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First in an occasional series: STREET SENSE -- Driving new thinking on transportation and community.
May someone who's bicycled more than 8,000 collision-free trips in Sacramento over the past 20 years offer a few observations on downtown’s new bike lanes?
Bicycling is on the minds of political and civic leaders for a variety of reasons. As the Sacramento Bee’s Phillip Reese noted in a recent article, the Great Recession has seen a sharp increase in the number of Sacramento households without motor vehicles, and bicycling offers basic mobility to some of these people. Nationally, we see reduced interest among youth in acquiring driver’s licenses, as many young adults prefer electronic gadgets to hot-rods as a means of connecting with friends. Pedestrians and bicyclists are seen as indicator species of communities worth living in, and it’s also become clear that much greater effort is required to make streets attractive to potential female cyclists and others who tend to be more traffic-averse than the (mostly) male warriors braving current conditions.
In recent weeks Sacramento has re-striped numerous downtown streets to include bike lanes. These new bike lanes are among the first in the history of the central business district. The work was funded via the local transportation sales tax, not the general fund. The projects came about because city staffers have smartly integrated bicycling and pedestrian improvements into the regularly scheduled resurfacing of city streets. Bravo!
The new bike lanes make clear that city officials embrace bicycling as part of a strategy to a create a vibrant central city and enhance sustainable mobility while improving air quality and public health. But let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
NOT ALL BIKE LANES ARE CREATED EQUAL
To create some of the new bike lanes, the city reduced the number of vehicle lanes from three to two and installed bike lanes on both sides of the street, while on other streets the city squeezed in a bike lane on the right side while retaining three lanes for vehicular travel. Let’s examine both versions.
As the person who first proposed the three-to-two lane conversions with dual bike lanes back in 2003 or so and worked alongside local “safety-in-numbers” expert Peter Jacobsen, Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, Midtown leaders, city staff and others to actualize them on 19th, 21st, L, N, P and Q streets in Midtown, I admit to having some stake in their success, and so far, there’s mostly good news to report.
Before: Three vehicle lanes, no bike lanes = high vehicle speeds, bicycling for the "strong and fearless" only.
Image by: Chris Morfas After: Two vehicle lanes with dual bike lanes = moderate vehicle speeds and tolerable cycling for the "enthused and confident."
Image by: Chris Morfas Data and observation both make clear that those Midtown streets are now safer than before, with more bicyclists, fewer collisions and reduced vehicle speeds.
Reduced speeding has been the key benefit resulting from the Midtown three-lane to two-lane with dual bike lanes conversions. Aggressive motorists, previously all-but-invited to travel 50 mph on streets such as 19th or 21st, now encounter a different, narrower field of vision and are deterred by the presence of what walkable communities guru Dan Burden has called the "prudent motorists” who travel at 25-30 mph and who now exert much more control over the street.
Reduced vehicle speeds have contributed significantly to an improved pedestrian environment in Midtown. Pedestrians also benefit from shortened effective crossing distances owing to the buffer provided by the bike lanes. We can expect similar results on the downtown streets recently receiving this treatment, including Fifth, Ninth, Tenth, G and H Streets. Key lesson: Reallocating street space from motor vehicles to bicycles is likely to also make streets safer for pedestrians.
For most current bicyclists, bike lanes on busy streets such as 19th and 21st create a more comfortable environment, and they also attract some new riders. The left-side bike lanes make it easier to enter or exit one-way streets.
However, the three-to-two conversions are NOT a panacea for bicyclists. The resultant bike lanes, even at 5 to 6 feet wide, still pin cyclists very close to the doors of parked vehicles and, because there’s only a painted stripe separating bicyclists from fast-moving cars, do not send a strong welcoming signal to many “interested but concerned” people who want to bicycle more but who desire greater protection from motor vehicles than is offered by painted stripes.
(Image by: City of Portland)
Still, the conversion of streets from 1960s-style, three-lane, one-way de facto surface street expressways to two-lane streets with dual bike lanes appears to be a cost-effective approach to improving overall traffic safety and neighborhood livability, even if it does not offer the type of bicycling facility that will attract large numbers of traffic-averse potential bicyclists. A bit more on that later.
THE ‘SQUEEZED-IN’ BIKE LANES
On I and J Streets, the city squeezed in a bike lane while retaining three lanes of vehicular travel. This is a bit problematic. Let’s consider the new I Street bike lane.
(Image by: Brandon Darnell ) Will such a facility significantly increase bicycling? It’s hard to say. Many bicyclists will enjoy having a lane (partially) of their own on which they can pass vehicles during highly congested periods.
There are some downsides, though. With a bike lane only on the right, will motorists and law enforcement accept bicyclists' occasional use of the left travel lane? Will narrowing the vehicular lanes significantly lower vehicle speeds absent a reduction in the number of lanes? Will riding be comfortable in a striped bike lane with passing, merging or turning cars to one's left and parked cars with potentially open doors to one's right? Will kids or grandparents really feel safe enough on I Street to bike to the Central Library or City Hall? Time will tell.
TOWARDS A NETWORK OF LOW-STRESS, PROTECTED BIKEWAYS
Clearly, the new downtown bike lanes reflect continued local progress. For the first time, the city will have connected bike facilities in the central business district. However incomplete or inadequate the new network, it’s now an official, indisputable, on-the-ground fact: Bicycling is a part of our city’s strategy to create a more livable downtown.
Going forward, it is vital to recognize that this batch of bike lanes offers only very basic bike facilities. If the central city is to become a place where active transportation modes such as bicycling and walking attract more than the strong and fearless, we’ll need a network of protected bikeways, neighborhood greenways and traffic-calmed streets, examples of which are showing such positive results in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Long Beach and elsewhere, including Midtown (To learn more about protected bikeways and the importance of low-stress bikeway networks, see the National Association of City Transportation Officials, of which Sacramento is not yet a member, or this report from the Mineta Transportation Institute).
With these new bike lanes, Sacramento has for the first time provided a collection of minimally acceptable bike facilities in the central city. Thirty years late is better than never, but now is the time to begin planning a modern bicycle network with connected, low-stress streets and paths that invite the young, old, cautious and casual alike to hop on bikes in large numbers.
We can do this. For a sustainable, healthy, safe and prosperous Sacramento, we must.
Chris Morfas lives in Sacramento.