On Bike Lanes: We Can Do Better

Yesterday I was biking back to work after lunch (in this unbearable, gates-of-hell, filthy heat) and came across this on the south side of California Avenue in front of Old World Coffee:

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Apologies for the quality and angle of these photos – for reasons that I hope are apparent, I didn’t want to stand in the middle of the bike lane (or car lane) to take them.

What we see on the surface is two cars parked far enough (two feet?) from the curb that they obstruct more than half of the bike lane. What’s lurking just beneath the surface is pure laziness (or inexcusable lack of skill) on two other people’s part that resulted in very real and totally unnecessary danger to me, to other cyclists, and yes, to other drivers in the car lane.

As a cyclist coming into this situation, I had a full lane of traffic to my left (cars in front of, next to and behind me). While truly good drivers will be scanning ahead for situations like this one, realizing that there’s a cyclist coming up to an obstruction in the bike lane, and moving to the far left of their lane to give me room to scoot over, the reality is that most drivers aren’t devoting that level of attention to the road. Even if all the drivers in the car lane were to have given me that level of consideration and courtesy, the situation still would have been dodgy, since I wouldn’t have had the right angle or low speed needed to assure that no one was in those crappily parked cars, waiting to throw their driver’s side door open and send me flying. The result? I came to a full stop, waited around until the car lane cleared and then swung around the offenders to get on my way.

This might not sound like a big deal. My trip was delayed by maybe 20 seconds (and an additional voluntary 30 seconds to take the photos above). But to me, it IS a big deal, and here’s why:

  • It was completely unnecessary. Would I bitch if there was an ambulance parked in the bike lane, loading someone up? Probably not. How about a broken-down car, with an owner clearly in distress? Nope, because their situation is likely a little more dire than mine at this point. But what was the emergency here that necessitated this hasty, botched parking job? Is your noontime coffee stop really that urgent?
  • It leads to unpredictability, which leads to danger. Cars and bikes (and peds) get along best when everyone knows the score and acts predictably. But the cars driving next to me in this situation couldn’t predict what I was going to do – swing around, squeeze by, stop altogether? Following mutually-agreed-upon traffic laws is a form of communication, and when someone decides to go rogue, that communication breaks down.
  • Disregard for cyclist safety is contagious. Notice that there are two cars parked like jerks in this photo, almost perfectly lined up along an imaginary extended curb. Coincidence? Or did the second car come along, see the first one parked carelessly, and think, “Whatever, I guess this is how we park here.” I probably wouldn’t be making a fuss about this if I didn’t see cars parked this way on this stretch of California Street every damn day. Again, is this coincidence, or a spreading acceptance of the need for coffee, NOW, over the need for safety on this block?
  • This is indicative of a larger issue. From my perspective, the current transit climate in our fair city is like this: Cars own the streets, and everyone else is a guest. We have some bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, but the minute that infrastructure could be useful to a car, the cars can just take it back. We see this through my friend Andy’s veritable crusade against construction signs in the bike lane (JUST. MOVE. THEM. OVER.). We see this when someone rushing to get their coffee splays their car sideways in the bike lane and I have to deal with it. Cyclists feel this every time we see a “Bike Lane Ends” sign looming ahead as we approach a busy intersection, wondering what we’re going to do on the other side. And we see this when plans for new and improved streets in our busiest districts prioritize a handful of parking spaces over safe access for thousands of cyclists.

So what’s the solution? In the immediate, call out abuse of bike and ped infrastructure when you see it. Thanks to the comments on Addison’s excellent post on this issue, I called RPD dispatch at 775-334-2121 and reported the two cars and their plates. I’d encourage you to do the same when you encounter this level of carelessness. I didn’t expect a team of officers to surround the perps, but if all of us called out every offender we saw, some of them would start to get ticketed, creating a real financial incentive for drivers to behave better.

In the long-term, we just need better bike infrastructure. This Slate article does a great job of demonstrating that a disconnected series of unprotected (and unenforced!) bike lanes does not constitute an acceptable transit network. So show up to community meetings when transit is on the table, tell your Councilmember that safe infrastructure for all travelers is a priority, and above all else, get on your bike and ride.