Recently, I chanced upon this post by John Allen. In it, he laments the current movement to develop bike facilities that are suitable for anyone aged ‘8 to 80’ (or an even more inclusive ‘8 to 88’) as being the cause of bottlenecks and generally unpleasant bike experiences. These concerns are also shared by others such as the California Association of Bicycling Organizations. One of the consequences of all this fervor has been that AB 1193 being
watered-down amended to effectively make all cycletracks/side paths optional for bicyclists.
At face value, that may seem like a reasonable standard. As it stands, CVC §21208(a) requires bicycle riders to ride a Class II bike lane (note that one of the amendments to AB 1193 also finally abolishes the Class I/II/III nomenclature) except under the provisions set forth therein, but not in an adjacent Class I bike path. While the specific designs vary, most cycletracks that get people out are basically on-street Class I facilities. Design features used to separate the bikeway from the regular traffic (parked cars, planters, bioswales, etc.) would inherently make it difficult or impossible for someone riding in the cycletrack to leave it at will to in response to any of the exceptions provided by §21208. Additionally, they would be “locked in” both physically and legally without the amendment.
Critical to that line of thought is the worry that cycletracks will be stuffed with schoolchildren and grandmas, ‘preventing’ fast riders from getting through. However, that is a remarkably flimsy excuse. While children certainly might be allowed freer reign on good infrastructure and the number of grandmas pedaling is up too, the claim that they’ll prevent meaningful movement on the paths seems rather outrageous. Certainly, there may very well be an elevated number schoolchildren and elderly using bikeways that have been designed to appeal to them as compared to the status quo. But it seems unlikely that they’ll completely ‘overwhelm’ cycletracks outside of a few specific times and places.
Schools and nursing homes don’t magically appear overnight. Shopping centers don’t mushroom out of nowhere. The general hours of operation and when one should expect to find the average user of those and similar facilities is common knowledge. It should be simple: if someone is concerned that kids might “hold them back”, then they need to stay away from where they’re likely to be found in any significant number when they’re likely to be there. As it is, the same exact thing already happens to cars too, sometimes with dire consequences for those who do not comply. No one can reasonably expect to legally hit top speeds (or even the regular speed limit) in a school zone during school hours. There are also sometimes warnings and reduced speed limits in the area around nursing homes, schools for the blind, and other areas where people are more vulnerable than average might inadvertently end up in close proximity to the street.
All of this brings up a deeper issue: why do bicyclists feel they deserve to be able to go at top speed anywhere they feel at any given time at all costs? As it is, society doesn’t allow it for car drivers. Someone wanting to test the top speed of even their Prius can’t even do it legally on public roads, and wouldn’t dare think of choosing I-405 as the optimal place to attempt such a feat because it’s perpetually crowded. People also don’t take too kindly to idiots who do it in the neighborhood–or even empty industrial districts. Yet riders expect to be given free reign of the streets without restriction, and often get mad (road rage?) when anyone challenges that expectation.
At the same time, there’s another fact that needs to be acknowledged: in the grand scheme of things, bikes are slow. Despite the argument that bikes “belong” in traffic and the resulting lament that bikes are “losing ground” because some places restricted their place in traffic, the basic fact still remains that even someone pushing themselves to the limits of puking is most likelystill at least 10 MPH (but easily 20-30) slower than the speed limit of the road where a cycletrack would likely be most appreciated and necessary. As it is, all vehicles, but especially those going slower than normal traffic, are required to keep right. Does society need to accommodate what amounts to intentional impediment of traffic even when a facility specifically for traveling at the comparatively low speeds of a bicycle is already provided?
This issue will become even more pertinent as more self-driving cars join the roadways. They will likely be able to travel at higher speeds that are in excess of current speed limits far safer than humans, probably leading to an eventual raising of speed limits once a critical mass of them has been achieved. While they should certainly greatly reduce the accident rate (after all, physics does have its limits), forcing them to slow down to keep pace with bikes on all but neighborhood streets and dedicated bike routes seems unnecessary and cuts into some of their advantages. Also, they will likely free up a lot of traffic congestion due to communicating with other vehicles on the roads (and the roads themselves). That means that many roads that are built for peak traffic flows of today (or worse, in 30 years from now) are extremely overbuilt for the future. The extra right-of-way can be used for quality bike infrastructure instead.
Of course, that brings up the issue of what exactly constitutes a quality bike facility. If what ultimately ends up on the ground is truly inadequate to handle the needs of the kids, grandmas, and ‘fast’ riders within reason, there is a problem. Restrictions limiting bicycles to such facilities cannot precede the facilities themselves. As such, municipalities need to provide infrastructure that is of pristine quality, especially on new construction. Advocates need to hold them to that and ensure that only the best stuff ends up on the ground. There’s no reason to build roads to their ultimate width then not stripe the outside lanes because the capacity isn’t there yet. Meanwhile, these same thoroughfares often only include a 5′ BIK LAN at the edge of a nearly 30′ expanse. Situations like that could just as easily include a cycletrack instead of the unstriped outside lanes from the very beginning, which will likely reduce the need for them to begin with*. Widening projects that don’t include cycletracks also should be pressed to include them.
In summary, care should definitely be taken to ensure that bicycles are not marginalized nor maligned on substandard infrastructure. At the same time, the bicycle is but one tool in the transportation and recreation toolbox. If time and due diligence have been put into designing and building a bicycle facility of exceptional quality, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect all bicycle riders to use it. It may not necessarily provide for every single potential rider at any given time, but it should allow the vast majority of riders to be served almost all times. There are undoubtedly times when those minority riders will be served as well and there should also be alternates available to lessen the detriment to them. However, just like cars, it seems reasonable for society to have certain expectations of riders’ conduct including not impeding traffic and for them to not ride recklessly. Bicycles can provide lots of benefits, but they won’t provide the ultimate solution for everyone. Bicycle riders need to understand that and cooperate with reasonable requests put on by society.
*This concept has made its way into a project proposed right here in the Inland Empire. Harmony in Highland include what would amount to cycletracks in practice, but are called Class I paths adjacent to the road but within the right-of-way due to the complications of Caltrans.