Do We Overvalue Bike Lanes?

I’ve been a cyclist for several years now.  Although my wife has a car, my primary mode of transportation is a bike for most trips.  I accidentally came into cycling in my thirties when a knee injury as a runner forced me to look for an alternate mode of exercise.  I very reluctantly started cycling.  I hated it!  Riding a bike on the road with cars?  That’s too dangerous!  As a new cyclist, my natural instinct was to push for more segregation from cars through bike lanes.

Over time and riding experience I’ve become convinced that a lot of well-intentioned bike lanes create MORE danger for cyclists and in the long run are detrimental to cycling.

First let me say that I believe there are roads where a segregated bike lane is the best solution.  On the spectrum of types of roads, the more a road looks like a highway the more likely it is that a segregation (bike lane) will be a good solution.

However, what we typically end up with is excessive implementation of bike lanes on roads that look more like quiet neighborhood streets.  These are at best totally unnecessary and at worst create dangerous situations where none existed before.  Here’s a graphical representation:

OK, I see it’s unnecessary but it can’t be worse!

It actually is worse to put bike lanes on streets with low car volume and/or low speeds.

  • They segregate cyclists lowering their status and making them “second class” citizens on the road
  • Ensure that cyclists ride in the least visible and most dangerous part of the road – often quite literally “in the shadows”
  • A line on the edge of the road makes motorists feel more comfortable and end up causing increased vehicle speeds than they otherwise would
  • A bike lane on neighborhood streets with driveways and intersections introduces more conflict points (as cars back out of driveways they tend to look in the middle of the road where cars would be – a bike lane purposefully takes bikes out of that high visibility area!)
  • Bike lanes are routinely dotted with obstacles (3 times a week where I live): trash day, recycling day, and yard waste day
  • The existence of a bike lane causes buildup of road debris that would otherwise be naturally pushed to the side of the road by car traffic – you end up with a worse riding surface for bikes

Here’s a particularly poor situation that is not uncommon.  The bike lanes are almost completely in the shadows and a yard waste bin in the bike lane.  This is a very quiet neighborhood street that motorists can’t use as a cut through.  The number of vehicles per day on this street is tiny yet even on this road we have a bike lane.

Why do we end up with more bike lanes?  Inherent biases and Incentives

There are reasons we end up with too many bike lanes.  Across the board there are incentives and biases that cause us to prefer more bike lanes even when it ends up being worse for cyclists.

  • Beginning cyclists (I was one not long ago!) naively push for a bike lane because they are scared of being hit by a car from the rear.  Although this is a natural fear, this type of accident is by far the rarest type.  Bike lanes INCREASE the chance of the most common types of accidents involving bikes: the left cross and right cross (a car travelling the opposite direction turning left and car travelling same direction turning right)
  • Town officials want to signal progressiveness by putting in bike lanes (imagine an alderman saying “I’m pro-bicycling which is why I’m not putting a bike lane on your street.”  Often that’s a correct argument but it’s hard to make.  Much easier to just paint a line on the road and signal “I care about bike safety”.
  • Cycling advocates push for more cycling infrastructure and are susceptible to the social desirability bias: “Just think about all the kids who will bike to school!”
  • As a cyclist I routinely encounter anti-cycling motorists who yell things like “Roads are for cars!” and “See that sign – it says Share the Road so move over!”  These anti-cyclists are ironically mostly FOR more cycling infrastructure which allows them to signal “bike safety” when their real motivation is motorist convenience.

What about study X or Y – it shows that bike lanes are safer!

I have looked at a lot of these studies and they are notoriously flawed for one reason or another.  Bike safety is a difficult thing to measure in part because accidents are so rare.  Most studies will study roads that are more towards the right side of the continuum in the image above where you would expect bike lanes to be safer.  A lot of the danger from bike lanes won’t appear on crash statistics.

Here is one study that DID look at speed limits of the roads.  This is from Belgium and the numbers represent accident risk (higher = more risk).

This shows that in general the more similar a road is to a highway the more safety benefit you get from separation.  It confirms, though, what I’ve learned from experience – bike lanes on roads with low speed limits are in general way worse than no infrastructure at all.

What cycling advocates tend to end up with is the “safety in numbers” argument which says: “OK, these bike lanes might not be needed for advanced cyclists, but that’s not who they’re for. We’re trying to get the 8 year old and 80 year old cyclists out there and we know that they need more infrastructure before they’ll FEEL safe. Once we get more out there they’ll be more numbers and motorists will see more and more cyclists and be aware of them.  See – everybody wins.”  The problem with this line of thinking is that we’re going out of our way to lure the most vulnerable new riders by creating a bike lane that although feels safe, in actuality is MORE dangerous.  That is not an argument that I’m comfortable making!

Long term effects of bike lane-itis

I think the excess bike lanes are bad in the short term due to the immediate danger but the long term effects are not good either.  When we paint bike lanes on quiet neighborhood streets what does it say to the community?  It says that the town has looked at this quiet street with hardly any traffic and 20mph speed limits and concluded that it is SO dangerous that we need bike infrastructure on it.  Beware!  And when you see other streets without bike lanes the message is: you shouldn’t even ride on them at all!

Of course a large number of streets in towns all across the country are reasonably safe with no bike lanes or facilities at all.

As more bike lanes go into place I think hostility towards cyclists has and will continue to increase.  Many motorists and even cyclists mistakenly assume that if there is a bike lane that cyclist must ride in it by law.  If a cyclist doesn’t ride in the bike lane (for as simple a reason as making a left turn!) a lot of drivers view this as law breaking or just arrogance.

Imagine anti-cycling motorists (trust me – as a lot of cyclists know first hand – they are out there!) coming upon cyclists on roads without bike lanes.  What will go through his mind?  “Why did we put in all those bike lanes on roads throughout town – these jerk cyclists aren’t even using them!”

Friendly and Charitable Light Rail Bet – Any Takers?

It looks like we’re moving full steam ahead on the light rail project after the vote last week.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the objections came down to the cost of the project which now stands at $3.3 billion.

Given all the enthusiastic support by a lot of people for the project, I’d like to offer a bet of $100 to be donated to the charity of the winner’s choosing based on the light rail project.  According to the current version of the transit plan, the 18 stop 17.7 mile light rail project will be operational in 2028.  My bet is that the project will either:

  1. Not be operational by 2028 as measured by the time of the first paying customer
  2. Be reduced in scope (fewer stops, less capacity, higher travel time)
  3. Have cost overruns that increase the total cost of the project beyond $3.3 billion (note that there is already a 30% cost overrun built into the $3.3 billion number)

Basically, if light rail moves forward as projected and the first paying customer rides the rails in 2028 with no delays or cost overruns or reductions in scope, you would win this bet and I will happily donate to the charity of your choice.

Any takers?  If you believe wholeheartedly in the transit plan this should be a no-brainer.  If not, what kind of odds would you require to take the bet?

(Also note that you don’t have to be “for” or “against” light rail to take this bet.)


Getting Involved with Town of Carrboro

I have recently joined the Town of Carrboro‘s Greenways Commission.  Having not been familiar with local government prior to this, I was somewhat intimidated at first.  The first impression makes it seem like everyone involved with the town is intimately familiar with all the goings-on and official town protocols.  If you’re not familiar with how things work there’s a good chance you might feel like an outsider right away.

The town seems to be pushing to try to get more people involved which would be a good thing – if a broader swath of the community participates then more of the community feels like they’re involved.  For example, even if you aren’t participating directly but are friends with someone who is, then on some level you feel like your interests are being heard.

This post will explain the process of joining a committee.  My hope is that someone in the future might read this and be a little less intimidated by the entire process.

The Board of Alderman

The Board of Alderman (often referred to as BOA) are elected officials, one of which is the mayor.  You can email the entire group at any time using this email:

Meeting Boards and Commissions

The BOA has created several committees some of which are more standard than others.  For example, I expect every town has a Planning Board but not every town might have an Arts Committee.  There are also special, mostly temporary committees or task forces that might provide input to the board for a specific project for the town (Smith Level Road Task Force).  These groups consist of community members that have some expertise in that area.  To join a committee you have to fill out a somewhat thorough application.

Here’s a list of the currently meeting boards and committees:

  • Arts Committee
  • Economic Sustainability Commission
  • Human Services Advisory Commission
  • OWASA Board of Directors
  • Orange County Human Relations Commission
  • Recreation and Parks Commission
  • Safe Routes to School Implementation Committee
  • Board of Adjustment
  • Appearance Commission
  • Environmental Advisory Board
  • Northern Transition Area Advisory Committee
  • Planning Board
  • Transportation Advisory Board
  • Greenways Commission
  • Animal Control Advisory Board

Getting Started with a Committee

As a citizen you can simply attend any committee meeting you’d like, although the best way to get started is to do a little prep work beforehand.  All meeting minutes are posted to the town web site.  Take a look at the recent ones and see what they’ve discussed and when the next meetings will take place.  The agenda for the upcoming meeting is posted to the web site at least 7 days before the actual meeting.

Attending a Committee Meeting

For the most part meetings occur at Town Hall in Carrboro.  There are three main rooms where it seems like the majority of meetings take place and you can’t miss them.

The rooms are small and there are usually only a handful of people there.  The committee members usually sit around the table and any visitors typically sit in chairs surrounding the table.  A lot of times visitors come to the meetings to give input and air grievances, so you’ll typically be welcomed and given an opportunity to introduce yourself and explain why you’re there.  You’ll be listed as an attendee in the official meeting minutes.

Becoming a Member of a Committee

If you decide you’d like to be actually be on the committee, it’s good to get to know the committee chairperson and let them know you’re interested and get their feedback.  Committee members serve 2 or 3 year terms depending on the committee and the town tries to limit members to two consecutive terms, although there are plenty of extenuating circumstances that end up allowing some members to serve more than two terms.  For example, sometimes there’s no new members applying to be on the committee or a particular member has extensive and valuable knowledge that warrants continued membership.

Applying to be a Committee Member

You can fill out an application on line and submit it.  Depending on which committee you choose, your application will be sent to the Board of Alderman and the committee chairperson.

Ultimately the Board of Alderman vote on whether you should be allowed to serve on the committee.  Although you can submit your application anytime, the BOA only votes on committee membership once per year in the February/March timeframe.

The Vote

Once the time comes, the BOA will have an item on their agenda to vote on committee membership applications.  It’s good to be on the look out for this and attend this meeting to show that you care enough to be on the committee that you’re willing to take the time to attend the BOA meeting where they’ll vote on you.  This is typically early in the meeting and once completed you can leave as the BOA takes up other business.

Once You’re Voted In

Congrats!  The BOA voted for you to be on the committee.  What next?  You’ll get an email from the town clerk asking which dates you are available to come and “get your charge” from the BOA.  This takes place at the normal Tuesday BOA meeting and you’ll be on the agenda for that date.

Once that date rolls around, you’ll need to attend the BOA meeting.  I had no idea what to expect, but here’s what happens.  You’ll be called up to stand in front of the town clerk and they’ll read your “charge” (sort of the mission statement of the committee).  You’ll need to agree to that mission and sign your name on a document that the town clerk will file away somewhere.  Next, you’ll be invited to shake the hand of each alderperson and they’ll congratulate you and thank you for serving.  Note that the cameras will be rolling and this ritual will be forever documented on the town website.  Knowing this you’ll want to wear something probably more appropriate than I did.  🙂

Here are some grainy screenshots of me getting my charge for the Greenways Commission.  Here’s a link to the video – click on the “Charges Issued to Recently Appointed Advisory Board Volunteers” section to go straight to the extremely riveting section.

Here I am listening to the town clerk:

Here I am shaking hands with the BOA.

I’ll continue posting about my activities on the Greenways Commission.

I’m very new to this town involvement stuff, so if I’ve made an error in this post, please let me know.

How much is $3.3 Billion?

I’ve been following the debate about the current Durham Orange light rail project.  Here’s what’s clear to me:

  1. A lot of people like the idea of light rail
  2. A lot of people are against the current light rail project
  3. A small number of people don’t like light rail at any price
  4. A similarly small number of people like light rail no matter what the price
  5. A majority of people liked light rail in 2012 when the price tag was $2.4 billion
  6. Some smaller number of people currently like light rail at the current price of $3.3 billion

How much is too much to pay for light rail in our community?  That seems like the question before us all now.  Nine current or former mayors (with at least one notable exception) signed a letter to enthusiastically support the current plan.  One thing that the mayors’ letter doesn’t mention is anything about price.  I assume they either like it at any price or their maximum price that that they’d be willing to pay is somewhere north of the current $3.3 billion.

So the question is: what is your maximum price you think the community should be willing to pay for light rail?

Everyone on both sides of this debate seems pretty confident in their opinions so I’m sure they’ve thought this through thoroughly.  Personally, I have no idea how much $3.3 billion is, so I did some quick math to get a sense of what you could buy with that amount of money.

So in your mind compare the capacity of 26,000 trips at peak light rail capacity with the following things.  Of course I’m not suggesting we do any of these things, but here’s what we could do with $3.3 billion:

  • Buy 132,000 Toyota Priuses
  • Buy a Toyota Prius every year for 5,700 people forever
  • Buy a Toyota Prius every 5 years for at least 28,500 people
  • Give $1,000 to 132,000 people every year forever
  • Give $10,000 to 13,200 people every year forever
  • Give $50,000 to 2,640 people every year forever
  • Give 25,000 Uber rides at $20 every weekday of the year forever
  • Give $6,290 to each Carrboro citizen every year forever
  • Give $524 to each Durham citizen every year forever
  • Give every citizen of Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro a one-time payment of $9,932

If you wait until the 2029 light rail opening date these numbers go up significantly through compounding interest.

Of course you can quibble about the exact numbers, but these are in the ball park.