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When is a Bike Lane a Bike Lane?

Excerpt from Bloomington, Indiana bicycle route mapIn 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.

3 comments to When is a Bike Lane a Bike Lane?

  • Ralph

    I lived in Bloomington ten years ago.

    People on campus were hanging their bikes from trees because there weren’t enough bicycle racks. I made some calls, and was met by a response I still recall verbatim: “What do you think we owe you for riding a bike?”

    IU Bloomington used to be a really good school, but it’s been crumbling for some time now under the dead weight of bureaucrats who don’t give a crap about anything. I see that hasn’t stopped.

    Pity.

  • Jim

    Jeesh. Don’t they get that a bike uses less space and requires less transportation money than a car? You were doing IU a favor and they were spitting at you, right in the face. Yech. I’m sorry you had such a rotten experience there.

    I notice in that comment you put Indiana University as the implicit driver of Bloomington transportation policy. Is that the way things work there?

  • Ralph

    No, students drive Bloomington transportation policy. Indiana University and the local government sit on their asses and watch bicyclists get injured and killed.

    Shortly following my “what do you think we owe you for riding a bike?” conversation, a student survived a collision with a car only to be killed when the next car ran him over.

    There was a big hue and cry, and a number of students pushed the issue of making the campus and town of Bloomington bike friendly. IU administration bureacrats listened. Local government bureacrats listened. They soaked up taxpayer and tuition money addressing concerns and looking into issues.

    And that’s all they did. Because students move on while bureacrats are there to stay, and bureaucrats know it. All they have to do is create the illusion of concern and progress long enough to wait the students out.

    I finished my degree and left Bloomington over a year after all that, and not a single thing had changed. There were ideas in the air, including establishing bicycle lanes on some downtown streets.

    Ten years later, I see someone has highlighted those streets on a PDF map and more or less officially designated them “bicycle lanes.” And done nothing else.

    By the way, I answered that bureacrat’s facetious question by telling him I thought he owed me a lot for riding a bicycle. He owed me for reduced car exhaust, less traffic congestion, lower health insurance premiums, reduced demand on parking space, and more time to respond to the global warming crisis.

    His response? “Well, we don’t figure that one more person riding a bicycle necessarily means one less person driving a car.”

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