Sunday, September 9, 2007

Roads, Bike Lanes, Perfect Worlds, And Old Fashioned Politics

I belatedly noticed this post from Sam H at Piedmont Publius. Sam was responding to a post I wrote about biking in Greensboro, and he expresses his ambivalence toward bike paths. He likes to use them, but ...

What bothers me is the way city planners continually shove bike transportation down our throats as part of their perfect-world vision. If everyone could only ride their bikes everywhere, they believe, we would reduce our use of fossil fuels, the air would be cleaner and global warming would cease to exist. The world would be saved.

I don’t like perfect world visions, because there’s no such thing as a perfect world. The majority of Greensboro citizens either want better bicycle transportation or they don’t, and city planners should react accordingly. It’s a lot more simple than saving the world.
I think Sam is mistaken about the origin of Greensboro's very small number of bike lanes. The scuttlebutt I used to hear from city staff was that GDOT's transportation head, Jim Westmoreland -- himself an avid competitive cyclist -- was opposed to bike lanes, because he believed that they don't actually increase bike safety.

But GDOT held a number of public hearings when it started a review of its pedestrian transportation plans a couple of years ago, and the people who showed up at those meetings told GDOT very strongly that they wanted bike lanes.

At about the same time a bunch of Greensboro bike-lovers formed a lobbying group, BIG (Bicycling In Greensboro), that launched a PR campaign involving group bike rides, public meetings, letters to the editor, and guest op-eds in the local paper.

Their politicking paid off, and GDOI rewarded them with a few bike lanes in places that could easily accommodate them by simply repainting the roads and putting up a few signs. GDOT also published a map showing which existing streets are bike-friendly in our town, and which are not.

GDOT's new thoroughfare guidelines, which will come under public scrutiny in a year or so when the new Land Development Ordinance is up for adoption, make provisions for bike lanes where appropriate. But those guidelines did not come from transit utopians on city staff -- they are the product of tough committee-room skirmishes between bike/pedestrian advocates on the one hand and builders and developers on the other. Everyone involved in the process that I've heard from agrees that the result is a compromise that all parties can live with. Sounds like good city politics to me.

A lot of people presuppose that the older transportation model -- the one with multi lane, one-way streets with no sidewalks, crosswalks, or bike lanes -- is the result of "market forces" or is somehow more in line with libertarian-style individualism.

But every planning book I've read says that those whooshing thoroughfares are the offspring of mid century visionaries who were going to solve urban problems with efficient roads that would whisk happy suburbanites to and from their jobs in the gleaming center city.

Transportation decisions back in that day were much more top-down, and planners had a freer hand to ram their perfect-world visions down the public's throat. The result? High Point Road, Battleground Avenue, and their ilk The visionaries' vision failed, and now we're forced to go back and fix their mistakes. Whence comes the High Point Road corridor plan.
I'm a lot more comfortable with the kind of public input and give-and-take that goes into our newer transportation guidelines. Besides, I like to drive, walk, and ride my bike safely. And I've noticed that the new bike lanes on Spring Garden St. get heavy use, which shows to me that there was pent-up demand for them.


jw said...

I am not a biker but I know lots of folks who are. I support bike lanes.

BUT I have concerns. The bike lanes on Spring Garden seem dangerous. I understand the reason they are configured that way is because of the on-street parking. Folks in businesses I frequent say they often see close calls. Do you think the lanes set up they way they are, are safe? Are they better than nothing? Do they give bikers a false sense of security? They look scary to me!

David Wharton said...

I don't know how to assess the lanes' overall success.

I do think that some of the cyclists up there are pretty loopy. I see them riding the wrong way, swerving in and out of the lanes, etc. Some of them are a danger to other cyclists as well as to themselves.

I mostly use the lanes at the south end of Spring garden, though, and I do think the cars treat me with a bit more respect.

But I keep my eyes wide open all the time!

meblogin said...

I hear that when biking on Spring Garden it is safer to be in the car lane than bike lane.

Are there laws/rules for bike lanes?

Example: A car is traveling east on Spring Garden approaching Chapman St with the intention of making a right turn. Who yields....the biker or car...assuming the bike is continuing straight.

I fear a bad accident in the future.

Anonymous said...

In your example, the cyclist has the right of way. Yes, I fear an accident too as drivers need more education with respect to driving when cyclists are near by.

I think ALOT more people cycle into UNCG now that the bike lanes are there. I just wish they would all wear helmets (=brain bucket). They truly save lives

Anonymous said...

A friend is an avid bike rider and uses the Spring Garden lanes all the time. She says that its much less dangerous than where there are no lanes, but that people still have horrible attitudes (even yelling at her when she's in the bike lane, and not anywhere near them.)

I think bike lanes are a very appropriate way to deal with bike and car safety. They've been documented to cut down on accidents, and the few problems that people have with them (parking, debris) are issues you have without the lanes as well.