In a turnabout from motorists’ and pedestrians’ grumping about bicycle lanes in New York City, some cyclists who ride here regularly — the “hard-cores” — expressed to the Wall Street Journal last weekend disdain for a particular class of lanes: Those known as “protected” lanes or cycle-tracks.
Still a relative rarity, but highly visible because they rearrange the “furniture” of the streets, protected lanes separate cyclists from car traffic by creating a corridor between the sidewalk on one side and a line of parked cars on the other.
The cyclists interviewed by the Journal referred to feeling “trapped” and cited safety hazards in the protected lanes as their personal reasons for eschewing them. The article implied that, particularly for young, fast riders, the devil they can anticipate (cars in traffic) may beat the devil whom they can’t: pedestrians walking into the lanes, delivery people rolling loads from trucks, and turning cars.
It led me to think about the protected lanes through my own filter as a not so young, not so fast rider who usually has time to warn pedestrians and delivery people with my bike bell. Ding! Ding! Scatter. Here’s what the protected bike lanes represent to me: a highly desirable safe harbor.
Eighth Avenue Escape Hatch
To begin with, the mere existence of these lanes, and their visibility, gave me the confidence to ride on city streets. For me, the transition from years of road cycling to daily commuting didn’t involve bridging some ideological divide where nary a Spandex-wearer and a commuter met. Rather, it was a question of feeling safe. I’m grateful for the protected lanes because they helped turn me — and many others — on to the pleasures and benefits of using a bicycle for transportation. In that impulse, I’m boringly typical: Studies have shown that one of the keys to encouraging more women to ride is to help them feel safe. This is why you sometimes hear reference to women as the “indicator species” of healthy cycling infrastructure.
From a practical standpoint, the protected lanes offer respite from some of the hairy aspects of my city ride. For example, when I pedal west on 23rd Street there’s not so much as a painted stripe for cyclists, crosstown buses weave in and out of traffic, and motorists are prone to crazy U-turns. Ducking into the northbound protected Eighth Avenue lane feels like arriving at home base after avoiding being caught during a vigorous game of tag. It’s the same when I cross 10th Street eastbound and turn north onto First Avenue: ‘Whew!’ Wipe of the brow.
When All Paths Meet
Unfortunately, the path of my travels seldom offers the opportunity to linger long in a protected lane. And here comes my own beef. To me, the type of bike lane, whether protected, painted with a buffer, or simply marked with a line, is less important than eventual interconnectivity of the growing network. When the lanes form a coherent grid that truly serves people’s patterns of commuting, shopping, taking children to school, and so on, then cycling will genuinely be interwoven into the fabric of the city’s transportation system.
‘Such Small Portions‘
Protected bike lanes are one among many factors in the calculus of safe and appropriate use of streets for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists alike. The Journal article noted that even the cyclists who complain about unintended consequences of these lanes are generally supportive of the Bloomberg administration’s pro-bike agenda, which has helped boost ridership and improve safety.
It reminded me of a line from the movie Annie Hall in which Woody Allen as Alvy Singer relates an old joke: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’”
In the continuing discourse about cycling’s place in the urban landscape, riders of many different stripes probably grouse about some aspect of the bike lanes, but who among us would favor throwing the bike lane baby out with the bathwater?
What are your thoughts on protected bike lanes? Please share your perspectives.