Do urban bikeways make you safer?

Second Avenue Bikeway, Seattle

Second Avenue Bikeway, Seattle

Road testing Seattle’s new Second Avenue protected bike lane

In cities all across the country, traffic engineers are developing bikeways that separate cyclists from motorized vehicles. Their purposes are laudable: to increase the actual safety of cyclists and thereby encourage more people to use bicycles for some of their short trips.

With 40 years of experience cycling in cities—Indianapolis, Phoenix, Tucson, Portland, and Seattle—I have developed strong, road-tested opinions about these specialized facilities. The more important opinion is this: Just as well designed and well-marked traffic lanes and signaling make it easier and safer to drive cars in complex urban environments, so good bike lanes assist cyclists and drivers share these same streets.

The second opinion, however, is one that is shared by many experienced cyclists: Some bikeways, especially those that separate cyclists from motorized traffic, provide only the veneer of safety while actually increasing the danger for cyclists.

One of the major difficulties with highly engineered bikeways is that they create more complicated intersections and thus multiply the risks at the very points where risks are already the highest. Another is that some of these protected bike lanes obscure vision so that drivers can’t see cyclists and cyclists can’t see motor vehicles.

Cyclist on Second Avenue Bikeway

Cyclist on Second Avenue Bikeway

A weekend in Seattle, has given me the opportunity to ride on this city’s newest venture in developing a protected bikeway less than a week after its September 8, 2014, opening: the Second Avenue protected bike lane that runs ten blocks between Pike and Yesler. Most of my limited Seattle cycling (and driving) has been in the University District north of downtown and on Beacon Hill and along Lake Washington on the south side.

I understand why cyclists are easily unnerved by the complexity of Seattle’s downtown: the geometrical street grid has two tilts and a combination of one-way and two-way streets. From Elliott Bay on the west, streets go uphill, with short, steep grades between the north-south avenues. Public transit includes rails and overhead electrical conduits that force all vehicular traffic to adjust to the limited mobility of coaches and cars. Traffic is heavy, and the system of left and right turns multiplies hazards at many of the intersections.

Everyone is in a hurry and it is hard not to be impatient, especially when other drivers hesitate or act in a confused manner. Judging by news reports Second Avenue has been especially challenging to cyclists, with the result that many of them have abandoned this major southbound street through the heart of the city. Even more challenging is Fourth Avenue, the paired oneway street running north. The traffic is more intense than on Second, and it goes uphill!

My first ride on the new bikeway was on Friday afternoon, September 12, when I biked from my daughter’s house on Beacon Hill to her new office at Sixth and Stewart. After inspecting her working space , I cycled down to Second and turned left (south) two blocks before the new bikeway begins. I rode the ten blocks and three more blocks before heading back to Beacon Hill.

Here are my first impressions following one ride in the middle of a business day when cyclists are exposed to the full blast of downtown traffic.

  1. Limited Loading Zones

    Limited Loading Zones

    The bright green blocks of paint and flexible bollards (posts) clearly distinguish the bike lane from the rest of the street.

  2. The traffic signals include green and red lights specifically for cyclists and large green arrows, both straight ahead and left turn for main traffic lanes. Everyone has to pay attention, and cyclists still have to be vigilant. Even good signals can be overlooked, misunderstood, or disobeyed.
  3. Cyclists can ride at a reasonable downtown clip, but some are slower than others (like the guy who obstructed my way for several blocks) and there’s not much room to pass.
  4. It’s good that the bike lane is on the left side of the street because cyclists next to the vehicular lane are traveling the same direction as are automobiles. Cyclists on the lane going against the traffic ride between the sidewalk and face only cyclists going the opposite direction.

Is this protected lane for all cyclists on Second Avenue? Maybe not for a few. In a Seattle Times report, Mike Lindblom writes that “the city expects and actually hopes that bicyclists who can match car speeds in the general lanes of Second will continue to do so.”

If I were a commuter in downtown Seattle, would I use this bike lane? Going north, in all probability. Going south on work days? I’d try it out for a while before deciding, but my first impressions make me think that I would use it regularly.

Conclusion: The best example of a protected bike lane that I’ve seen. I hope traffic engineers use it as an example that actually makes cycling safer. [Photos by Marilyn Watkins]

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