The folly of paint: Is it time to give up on painted bike lanes completely?

A few weeks ago, I participated in a radio call-in show about urban cycling during which a caller expressed her fear that her adult son was going to be killed on the roads. He is a bicycle commuter who had already been struck by cars twice while riding inside a painted bike lane.

I mumbled a rather lame response about how better infrastructure would help. But the caller’s rather terrifying story stuck in my mind. Especially over the past several weeks, when I’ve been watching this scene come together on two different roads that I ride a bike on regularly.

Look what's forming on 20th Street S.W.: a nicely painted area to be doored. #yycbike

A post shared by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

When public consultations over the idea of making these rather busy single-lane roads more bike- and pedestrian-friendly began more than a year ago, I was heartened. I’ve been riding them for years, and I welcomed anything that might make cyclists safer. I dutifully offered my feedback during the consultation process, emphasizing the need to protect cyclists from cars in order to encourage all people to ride, no matter their ability nor confidence.

Weeks later, the plan emerged. Sigh. Some stripes. Some painted stripes on the asphalt. As a cyclist, I’ve been conditioned to be grateful for any miserable old infrastructure crumb thrown my way, but you’ll please forgive my lack of enthusiasm for a painted line. Is this really going to protect cyclists, or encourage anyone to ride?

On some level, I understand why the decision was made to do nothing more here than lay down some paint. Budgets are tight. Not all residents in the area supported bike infrastructure. Building proper segregated bike lanes can be controversial. Business worried about losing too many parking spaces. The streets can be too narrow for anything else under traffic guidelines. Blah, blah, blah — it’s the same arguments in every city over and over again.

To be fair, these projects did offer some improvements to pedestrians and in slowing traffic (the latter done, mostly, by putting cyclists in the way of cars). But if the fundamental purpose of a bike lane is to make it safe enough for people of all type to ride in, no matter their skill, I thought I’d test the theory in the simplest way I knew how. I’d take my 11-year-old son onto one of the new lanes and see what he thought about it.

Before this project, he refused to ride on one of these roads because he felt unsafe. Now? He excitedly gave the bike lane a try (yes, he’s as nerdy about bike infrastructure as his dad). He cares little for the politics and compromise that goes into bike infrastructure. He just wants to ride without getting pancaked by an SUV. On this lane, it didn’t take long before he said he felt trapped between moving cars and the door zone. The verdict? “I don’t get it,” he said. “What’s better about this?”

Good question. Were there other options for these projects? Absolutely. The bike lane could have been segregated by a barrier. The bike lane could have been placed between the curb and parked cars, thereby using parked vehicles as a barrier, which was the winning suggestion last year when I asked readers to choose a better design. The bike lane could have been raised a few inches to create an easy barrier, as we’ve seen in other countries. Or, something wacky could have been done, like these others suggestions from readers.

I know how difficult it can be for city planners to get bike infrastructure of any kind built in our political environment. And I understand the argument of incrementalism — painted lanes are a more palatable baby step toward better infrastructure in the future. But let’s not pretend this is anything more than a compromise that doesn’t even meet the first standard of bike infrastructure: encouraging an enthusiastic kid to ride in them.

I understand why lanes like this are installed, but when my son takes his bike down this road, that’s all just noise. My thoughts will be on that worried mom from the call-in show.

What’s your feeling on painted bike lanes? Do you use them? Do you think more should be built? Or is it time to move past them into better, safer infrastructure? Use the comments below, or let the author know what you think on Twitter or Facebook.

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Also published on Medium.

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16 Comments

  1. David White

    There’s some paint on Strathcona Drive close to my house that was put down a couple of years ago. There’s a sign on the side of the road that explains that the paint is a bike lane. Most car drivers respect the paint but there are a few that don’t seem to “get it”. It’s a wide section of road that used to be 2 lanes and the bike lane took over a whole lane. The community was never big enough for 2 lanes at that point. I wonder why the road was designed to be that wide in the first place? There’s plenty of room for some protection for cyclists, kids could roam the neighbourhood safely getting to and from the schools that are crowded with SUV’s twice a day creating havoc….

  2. Wouldn’t drivers complain if they were forced to drive 120 kph on narrow 2 lane roads with huge trucks that had to use part of their lane when approaching head on? A truck 1″ too far onto the oncoming traffic lane and they’re dead.

    You can bet there would be lawsuit after lawsuit for building such dangerous roads. If every time somebody in a car was wiped out by a truck and police said there’s nothing they can do about it, we’d never hear the end of it.

    That’s pretty much the way cyclists are treated by the law in many places in North America. We expect that bike lanes should be built for a level of safety too instead of painted excuses. But what happens?

    People don’t want to use dangerous routes with road hogs and when we demand better infrastructure, there’s always the excuse that there aren’t enough people using them. No wonder! Dangerous by design will keeps the numbers down.

    A few years ago I was on a signed bike route and a vile spewing pickup driver decided to swear at me because the light turned red. I refused to be bullied by him and he had to wait for a green light.

    If drivers aren’t threatened every time they go for a drive, why should pedestrians and cyclists have to tolerate such hatred?

    Last year I had a truck driver pass on a narrow 2 lane highway with an approaching truck on the other side of the road at the same time as he passed me. He was out to kill me and anyone who slowed him down. I’ve shared roads with some of these vile truckers and its no safer driving a truck with them around.

    These days I carry cameras when I bike. Its a small deterrent for violent drivers but its better than nothing when police say its your word against their’s. Sometimes the police will even fine these guys but usually only if they endanger other motor vehicles.

    Cameras are what cyclists are left with when the only safety is a painted line and a political environment exists where a cyclist’s life is worth less than a driver’s. Police can only enforce the law, they don’t make the law. The real problem is a legal system 50 years behind the times that errs on the side of convenience instead of safety.

  3. Steven Goodridge

    At best, adding bike lanes to a roadway creates enough space to facilitate convenient and safe passing of bicyclists by motorists. The stripe itself is of little value; providing the same pavement width without a stripe provides the same benefit. When cities add bike lane stripes to streets that previously had unmarked wide pavement, I see this as a waste of effort. The lane marking may even do more harm than good by encouraging debris collection and stigmatizing cyclists who ride farther left.

    A road that encourages high speeds can be redesigned to reduce lane count and calm traffic, but simply adding a bike lane stripe to a given pavement width doesn’t make the road safer. Separating bike lanes from the rest of the roadway may sound attractive, but in urban areas this usually increases crash rates by increasing traffic conflicts at intersections where most car-bike crashes already occur.

    Irresponsible motoring will always result in injuries and fatalities. Besides lower road design speeds, a culture of safe driving is needed.

    • A good point: a culture of safe driving is key to everything. A key that has proven elusive almost everywhere.

    • Arno S

      Installing a separated bike facility by itself is not enough. However these can be made very safe and one only has to look at the Netherlands to see how to make them safe. Examples are “Dutch Style” intersections where turning vehicles cross bike lanes at 90 deg. and protected intersections where turns are prohibited or there are separate phases for motorists and bike riders. The Netherlands probably has the safest cycling in the world – all we have to do is to copy their designs.

  4. Matthew Ellis

    Paint is not infrastructure. It is a vague promise to probably not kill you very much to often.

    #Paintfrastructure

  5. Landon T

    Painted bike lanes in the door-zone are unacceptable. They mildly reduce the hazard of being hit by a car but significantly increase the hazard of being doored, potentially throwing the cyclist right into the driving lane. I can work with the ones on 26 Ave SW (west of Crowchild) and the ones on 10th St NW (no parking) but it begs the question: how much more would it be to install a few green pylons to keep drivers from using the lane?

  6. Andres

    Proper bike lanes are separated, and we do ourselves a disservice by referring to paint-only bike lanes as “bike lanes.” Instead, I encourage you to call them what they actually are. In the case of door zone bike lanes, they are actually door buffers that you should ride outside of. In the case of the standard 5′ bike lane next to a curb, they’re highway shoulders. And as for buffered bike lanes – add some cones to the buffer yourself and then call them bike lanes. 🙂

    • This is great. I vote for adopting this new nomenclature!

      • Michael Zajac

        I agree that we should always be clear and promote accurate terminology.

        A lane is always part of a wider roadway, offering no protection. A cycle track or path is physically separated from vehicular roadways by a curb, barrier, or significant distance. “Protected bike lane” is an oxymoron.

        Likewise, plastic marker posts, sometimes lining a buffered bike lane, offer no protection. Bollards, in contrast, are a solid barrier.

  7. Hi Tom,

    Motor vehicle speed is important here. The Copenhagenize planning guide is a good start, recognizing that sharrows and painted lanes are OK at low speeds, but at higher speeds more protection is needed. The implementation of infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians should reflect designed speed (e.g. not speed limit, as most drivers exceed speed limits on wide streets). 50 km/h guideline suggests curb separated lanes are the only effective approach, thus painted lanes do not work in the scenario you’ve described. Best practices ignored again in favor of political expediency…

    http://www.copenhagenize.com/2013/04/the-copenhagenize-bicycle-planning-guide.html

    Ben
    Bike Town Podcast

    • More good points, Ben, especially about the importance of road design and speed (although I vote for eliminating sharrows altogether!), and the design guide is a useful document. I’d also like to see some pilot projects that try some different approaches.

  8. Don Decoteau

    Bike lanes should be properly manage to avoid accident. Thanks for posting this.

  9. In a lot of ways the paint makes things worse since drivers assume that as long as their tires stay outside the line, they can pass. I rode on 20th just after they put the paint down, and it was terrifying. Two people clipped my jacket with their mirrors in a two block stretch. Paint in the door zone is a great way to excuse cyclist fatalities.

  10. use

    i’ve been honked at angrily for sharing the ‘shared lane’ plenty of times…;to the administrations across this great land, the fact that a driver has to speed ahead-to-pass another on the road is less safe than segregation…yes…there’s that politically incorrect word but this time its applied to those who have (cars and trucks,etc.) against those who do not have (cyclists and pedestrians)…let’s take a brief look at the pioneer days when there were no sidewalks…eveybody happily shared the road…just saying…:)

  11. Paint is a down payment on better.

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