for space, and legitimately so. But in the process, some areas where we could really work together, I think, have fallen to the wayside. Everybody wants predictability on the roadway. Nobody wants to feel like they’re going to get hit or hit someone else and it’s going to be beyond their control.”
Drivers tend to be more comfortable driving near cyclists when the bike lane is physically separated from the driving lanes in some way. While this is not possible in all areas due to infrastructure needs, it is worth considering for the future; as our cities and towns undergo constant construction and road work, we could further improve the safety of bicyclists, the comfort of other drivers, and reduce harmful emissions. (Plus, one mile of roadway planned through Golden Gate Park is 1,283 times more expensive than one mile of protected bike lanes, so the cost should never be prohibitive.)
Designated bike lanes also enhance the trend of shifting traffic from cars to bicycles. This reduces traffic, making life easier for California commuters, and increases the capacity of the roadways. Bike travel is also a boon for lower-income residents, and improving the comfort and safety of bike lanes is an important step toward making transportation easy and affordable for more Americans.