The City of Cambridge tries really hard to be bike-friendly. I mean really, really hard. It seems like they’re constantly asking cyclists for feedback and for ideas. And, you know what, they actually listen to what we say.
We said we would feel safer if we had more room to maneuver in the midst of busy traffic. Obligingly, Cambridge put in all sorts of bike lanes. That’s very nice of them. I mean that seriously. But it didn’t quite work out the way they imagined. Here’s what happened:
- Are all of the parking spots on your street taken? Well, that’s okay; there’s this 3-foot wide lane just to the left of those occupied parking spots. Just park there. Sure, there’s a bicycle symbol painted in it, but it’s hard to know what that means.
- Is the car in front of you turning left? Just swerve into the bike lane to go around them. Whatever you do, don’t stop to wait for them to make their turn. The cyclists in the bike lane should know that would be unreasonable.
- Are you a taxi driver looking for someplace to chat with your fellow cabbies while you wait for your next fare? How about the bike lane?
- Does pulling your bus all the way over into the bus stop take too long? Just edge over into the bike lane instead; you want to make sure you get out of the way of traffic, after all.
Every lane is a bike lane. And every bike lane is a place for a bus to stop.
It turns out that the addition of the bike lanes did indeed create valuable breathing room. But for drivers, not cyclists.
Well, that didn’t stop the good people of Cambridge. They went back to the drawing board, redesigning the bike lanes to give cyclists maximum protection from the incursion of cars. They took it about as far as they possibly could. They moved the bike lanes to the outside of parked cars, and even raised them above street level. At great cost in time and money, they put the bike lane completely out of reach of cars. Here’s the finished product:
That black patch, where the guy is walking, is the bike lane.
Yep, that new raised bike lane is a mighty fine place to walk.
To be fair, our friend in the black t-shirt isn’t most to blame for this. He’s walking in the bike lane because, seeing all of the extra space that all of a sudden appeared outside their door, his neighbors decided to turn the sidewalk into a rummage sale. The bike lane is, in fact, the easiest place for him to walk.
Seeing this yard sale blocking the sidewalk spawned the idea for this post. I went back several days later to take a photo of the bike lane, regretting I’d missed the yard sale. No worries; it was still there!
The trash collectors, on the other hand, finally figured out how to avoid blocking the sidewalk with empty trash barrels. You guessed it: block the bike lane instead.
Here I am, mocking the earnestness and efforts of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee, and they don’t really deserve it. They are, in fact, good people, who mean well, and are working very hard. I might not sound it, but I’m really appreciative. I’m just trying to say that it hasn’t quite worked out.
I wonder if this, in the end, is the essence of the problem: efforts at creating dedicated space for bicycles are pretty much doomed not to work out. I hear of cycling paradises like Amsterdam and Minneapolis where they seem to have somehow solved this problem. And having experienced for a few hours the glory of sharing the road only with other bicycles, I understand the impulse to aspire to such an ideal. In fact, I’m glad that the City of Cambridge and others are, indeed, trying to work toward that ideal. And, yet, I think that those of us dwell in merely mortal cycling lands have to be prepared for a foreseeable future of sharing space with other forms of transportation.
Cyclists are similar enough to cars and to pedestrians that we’re bound to end up sharing space with one or the other of them, or both. And we’re different enough from each of them that there’s bound to be friction. Cyclists travel on wheels like cars, but we’re about the size and weight of pedestrians. In terms of speed and maneuverability, we’re about halfway between the two. Because of the similarities, the surfaces we travel on are going to be attractive to either cars or pedestrians. And because of the differences, it has to take some flexibility and adjustment for us to co-exist well with either.
So, I’ve decided that, for my own sanity, I have to accommodate myself to the reality of sharing. I have some thoughts on what it would take for all of us to share the roads, sidewalks, and bike paths well; I’ll probably save most of them for a future post. For now, though, in conclusion, I’ll share with you two new directions of thought to which my shift of emphasis from resenting having to share to sharing well has brought me:
- Can we shift the rules a little? If cyclists aren’t exactly like either cars or pedestrians, and are never going to be, and yet are going to share transportation systems with them both, wouldn’t it make sense to have traffic rules that are cycling-specific? Why treat bikes as if they’re just like cars or walkers? I think Idaho’s stop laws are an intriguing starting point for this;
- Good pavement is more valuable than anything else. Bad pavement is responsible for 64% of the time I end up unpleasantly tangled up with car traffic (The remainder: 9% something other than a bike is in a bike lane, of course; 12% a driver isn’t looking for me or doesn’t know what to do with me; 10% I do something stupid or unexpected; 5% a driver is just plain irrationally angry at my very existence)*. I promise you that I don’t like riding farther into the middle of the street than I have to. But I have to move to the left much more often than you’d think, with the bike lane and/or the right side of the road being more a collection of potholes and half-heartedly repaired trenches than an actual road surface. Give me a nice, smooth, paved surface, and, believe me, I won’t notice the absence of a bike lane–and I’ll stay out of your way. And, yes, I’m talking to you, East Arlington.
*Percentages are totally arbitrary, and subject to change based on my most recent ride, but nonetheless reliable for all practical purposes.