In my travel this weekend to the city of Bloomington, Indiana, I found myself driving in from the north on College Avenue. As the Avenue transitioned from two to three lanes, I noticed signs on traffic poles announcing the existence of a bicycle lane and bicycle icons painted on the rightmost of these three lanes.
Wow! Zoom! Great! Bike lanes in Bloomington, Indiana, right? I’m not so sure. During that and subsequent drives on College Ave. this weekend, I saw cars using that right-hand lane just as they used the other lanes, driving at the same speed, taking up the same space. Bicycles weren’t given the right of way in that lane. And it’s not just a de facto culture of driving thing: according to the city Bloomington, that’s the way it is. The Bloomington bike map makes sure to stipulate that “No assurance of safety of legal right-of-way is implied by the publication…”.
Perhaps my expectations have been set unreasonably high by my youthful visit to the Netherlands and by my six-year youngish stay in Tucson. In these places, separate dedicated bicycle lanes from which cars are forbidden are a common sight. In most American states, bicycles have the same right to a right-hand lane of traffic as any car. What does painting bicycles on a lane of traffic accomplish if cars are allowed to drive on it as usual, anyway?
There is a PR value to such designations: I am reminded of a narrow street in Durham, North Carolina on which cars regularly drive 50 miles an hour. The street ended with a vertical lip, making crashes by bicyclists more likely, and there was no dedicated space, not even a shoulder, for bikes to occupy. City officials nevertheless affixed a cheery metal “Bike-Friendly City!” sign to a pole on that street. Did the message make people feel better about using bikes around town, regardless of the difficulty? Does the Bloomington Bike Map look better having a College Ave. “bike path” to give the impression of improved downtown accessibility? Probably.
Call me a stickler, but if I were the Grand World Bike Map Drawing Pooh-Bah, I would stipulate that a “bike lane” is a visible lane just for bikes. Anything else and it’s just a regular old “lane.” If city planners want to have a pretty color-coded bike map with “bike lanes” on it for their city to attract visitors and new residents and “bike-friendly city” designations, they’d have to set aside money in their transportation budgets for actual bike lanes. You know, make an infrastructure commitment beyond the purchase of a gallon or two of paint.