Why do American streets treat bikes like cars and pedestrians?

August 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm

People new to riding bikes as transportation routinely tell me they’re confused about their place on the road. It led me to wonder: Are people riding bikes like slower, more vulnerable drivers, or faster, glorified pedestrians?

In countries like the Netherlands, it’s not hard to find where people riding bikes are supposed to be; they’re given the proper infrastructure and treatments at intersections. Biking is safe and practical. In other European countries, while not always as wonderful as the Netherlands, biking is still popular and people riding bikes are often given the proper infrastructure, and/or inherently dangerous road users (drivers in cars) are accepting of a bike’s place on the road.

Come back to America. It’s hard for a lot of people to understand where a bike belongs.

Until I was late in high school, I thought bikes belonged on the sidewalk. I grew up in a small town, and bikes were for recreation (or a trip to Madison, which my parents and their friends lauded as a “great place to bike,” as if it weren’t possible in our own town). When I started to get into riding a bike for everyday trips (which was neither easy nor interesting on rural roads), I was surprised to learn bikes were supposed to ride with traffic – and I thought it was absurd. Apparently so did several drivers around me, who would act aggressively toward the “obstacle” I was. The people driving were just as unaccustomed to bikes on the road as I was.

Anyone who is used to bikes as recreation and not transportation will likely relate to my story. It does not come as a shock to me that with the increase in riding a bike as transportation in American cities, more people are confused – drivers, bike riders, and pedestrians alike. At times, bikes are placed with pedestrians (e.g. the Chicago Lakefront Trail); other times, with drivers. When asked about the situation, drivers who complain about illegal bike riding behavior often describe behavior that is completely legal, yet unfamiliar, to the driver.

The Chicago Lakefront Trail is used by tens of thousands of people daily – people walking, running, rollerblading, and biking. Image: Northwestern.

My theory is that people riding bikes are closer to pedestrians than cars, and deserve infrastructure that is more similar to pedestrian infrastructure than driving infrastructure. However, bikes are still not pedestrians (I’ll get to that). Here are two examples:

Intersections

Bikes are now normally given the same green cycle as cars and are expected to comply. Sometimes, pedestrians are given a “leading interval,” giving pedestrians a head start. People on bikes have heightened senses of their surroundings since they are standing upright and have full, unobstructed view of their surroundings – like pedestrians – and should be permitted to use the leading pedestrian interval as their “go,” or deserve their own traffic signal at intersections.

The small bike lights are designed for cyclists to see.

The small bike lights in Amstedam are designed for cyclists to see. Image: Shaun Jacobsen.

Stop signs

Bikes are also expected to comply with stop signs (except in Idaho) by coming to a full stop. However, pedestrians don’t have to stop completely at a stop sign when they want to cross the road. They can see all around them and hear oncoming cars, and are better-suited to make the decision whether it is safe to cross. A runner that can see along the street they are trying to cross should not be legally forced to stop if it is safe to proceed without crossing. Similarly, a person on a bike should not be forced to stop themselves to proceed through a completely safe intersection, since people on bikes have situational awareness at a level closer to a pedestrian.

(For the predictability of all road users, though, people on bikes should still be forced to stop at stop signs when the intersection is being used by at least one other person. It is only in scenarios where an intersection is empty that bikes should be permitted to proceed at slow speed.)

How are bikes categorized?

Too often, bikes are placed in the “car” infrastructure category and given the treatments engineers designed for cars – leading to unsafe conditions reserved only for the most confident bike riders. It is time that engineers and planners stop planning bike infrastructure and routes as if cars were using it.

We can do this by applying many techniques from cities abroad. The Dearborn protected bike lane in Chicago uses these left-turn boxes to show people on bikes how to safely turn left by making the turn in two points.

Left-turn box on the Dearborn bike lane, Chicago. Image: Shaun Jacobsen.

Left-turn box on the Dearborn bike lane, Chicago. Image: Shaun Jacobsen.

However, the box is merely a suggestion and is in no way incorporated into the physical infrastructure of the intersection. Nor are the lights timed to ensure the turn maneuver is quick. Rather, it can take a minute or longer – leading some to forgo the safer two-point left turn in favor of the left-turn maneuvers drivers make.

A Dutch intersection design makes the left-turn maneuver obvious, and the signal is often timed to make the maneuver happen more quickly. Image: Mark Wagenbuur.

This is just one example of how our infrastructure, even the newest examples, still falls short for people on bikes.

In America we have let the idea of our own exceptionalism take hold in our streets for too long. There is nothing so unique about our streets that prohibit us from looking abroad for leading examples. As more people begin riding a bike for practical, everyday purposes (especially with new bike share systems), the need for a coherent, established place for people on bikes is necessary: not pedestrians, not cars, not even in-between, but a clear category that takes all the concerns of riding a bike into account. Several cities around the world have found this category for their two-wheeled travelers. It is time we do as well.