Bike lanes idea met with praise, doubt

April 16, 2010
By

John Ruch

CENTRE ST.—“To bike lane, or not to bike lane”—that is the question, in the words of local bike shop owner Jeffrey Ferris, as the city prepares to put bicycle lanes on Centre Street between Canary and Monument squares as soon as this fall.

In a neighborhood that loves bicycling—JP is home to Nicole Freedman, head of the city’s bike program—it is perhaps surprising that bike advocates are debating the wisdom of bike lanes on Centre Street.

To city planners, and apparently to the majority of bike advocates in such groups as JP Bikes, there’s no question at all. Bike lanes through the heart of JP Center’s business district will boost bicycle ridership, they say. The Boston Transportation Department (BTD) has made it clear that the bike lanes are coming, and is planning a full-scale sales pitch for bike lanes at the April 29 meeting of the Centre/South Action Plan.

“I feel like it’s a great opportunity for increasing bicycling in Jamaica Plain,” said Lauren Ockene, who represents JP Bikes and Bikes Not Bombs on the Centre/South advisory group.

She said bike lanes will help satisfy a pent-up interest in bicycling among people who don’t feel safe trying it on the car-dominated street. And a major study reports that the more bicyclists on the street, the safer each of them is.

But skepticism has been raised by two prominent JP bike experts: Ferris, whose Ferris Wheels Bike Shop is a hub of local bike culture, and Paul Schimek, a transportation planner who formerly headed the city’s bike program.

Bike lanes are expected to boost ridership by encouraging riders with at least the appearance of a safer part of the street. Ferris and Schimek said they are worried that on the narrow street, bike lanes may actually be more dangerous because they put bikes closer to suddenly opening doors of parked cars. “Dooring” is a nasty form of bike accident.

“That little stripe is not going to protect you,” Schimek said, explaining he is worried the bike lane message will be, “‘You novice cyclists, come out here. You see that bike lane, and you’re safe because that’s what a bike lane is for.’”

And measurements of Centre Street taken by Ferris show that it is narrower than the city’s own minimum width for bike lanes at various points.

The city unveiled its bike lane proposal at a January meeting of the Centre/South Action Plan advisory group, where several bike and transit advocates responded positively and Ferris and Schimek voiced their concerns. Since then, debate and advocacy have spread throughout JP’s bike community.

Several of the main advocates involved wrote letters to the editor published by the Gazette over the past few months. Vineet Gupta, the BTD’s director of policy and planning, said at a March meeting of the Centre/South advisory group that some of those letters were “a little disturbing because they did not respect the process you all have been engaged in.”

“We will have national experts who will give us a little education” at the April 29 bike lane meeting, Gupta said.

JP’s bike advocates seem to be already well-educated. Both sides of the bike lane discussion have cited many studies in scholarly journals to support their claims. No single study is definitive, and none address Centre Street directly. But a Gazette review of more than two-dozen studies cited by various local bike advocates found that bike lanes are a widely favored safety device around the country, and a part of national traffic engineering standards.

“There’s a small minority in the country that still question bike lanes,” Freedman, the city’s bike czar, told the Gazette. “But across the country, it’s very clear, and research suggests, that bicyclists prefer bike lanes, and that’s the standard right now.”

However, studies reviewed by the Gazette also indicate that other bike devices are growing in popularity, including “sharrows”—in-street road markings showing a bicycle and an arrow that remind drivers to share the road with bikes. Boston already has some sharrows, as well as bike lanes. Schimek said he prefers sharrows for Centre Street.

“My thought is, this is an evolving science, if you want to call it a science—[or an] art,” said Ferris, who said he is keeping an open mind about bike lanes on Centre.

The study most favored by bike lane supporters is “Safety in Numbers,” a highly influential 2003 article in the journal “Injury Prevention” by California public health consultant Peter Jacobsen. The study looked at car accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists.

Jacobsen found that boosting the number of walkers and bicyclists on the streets significantly increased the overall number of accidents, but even more significantly decreased the overall injury rate and the injury risk for any single walker or bike-rider. In short, the more bicyclists on the street, the safer they are—the “safety in numbers” effect.

“Safety in Numbers” did not look specifically at bike lanes, but its findings held true across various countries in different time periods, and follow-up studies have generally supported it. The assumption is that the increased presence of bicyclists makes car drivers more aware of them.

But Jacobsen himself, in an e-mail to the Gazette, said that the JP debate about bike lanes is getting off-track. What JP really needs to remember, he said, is that bike commuters are much healthier as a group than car commuters.

“[I]njury is just a small piece of ‘health,’” Jacobsen wrote. “The health benefits of [physical] activity are so very much larger than the disbenefits of an injury…My point is that health, not injury, should drive public policy towards cycling.”

In terms of injury prevention, Jacobsen said, bike infrastructure should focus on “deadly and disabling injuries.” Dooring rarely fits that bill, he said, saying that moving-vehicle collisions are more important to prevent. He provided the Gazette with an extensive list of Web links to studies and articles that were generally pro-bike lanes.

Schimek spoke of dooring in more frightening terms, but also said that cars are not the biggest injury danger to bikes anyway. “Falling is the biggest hazard,” he said, specifically falls due to potholes or other bad road conditions. JP bicycling already got much safer when the old trolley tracks were removed a few years ago, he said.

Local views

The bike lane debate is clearly one among philosophical friends. Everyone involved agrees that it’s great the city wants to promote bicycling; that there are no perfect solutions; that education and signage need to be part of any plan; that bike lanes are good in certain areas and cannot work on very narrow parts of the JP Center strip, such as South Street.

“We know lots more people would like to ride bikes in Jamaica Plain but are pretty scared of the traffic on the street,” Ferris said. “Every bike is an asset to the community.”

The dispute is over methods—especially whether it makes sense to slightly reduce the width of car lanes on Centre and add 5-foot bike lanes. It appears that parts of the street are narrower than the 44 feet cited by the city as a minimum width for adding bike lanes.

Ockene, a 20-year bike-rider in the neighborhood, said that any kind of bike infrastructure improvement will be good because of the “safety in numbers” effect.

“You have to be very confident and assertive to deal with Boston roads,” she said, explaining that bike lanes will encourage more women and older people to ride, as they do in European countries with more bike lanes. In cities that have added major bike lane systems, such as New York City, “The numbers [of riders] have just skyrocketed,” she said.

The Gazette has heard from a number of bike lane advocates who say they ride little or not at all because of the perception that bike-riding is a kind of sport for macho young men on Boston’s dangerous streets.

“It’s not the most safe-feeling space,” Ockene said of the Centre Street strip, which she frequently bikes. In part, that’s because it is a narrow street, and she said she understands concerns about bike lanes and dooring.

“In a way, that’s true,” she said. But, she added, she believes that bike lanes will encourage car drivers to give bicyclists more space, and to slow down their cars because their own lane will be narrower. Bike lanes are “not ideal,” but would be “a huge improvement,” she said.

“Most people who bike are choosing not to drive,” she said, speculating that overall car traffic on the street might drop as well.

Freedman said she also rides the Centre Street regularly, but declined to comment about what it is like for her.

“I’m not your typical cyclist,” she said. “I would feel safe riding on a highway.”

But asked whether she prefers riding in a bike lane, Freedman said, “I try to keep my preference out of it, but yeah, absolutely.”

She said that bike infrastructure boosts ridership because they make riders feel more comfortable. Studies show that riders especially like off-road, multi-use paths, such as the one in the Southwest Corridor Park, she said.

“What people like least is interacting with cars through traffic,” she said, noting that bike lanes are a practical middle ground.

Bike lanes are also official city policy. The new “Complete Streets” initiative “proactively requires bicycle lanes wherever possible,” Gupta said.

But Ferris is not so sure that they are possible here. When BTD originally proposed installing the bike lanes as soon as this summer, Ferris said, his main concern was the “vacuum of information.”

Using a wheel device, he measured the width of Centre Street at various points and found it varies over 10 feet in the strip between Canary and Monument squares. At one spot near Lakeville Road, he measured the width as just over 40 feet.

“It’s wiggling as you go down the street,” he said of the street width. “It creates an interesting challenge for how to promote bikes and keep bikes safe. I hope we have some creative discussion of different approaches.”

“I know a lot of riders are a lot more comfortable riding in a bike lane,” Ferris said. “But at the same time, you don’t want to just create an illusion of safety.”

An illusion is exactly what 5-foot bike lanes on Centre Street would be, Schimek said. He blasted the idea that bike lanes are good because they make potential riders feel safer as a “backhanded…indirect and disingenuous argument.”

Schimek noted that the city’s own design illustration for Centre Street bike lanes showed people riding down the middle of the lanes. In fact, riders are supposed to ride along the left-hand line in a bike lane to avoid dooring. Without education, new riders attracted to the bike lanes are set up for disaster, he said. And even if there is education, the lanes may be so narrow that riders are in the dooring zone anyway, he said.

“I personally think bike lanes are a good thing in certain areas,” Schimek said, explaining he has supported them in the Forest Hills area. But he also cited many other concerns about them.

Bike lanes suggest that bicyclists have to use them, when in fact they do not, Schimek said. That confusion can lead to more car-bike conflicts, and some research shows it leads drivers to come closer to bikes in the lane, he said. Bike lanes also lock riders onto the right-hand side of the street, when they should be on the left to make left-hand turns safely, he noted.

Some other form of bike infrastructure will have to be installed on narrower parts of Centre and South anyway, he noted. Sharrows may well be the solution on those stretches. Schimek said he supports sharrows for all of Centre, saying that they give “all of the benefits [of bike lanes] with none of the downsides.”

“National standards don’t incorporate opening [car] doors,” he said of the city’s commitment to the bike lanes in such standards. He noted that sharrows are beginning to enter such traffic engineering standards as well.

Other forms of bike lanes were suggested at the January Centre/South Action Plan meeting by advisory group member Michael Reiskind. They included creating a bike-only path through side alleys paralleling Centre Street; and creating a European-style bike lane right against the curb, with the parking lane on its left, against the car travel lane.

Both of those ideas were independently endorsed by Walter Willett, a professor and bike safety expert at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, in an e-mail to the Gazette.

“I do think that lanes next to parked cars is an improvement over no lanes at all, but it is not an optimal arrangement,” Willett wrote. “It would be far better to have a lane against the curb instead.”

Like everyone in the discussion, Willett cited studies, in this case suggesting that normal bike lanes lead bicyclists to ride farther away from parked cars—and the dooring zone—than they would otherwise. But, Willett acknowledged, there is no simple answer.

“This has been a long-standing controversy, and there is no formal randomized experiment addressing the topic,” he said of bike lane safety.