Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Bike Lane Pipe Dream

As y'all probably know, I like to ride my bike.

In the broad scheme of things, Denver is a great city for bike riding - especially recreational riding. We have a system of bike trails that run for hundreds of miles over the whole metropolitan area.

These paths are WONDERFUL because they are for bikes and pedestrians only, and the majority of them are constructed right along either waterways, highways, or rail lines - meaning that they bypass intersections almost entirely via a system of underpasses and bridges. It really is biking bliss.

The Cherry Creek Bike Path
The only issue is that due to the nature of the geography, the system sorta looks like a skeleton, with the South Platte serving as the backbone.

So while there are literally hundreds of miles of paved paths that are fantastic for recreational riding, they're not terribly useful if your goal is transportation - unless, of course, you don't mind riding about 20 miles out of your way to get where you're going!

But Denver has really been encouraging people to bike for transportation and in recent years the city has even created a bicycle rental program.

They've also added a whole slew of bike lanes. The problem with the bike lanes is that the vast majority of them are in what's known as the "door zone" which just scares the pants off of me.

Photo Credit:
The above photo was taken at the scene of a fatal accident in Massachusetts caused when someone in a parked car opened a door just as a cyclist was going by. This is BAD... it is VERY BAD, and makes me feel that the bike lanes in the door zone are really not a very safe option.

The other thing is that bike lanes do nothing to address the problem of intersections, where the vast majority of bike-car accidents take place. In fact, bike lanes can often worsen the problem because it puts cyclists right into the path of turning vehicles.

But, Denver has recently received a grant to build a few "protected bike lanes" and I'll be curious to see how it turns out. I think the money will mostly be used downtown, and from what I understand they're basically bike lanes with barriers between the bikes and cars. Something like this:

This would certainly be a vast improvement, moving the parked cars to the inside of the bikes and creating a physical buffer... but it still seems that there must be a better way.

Enter my pipe dream.

So - the background story: CatMan and I went for a long ride last week which took us through Red Rocks, and up over something known as Dinosaur Ridge, which, as you might guess, got its name because the area is full of dinosaur footprint fossils.

We had wanted to ride up the ridge for a while, but the road is very narrow with no shoulder, and we were a bit concerned about dodging cars.

However... I had heard that the road was recently closed to automobile traffic, and that they were basically converting the area into a park, so we decided to give it a try - and it was FABULOUS!

The road is still the same as it always has been, but they've re-designated it so that half of it is for bikes only, and the other half is shared by pedestrians and a little shuttle bus which takes the non-walking crowd up and over the ridge.

I fear I was too busy huffing and puffing my way up the hill to stop and take a photo, but the layout basically looks like this:

The experience reignited a little bike lane dream that I've had for some time now. It's always seemed to me that instead of trying to take relatively busy streets and add bike lanes to them, it would make much more sense to take relatively quiet streets and convert them into bike and parking only streets.

At the moment, Denver has a lot of residential streets that are laid out something like this:

They're not the greatest for bike riding because there's not a lot of room for cars to pass you and you pretty much have to take the lane in order to stay out of the door zone.

But these streets don't usually have a huge amount of traffic - they're mostly used by the people who live there, and by folks looking to circumvent busier streets.

So, what if we took a few of those streets and re-designated them for bike and parking use only using a model similar to the Dinosaur Ridge road - I'm envisioning something like this:

With the use of barriers and right turn only designations at the intersections, you could ensure that there would be no thru traffic, and also keep cyclists out of the path of most of the turning vehicles.

There would still be cross-traffic to deal with at intersections, but that could be mitigated through the use of stop signs and lights, and it would be a VAST improvement over the current situation.

I'm not suggesting that this should be done on all residential streets - just a handful laid out in a grid pattern, creating a system of "cycling arterials" if you will.

There would be little impact to the residents living on those streets, since by angling the parking you'd be able to keep pretty much the same number of total parking spaces per block. My bet is that property values would improve significantly on those streets because there would be much less traffic and congestion.

OK. I realize it's probably WAY too much to hope for - hence the pipe dream part. I mean, it would require a complete shift in mindset, which, experience tells me, is not easy to accomplish. But hey, a girl can dream, can't she?

So, what do you think? Is my idea totally crazy? Is there some reason (other than the obvious lack of political willpower) that it wouldn't work?

I'd love to hear what you think, and I'd also love to hear how your city or area deals with the whole bicycle vs. automobile traffic conundrum.


  1. I love your idea. I haven't heard of that option before.

    1. That's because it came out of my own crazy little head. :-)

  2. You are spot on with the dangers of most bike lane designs. The "protected" or buffered bike lane removes the door zone danger, but does nothing to mitigate the intersection dangers (in some ways, it may make them worse -- imagine being a cyclist trying to make a left turn across traffic going in BOTH directions!).

    Your design proposal is intriguing. I think I need to look at it a little more in terms of potential intersection conflicts, confusion about who goes where and when, etc. I think I saw some similar (but not identical) designs in Portland (bike boulevards or neighborhood greenways).

    1. I did some more reading about these protected bike lanes and apparently they have some sort of deal where at major intersections there is a green box in front of traffic specifically for bikes. So the bikes essentially get to go first when the light changes and have control of all lanes. But you couldn't possibly do that at EVERY intersection, and it only works in red light situations. I dunno. I mean I'm glad they're trying, but it seems like they haven't quite come up with a system that works yet.

      I also did some more thinking about my crazy design and I think there is one flaw - driveways. Most of the neighborhoods I was thinking about are urban residential neighborhoods where most homes don't have a driveway or garage, and if they do the access is from the alley, but it's not universally true, so that could be an issue.

      Maybe I just need to stop watching the news. There was another bike v car hit and run last night. The cyclist survived this time, but it still gives me an uneasy feeling every time I see a mangled bike in the street.

  3. I live in suburbia and my particular residential area has nothing for bike riders, so my kids and I stay on the side roads, as it's terrifying to me to ride on the main roads. I don't have enough experience to comment on whether your idea will work or not, but I do like it that someone, somewhere, is putting thought into this.

    1. Well, when I was searching for images to illustrate this post I came upon a whole pile of diagrams done by urban planners, so people are definitely thinking about it. Whether they've come up with a good solution or not is a different story!

  4. I'm not a big fan of riding my bike anywhere but my neighborhood - the speed and carelessness of some drivers really frightens me. A lane completely separated from cars would make me feel a little better, but I still don't think I'd use it on roads where cars are traveling more than about 30-35 mph.

    I thought you might like these before and after pictures of NYC. Not sure where I first saw them, but they highlight a move toward more bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets. :)

    1. Wow! Those look great! It's still the intersections that scare me though. In my dreams they would build bridges and tunnels for the bikes... but that's probably not gonna happen. Sigh.

  5. One-way driving? What are you, crazy? Telling people in cars what they are allowed to do? Actually, I think it sounds good, so long as bikers and pedestrians get separate lanes, i.e., sidewalks for pedestrians. As a pedestrian, I am just as afraid of bicyclists as of drivers--they are less likely to kill me if they hit me, but I think they're more likely to hit me, even if it's mostly because I freak out and stop acting predictably when I see one. They like to cut it so close!

    My city stinks. Except they recently re-did one very short stretch of road near campus to be like your "protected bike lane" picture, only the bike lane is bright green. Reminds me of The Netherlands!

    We used to have bike lanes (2 car lanes, 2 bike lanes) on a lot of streets; then we turned most of them into 4-car-lane streets. With very narrow lanes that some drivers find it difficult to stay inside.

    Now we're turning a bunch of 4-car-lane streets into streets with 2 bike lanes, 2 car lanes, and one suicide lane, by which I mean a center turning lane which can be used in either direction. This is much better for bicyclists--I see more of them. It's worse for drivers--the traffic does back up further (I was hoping it wouldn't, but my bus stop is on one of these streets, so I get a very good look). It is also harder to cross these streets without a light because there are fewer breaks in car traffic. (And it's 1.25 minutes between green lights at the intersection I use, so I notice.)

    One cool thing is they've stuck 2-bike racks on the front of the buses. They look very easy to use, too. Sometimes someone wants to use it when it's full, but I still like the idea.

    We also have a track at the edge of town which is just for people on wheels--I see bicyclists, roller bladers, and roller skaters. No pedestrians. It's extremely wide, so it's not scary at all if you're the super-slow roller skater everyone else has to pass (why yes, I am talking about myself). Except for that big hill which I used to be able to go down, but now I'm too chicken, even though it was my friend (not me) who once went down it human-tumbleweed style. That's for recreation, though, not transportation.

    1. Ha! Totally with you on having separate spaces for bikes and pedestrians. I can't count the number of times I've nearly been killed by a "distracted walker"... my hatred of smartphones and earbuds grows just thinking about it! And you're totally right about the "startle factor". On the bike path here you're supposed to "call your pass" meaning that you're supposed to shout "on your left" before you pass someone. But my experience is that most people freak when you do that and jump right in front of you. I have much better luck just slowing down until they realize I'm there and then going around them.

      I'm also not entirely convinced that adding the bike lanes like you describe actually does make it better for cyclists - though most riders seem to think it does. I mean, I totally get the psychology of it - it's scary being out in traffic - but seriously... bike lanes are death traps at intersections. And those suicide lanes scare the pants off of me... Can you say "head-on collision?"

      The track thing you describe sounds interesting... though I'd probably be a danger to myself and others on roller skates!

    2. Yeah, all the bike safety folks around here say it's safest to ride in a car lane. Those people do not know how heavy my cousin of Bertha is, or how whimpy I am on a bike--they can almost keep up with traffic.

      Me, I prefer the sidewalk, supposedly the most dangerous place to ride of all. On the other hand, I also ride with the assumption that I'm invisible, so I stop a lot more than normal bicyclists.

    3. I think the theory is that cars are just supposed to treat you like a very slow vehicle - my fear is always that they won't do what they're supposed to do, and instead will just mow me down. Perhaps it's a trust issue? :-)

  6. I'm not a regular bike rider, but I am scared for other riders that I see. The idea of side streets being set aside for car parking and bike lanes is an interesting one except for the people that live there. You've already mentioned some potential problems with that solution. Good luck and have some safe fun.

    1. I dunno... if the driveway issue can be dealt with, I tend to think that I'd much rather live on a parking/biking street than one with thru traffic. It would be sorta like creating cul-du-sacs right in the middle of the city! But maybe I'm being overly optimistic about what people would think.

  7. That sounds like a cool idea. Here in Buffalo, a huge segment of the population bikes as their main method of transportation. A lot of low income people rely on bikes. One big problem is they have no concept of road rules. Many ride on sidewalks. It would work much better here if we had clearly designated bike lanes like the cool one you posted. And parking like you suggested makes sense in busy city neighborhoods. Time to run for the city council!

    1. Ha! I've always said that I could never run for public office because, like Bill Clinton, I did inhale. But I guess that might no longer be an issue here in Colorado!

      Anyhow, I totally agree that the biggest problem with bike safety is that there is no universal agreement as to where the bikes are supposed to be! Seriously, in most municipalities around here bikes are prohibited from being in the crosswalk, except for the ones that require you to be there! And when I was a kid I was taught that the proper place to ride was at the side of the street facing oncoming traffic! And most drivers have NO idea that not only is it legal for a cyclist to "take the lane" and ride among traffic... but that this is actually the law in places!

      I keep thinking that the most effective thing that could be done would be a massive public education campaign, and I keep urging the local TV stations to do a story on this topic, but to no avail. I think I'd even support requiring cyclists to pass a road test and get licenses if it also meant that in order to get a driver's license you had to know the rules as they apply to bikes as well as cars!

  8. I used to ride my bike to work in downtown Denver - it was actually faster than driving, because I didn't have to hassle with parking garages. I used only designated bike lanes, but no one else seemed to be aware they were there. I had close calls at least once a week.The protected bike lanes have to be an improvement. I'll be curious as to how they work out. I work in Golden now, & plan on bicycling to work occasionally if I can figure out a safe street route - unfortunately no greenway routes. Car traffic scares me when I'm bicycling.

    1. Wow! Riding in downtown Denver sounds scary! I don't think I'd be brave enough to do it. I agree that a protected bike lane is better than an unprotected one... I just wish there were a better way altogether - but it will be interesting to see what happens with it. Golden strikes me as a challenging place to ride, with all those funky and narrow streets... good luck figuring out a safe route!

  9. The dooring issue is so scary...I've seen lots of YouTube 'near misses' but never heard of a fatality. So sad.

    I love your idea of converting smaller streets as bike thoroughfares. If they can create pedestrian malls then for walkers then why not for bikes? It would work very well in the CBD where I live (Melbourne, Australia) because we have a geometric grid pattern and lots of one-way lanes. It would be easy to designate some for bikes.

    The only recent novelty in our city for bikes was that they built a gigantic new freeway system about 5 years ago. Somebody thought to accommodate bikes, so the full length of the freeway has dedicated bike trails (out of traffic.) It's actually a great network for bikes because it goes A to B fast, following the auto route. But once you get off the trail...same old, same old with dense inner-city traffic.

    You can see the trail map here, if interested:

    1. That trail looks very much like the ones we have here. They're really great - I just wish there were more of them! Though as CatMan often reminds me, it's a vast improvement over what it was 20-30 years ago. I think the more demand there is for this sort of thing, the more our governments will come to realize that it really is in their best interest to invest in this sort of infrastructure. I mean, if you figure that every person on a bike is one less in a car, the cost of bike infrastructure is a real bargain!

  10. I love your idea! I want to ride my bike here, but I won't do it with my kids, because
    a)motorists don't look for cyclists here, even with bike lanes, but they do in some neighboring communities
    b)the door issue
    c)bike lanes tend not to get repaved as well as the rest of the street, or may not get repaved at all, resulting in a very unpleasant ride.
    On the other hand, our downtown could accomodate bike streets pretty easily. Once you get out of downtown, topographical constraints would be a proble, as there's usuallly only one street every mile or two going through sloughs, forests and a large gulch that cuts through town.

    1. We've got some topographical issues here too - especially on the west side of town. Denver is right at the foot of the rocky mountains, so all along the west side of town there are creeks and streams that run east from the mountains every few miles, creating a never-ending series of deep gullies and steep hills when you're traveling north or south. It's not insurmountable, but the combination of the topography and the fact that you're stuck riding on busy streets makes it pretty darned unpleasant!

      And lack of care for the bike lanes is another one of my pet peeves. Our streets get swept once a month here in the warm part of the year, but often the street sweepers just push all of the debris (like broken glass etc.) out of the auto lanes and into the bike lanes! Grrrrrr!

  11. so this has absolutely nothing to do with bike lanes but I thought you would enjoy it.

    1. OMG... those pictures are wonderful! Thanks so much for thinking of me.


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