Out of The Frying Pan

In a recent column, Derrick Z. Jackson of The Boston Globe makes this observation about city cycling: “But for the most part, the streets still belong to daredevils willing to risk their lives on painted lanes in between whizzing cars on the left and parked cars on the right, where a deadly door could be opened into their lane without warning.” The irony is that these “daredevils” may believe they are cautious and prudent because they are in bicycle lanes, which have been designed to “Increase bicycle safety” (from Mass Ave Bike Lane Presentation).

The safe cyclist always rides far enough away from parked cars to stay out of the door zone. On Mass Ave in Boston, before bike lanes were added in December 2011, this meant using all of the 10-foot lane. Since the parking lane was removed on one side, there is obviously no door zone problem on that side, but much of the bike lane on the other side is within door range. Derrick Jackson’s preferred solution, a cycle track (a misnomer for a sidewalk for cyclists) would move from the frying pan to the fire by creating conflicts between straight-through bicyclists and right-turning motorists, by making the (narrowed) road effectively off limits for cyclists, and by increasing conflicts with pedestrians, who view all space where cars are prohibited as walking (or standing) space.  Among other problems.

And yet, according to the article, “A physically separated bike lane takes about 8 feet,” 3 more than the 5-foot bike lanes. Getting this extra 6 feet (3 feet on each side) would require removing the remaining parking lane. Yet if you remove all parking, you wouldn’t have any “deadly door” to worry about.

In the Mass Ave case, Boston could have made sufficient space by making the bike lane on the side without parking 4 feet instead of 5, and then making the bike lane on the parking side 6 feet instead of 5. With these dimensions (8 foot parking lane next to 6 foot bike lane), you can comfortably ride just inside the bike lane and still be out of the door zone. Now, it’s not intuitive to beginners that “cyclists should stay in [sic] to the left side of the bike lane in order . . .  to stay outside the radius of the doors of parked cars” (according to the City of Boston’s official advice). The common sense assumption is that you travel in the middle of marked lanes.  But the Mass Ave design is still much preferable to the most common situation in Boston, a 5 foot bike lane next to a 7 foot parking lane, which requires the bicyclists to be (at least partly) outside the bike lane to be safe.

When there is enough room for 14 feet to be divided between bike lane and parking, I would rather see a bike marking at least 11 feet from the curb — as is the standard for shared lane markings — so that even beginners are encouraged to ride outside the door zone.

Jackson pines for “bike tracks that have become iconic throughout Europe.” But if the current experiment on Western Avenue is a guide (and it is only one block without driveways or intersections), we are more likely to get something altogether less pleasant, like this: