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Are Bike Lanes Safer?

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Cities across the county are grappling with traffic congestion, underfunded and often crumbling infrastructure, and growing communities squeezing into cities built for much smaller populations. While it’s easy to look at these issues as problems, they also provide an opportunity to build solutions. The confluence of these three problems means fixing all three might be possible in the next phase of city planning, no matter how big the town or city.

Convincing communities to embrace alternative methods of transportation isn’t easy, but it’s going to be vital that municipalities build and plan for public transportation and non-motorized road users. The key to it all? The bike lane. Perhaps no tool is as effective as encouraging more people to pedal, more drivers to be attentive, and more cities to build for the community they want to see and not patch up the infrastructure they currently have.

First, we need to really identify what these bike lanes look like. Experts say that calling a slightly widened shoulder a bike lane isn’t enough. More and more, city planners and traffic experts have found that bike lines with physical barriers are the most effective tools in protecting riders and encouraging better driving habits from motorists. These physical barriers often combine bollards, raised surfaces like curbing, different materials or coloring for the bicycle lane, even plants and trees to give the lane a very visual separation from the normal flow of traffic. And this division isn’t just away from cars; sidewalks for foot traffic are often raised and divided as well, sharing or earning its own footprint next to the bike lane.

This physical barrier changes the entire cyclist/motorist interaction. According to an Australian study, the average overtaking distance between cars and bikes is just 75 inches in speed zones of 37 mph. Even scarier, slower speeds can embolden drivers to pass even closer when traveling below 30 miles per hour, passing as close as 66 inches. This reflects the habits more urban cyclists experience, and illustrates the bleak reality of trying to commute by bike. Who wouldn’t be alarmed by countless 2,000 pound cars hurtling by so close?

In fact, painted lanes can actually be counter-productive. Studies have shown that drivers view unprotected bike lanes as less of a risk and can actually offer cyclists even less space than normal. One of the passes in the study was a frightening four inches between driver and rider. This study highlights that he need for a divided roadway is vital for safety which, in turn, is vital in coaxing more people to ride.

The conclusion? A single white stripe does nothing to ensure a safe riding experience for cyclists and can even make non-motorized traffic less safe. As cities and roadways evolve, look to bike lanes featuring physical barriers to play a central role in improving, not hindering, urban traffic problems while also keeping drivers safe and motorists further away.