Thursday, December 04, 2008

An indecent (left side) proposal in Hoboken?

Back in October Bike Hoboken reported that bike lanes would be coming to the left sides of Madison and Grand Streets. Whether or not this is actually true could not be confirmed. However I thought I'd use this as an opportunity to talk about bike lanes on the left side of one-way streets.

I must first however, commend Hoboken for going ahead and aggressively pursuing turning their city into a more bike-friendly place. Hoboken like New York City (along with nearly all of Hudson County) is ideally suited for bicycle use. Being so dense, distances are typically short and quickly reachable by bike, often much faster then by car. Still, riding around Hoboken and the rest of Hudson County is a rather scary proposition for all but the most experienced and bold cyclists so some on street amenities are sorely needed. So go build 'em Hoboken!

That having been said, anyone who has ever ridden a bike in New York City will know that bike lanes are typically found on the left side of one-way streets, like that pictured below. If what Bike Hoboken reports to be true, undoubtedly the idea to put the bike lanes on the left side of the road came from across the Hudson.

For those that don't know the original reason to put bike lanes on the left side of the road in NYC came from conflicts that arose on the avenues with buses and bikes as the buses pulled in and out from the curb when they make stops for passengers. My understanding is that for New York City to put bike lanes on the left and only on the left of one-way roads NYCDoT had to actually ask for a change their design standards at an administrative level to allow this as an accepted design practice. This need to put bike lanes on the left to avoid conflicts with buses has now lead to a design practice that has seemed to default bike lanes to the left side even on small, lightly traveled one-way streets where no or very little bus traffic exists.

Okay, so you might be asking, why is this a big deal. Well because placing bike lanes on only the left side of the street breaks the 1st of the 5 basic principles of Vehicular Cycling - "Stay to the right and ride in the direction of traffic." Now some of you may be saying, "Oh boy, Vehicular Cycling and grumpy John Forester" (I've dealt with him on a professional online forum and yes, he is VERY argumentative). While I agree that Vehicular Cycling has failed to get people out and on their bikes in the numbers needed to institute real change and "safety in numbers," I also believe that good there is a great deal of wisdom and truth to Vehicular Cycling. VC is a must-know skill that is absolutely needed once the bike lane or path ends. And accordingly, bicycle facility design should not as a general rule break the rules of Vehicular Cycling; sentiment many of us heard at the Common Ground Seminar at Rutgers last month.

I've argued many times before to our friends on the east side of the Hudson on Streetsblog why the default placement of the lane on the left is not a good idea. Those that promote it say that besides eliminating the bus conflict (which admittedly may be a good enough reason on Manhattan's avenues) that left side placement puts cyclists on the driver's side of the motor vehicle lanes where cyclists can be better seen. Also where cars are parked to the left of cyclists, there is less of a chance to get "doored" because there is not always a passenger in a car but there is always a driver and that driver will always need to get out and open the driver's side door (not the passenger side).

Admittedly the above are all good and valid benefits that arise when bikes lanes are placed to the left side of the motor vehicle lanes but it must be noted that this practice produces considerable hazards as well. Since a left side lane is totally uncustomary, it causes confusion for experienced and novice cyclists alike. I've had a friend from Philly with way more urban riding experience than me (he's older, cycled since he was a kid and has lived in Philly all his life) exclaim, "What the Hell is the lane doing over there?!?!" when I told him the bike lane was on the left side after he started riding on the right side of 8th Ave just as we got out of Penn Station and rode up town to Central Park. Also left side lanes encourages illegal contraflow (wrong-way, against traffic) riding particularly among inexperienced riders. This is not surprising since in 99% of all places in other parts of the worlds where I've ever seen a bike lane on the left of a one-way, it was placed there for exactly that purpose so to provide cyclists with a safe short cut against the flow of traffic as in the example below from my mom's hometown in Germany.

Finally there is also another reason why not to put bike lanes on the left. Particularly on wide multilane avenues being on the left side of motor traffic exposes the cyclists to faster cars, those that typically pass the slower traffic that is properly staying to the right. This was apparent to me on 8th Ave Manhattan this past Summer as all the taxis were flying past me just over my right shoulder at (a deadly) 45mph while traffic on the right side of the Avenue was at a near standstill.

With all that said, I did a little research. I found a copy of Bicycle Compatible Roadways and Bikeways: Planning and Design Guidelines published by the NJDOT in 1996. It may be a little old but the document is still surprisingly contemporary (most of the basic modern design standards for bicycle facilities had been developed by then) and it is still the latest document on the topic, specific to New Jersey. In that document it says, "Bicycle lanes on on-way streets should be on the right side of the street, except in areas where a bicycle lane on the left will decrease the number of conflicts (e.g., those caused by heavy bus traffic)" (funny it should use that example).

So getting back to Hoboken. I did a little looking at Madison and Grand Streets on Google Streets View. These streets were pretty narrow, typically with parking on both sides and not quite enough room for two cars to run side by side between those parked. Also traffic appeared almost nonexistent on the StreetViews with not a bus being driven in sight. If what I "virtually" observed is actually the case with these streets in Hoboken then it would seem that there is no valid reason to run these bike lanes on the left, at least with these two streets.

Again the Hoboken example and my conclusions about it are all highly speculative. I simply used this case so I could explain my opinion about left-side bike lanes, hopefully start a dialog and help us all learn something about bicycle facility design practice. I know I did from my little bit of research above.

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