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Bike Lanes: Nice, Cheap Traffic Solution

June 09, 1996|DON HARVEY | Don Harvey is executive director of the Orange County Bicycle Coalition

Should the road system include bike lanes? I'm talking about all roads, residential and arterial, with the possible exception of freeways. And I'm not talking about the order, or priority, of installation, or which streets get bike lanes first--that's another issue.

There are data showing that something under 1% of commuters use bikes, so less than 1 out of 100 vehicles is a bike. This is what's true now. It may change in the near future, as congestion gets worse, as bikes provide more personal mobility for the poor (mobility provided by bikes won't go up much--it's already pretty high; but mobility provided by cars will go down), and as "the poor" gets redefined as gas prices go up to, and over, $10 per gallon, but let's talk about now. If we can justify bike lanes now, they'll be easier to justify in the future.

Can we justify bike lanes now, based on their benefits for motorists and non-bicyclist street users, like pedestrians?

I think we can. Motor vehicle lanes have been pared as narrow as they should go--in some cases narrower; and the presence of bike lanes provides a brake on this tendency.

Consider a road where one side of the roadway is 33 feet wide, sidewalk curb to median curb, or sidewalk curb to roadway center line. This is a common case, give or take a foot or two. It's typical of four-lane (two lanes in each direction) roads.

Are motorists (the overwhelming majority, after all) better off with what the traffic engineers want, or will want: three 11-foot motor vehicle lanes? We claim that the road is better--as a road for motor vehicles--with a bike lane.

This is exactly the problem that the Orange County Bicycle Club and the city of Huntington Beach were faced with on Pacific Coast Highway. Caltrans wanted to make it six lanes there, by striping in more lanes on the existing pavement.

The City Council's support for the status quo there (which was, and is, two motor vehicle lanes, including a wide curb lane--a de facto bike lane) might have been based on a rationale that could be stated as "it's nicer for everyone with a bike lane." Pedestrians like it better; it's easier to cross the street, and it's not as noisy. Motorists like it better (certainly some do); lanes are wider, sight lines are better, and there's a breakdown lane. Bicyclists like it too.

Also (not a trivial point), it's cheaper. Huntington Beach didn't bother to put in a bike lane, but it'll often be cheaper to put one in than to re-stripe the whole road. In any case, the bike lane should never cost more to paint than a new traffic lane.

Nice and cheaper--this ought to be salable.

In order not to get huge traffic jams, "nicer" really depends on the inverse of the concept of latent demand, which we might state (with apologies to "Field of Dreams") as "Don't build it, and they won't come." Leave it two lanes and traffic won't be as bad as predicted by the traffic engineers. They've been wrong before.

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