Totems, Tribes, Taboos, and the Almighty Bike Lane

Over the last two years plus of talking with cyclists, developers, city organizers, and elected officials, I have noticed a great push by consultants to develop “bike lanes,” as a “fix all” solution to add biking infrastructure to already existing travel arteries. Charlotte, NC has been under a massive suburban sprawl since the seventies and eighties, and now the pendulum has started to swing back to revitalization of urban areas, and the city center/midtown. Of course great projects are always costly for taxpayers, and the footprint of construction is bothersome for long periods of time, but typically the end result is something very special. Take the example of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.

The LSCG is an amazing stretch of pedestrian-biking multi path that stretches from Park Rd. Shopping Center to 7th Street, where it almost connects to another greenway connecting neighborhoods like NoDa (shouldn’t it be called MiDa there for Mid Davidson street?). In any case, the LSCG takes advantage of land that was unsuitable for most other development plans like floodplains etc. The Greenways (estimated cost around one million dollars a mile) seem like a great value to most cyclists and pedestrians because they make traveling from point A to B or in between easier, and less dangerous than riding on the street. Because it has a “park/trailway” vibe, it is almost viewed as kind of extended park, rather than a road or bike/pedestrian highway. Citizens (taxpayers) love parks. They love trees, they like the feeling of being in the suburbs, but Hey! It is in the urban environment now.

Isn’t that what the new urban revival is all about now, making urban feel like suburban (think safety and convenience combined)?

The major push towards more bike and pedestrian infrastructure leaves Charlotte in a pickle. As one can see, Charlotte grew so rapidly that it could barely keep up with automobile infrastructure (example: the last section I-485 was just completed). The infrastructure is now actually out of date with the patterns of growth. This of course is another discussion for another day, and another blog. It isn’t sustainable to have more and more roads for more and more cars. Pretty soon Charlotte will be a suburb of Atlanta. Take a look at the map, with Greenville in the middle, it is a bit scary.

The new push is of course to draw development, citizens, and infrastructure towards center city/midtown (let’s say a 3-5 mile radius). We can see this along the LYNX line corridor that runs parallel with South Blvd and South Tryon towards uptown, along with its partial rail trail. The new LYNX line will run North from uptown to connect places like University City, where it can take advantage of commerce and commuting with a large population of young citizens. In addition Charlotte, has begun a new transportation initiative to connect the East and West via a StreetCar system, that in all probability will include a “Cycletrack” for bicycles. Elizabeth Avenue is almost impassible by bike because of the large track gaps, making a turn extremely dangerous, and riding with the Streetcar, and automobile traffic hazardous to one’s health.

It is hard to see the value of such a large expenditure other than more development along the infrastructure; however, it is quite clear that development on the “West” side is clearly the goal of such a costly plan. Cycletracks are an interesting solution to this particular problem, but they have become quite “trendy” for urban design, consultants, and engineers across the country. Some have even advocated building a US Cycletrack Interstate system, like Eisenhower’s major strategic initiative for highways in years past. How amazing would it be to be able to get on your bike and ride to DC, NY, or Austin, Boulder, or San Francisco. The possibilities are endless.

Cycletracks, like bike lanes are easy (but expensive) solutions to many infrastructure problems. We can just take a regular busy artery in town, and Bam!….put a bike lane there. Easy solution yea? Not exactly. Bike lanes have all types of problems associated with their use. Trash is thrown/collected in the bike lane, many times bike lanes start and stop, cars parked on the side of the road may present hazardous conditions because of doors, traffic patterns may force automobiles to cross over an unprotected bike lane, or the rider may be obscured from vision because of being outside the limits of vision, creating a “right hook” by a car (where a car turns right, in front of the bike); or, a “left cross,” where oncoming traffic may not see the rider and a collision may occur. Unprotected (meaning there is no barrier between the traffic lane and the bike lane) bike lanes also give a false sense of security. The unprotected bike lane is problematic because it is for all intents and purposes an imaginary line, that does not stop traffic from encroaching upon the lane or the rider.

Bike lanes are great right? They do have some advantages, such as allowing a rider to “release” traffic, especially up a hill in high volume, higher speed traffic. If used this way, they are more akin to right lanes on highways and interstates in the mountains, where slow moving trucks can allow other traffic to pass, or be “released.”

The next phase of bike lanes is the “segregated” bike lane or its aristocratic cousin the “cycletrack,” where some sort of barrier is either put to protect the cyclist from high density traffic, or a road system is built that completely is extracted from the regular roadway system that parallels the motorway so a cyclist can commute effectively without high density traffic and speeds. Both of these versions of bike lanes are very attractive to people that ride lightly, or want to ride but feel unsafe otherwise. The problem is creating this infrastructure is extremely expensive (many taxpayers become “sticker shocked” when they see the budgets needed to create such infrastructure), and they include issues related to crossing traffic patterns, or commuting where the end point is off the cycletrack’s route. This solution is of course part of an overall solution to biking infrastructure and development in Charlotte, but at such a large price tag, are there other options?

Currently the law in Charlotte advocates a cyclists right to “take the full lane.” Although the wording is somewhat hazy, “Full Lane” advocates employ the strategy to commute just like a driver of a vehicle, and thus riding away from the curb (edge riding) is a necessary condition for safe cycling. Many advocates argue that you are safer “taking the lane,” rather than edge riding or using a bike lane because the bike occupies legal, and material space in the vision of other traffic, where if it operates under the laws of NC vehicles, a rider will be able to navigate the traffic patterns and routes from start to destination, AND it appears that “vehicular cyclists” are more prone to stop along their way, increasing revenues at the businesses they visit.

One of the many problems associate with “vehicular driving” is that cyclists and auto drivers know very little about the laws and legal rights of cyclists on roads. Some solutions have been proposed including the “dropping” of the “Share the Road” campaign, for the R4-11 signage (“Bike May Use Full Lane”). Taking it one step further, the vague STR street signage (actually called “Sharrows”) might actually be replaced by decals in the middle of the right most lane with R4-11. Nevertheless, a marketing campaign would need to be advanced for the material signage and ridership to match knowledge in the minds of mainstream Charlotte society. Building this culture of “Vehicular Riding” seems more cost effective as a mainstream solution, because it advances itself mainly by infrastructure already in place and built, with only a couple additions including mostly education in various mediums (TV, schools, Radio, websites, social media, government marketing, buses, and brochures etc.).

Some estimate that bike lane infrastructure can cost anywhere from 200K to 1 million or more a mile depending on  installation costs, land costs and acquisitions, design, development, consulting etc. Protected bike lanes, and cycletracks could and probably will cost even more. The utilization of the “full lane” agenda, take advantage of existing (and sometimes expensive) infrastructure already in place, and allows the cyclist to “drive” the bike to any location that this infrastructure will allow. The more important component which is relatively inexpensive compared to other options is for education and marketing, increasing the knowledge and awareness of cyclists and drivers resulting in potentially less accidents and poor driving/cycling along the way. The “Full Lane” agenda is not a catch all solution to the dynamic problems involving “utilitarian” cycling in Charlotte, but it a much more reasonable strategy for mass cycling as a major mode of transportations in this region.

Although Vehicular riding in Charlotte already take place, many consultants, developers, political and government officers, and city planners know very little about it. Sometimes, because they may not be cyclists themselves. Before the citizens of Charlotte commit to massive expenditures for bike lanes that will not be used by the majority of ridership that Charlotte currently enjoys, we have to be willing to talk about taboo subjects, that bike lanes and cycle tracks do not solve the problem because they have major flaws, but sound like an easy fix. Ultimately NC is one of the few states that enjoys the “Full Lane” legislation (the haziness of the law is a topic for another day and another blog); however, the building of bike lanes and cycletracks as a mainstream solution carries a parallel legislative change from full lane to mandatory riding in the bike lanes and/or “edge riding which will create more hazards and potentially more accidents, not too mention presenting the problem associated with “bike lanes etc. do not go everywhere one needs to go.”

This purpose of this blog is an attempt to make more citizens of Charlotte and NC aware of the problems and potential solutions to biking infrastructure and advancement, as well as the dynamic challenges we face as a community…as a culture.

We must replace the taboo of discussion and debate concerning the change in cycling infrastructure, and apply novel and creative solutions to the problems this society faces.


Velography: Stardate 5015.6: The cynicism of cycling culture

As a native Charlottean (Charlotte, NC), I remember when this city was a sleepy little town. There wasn’t much to do as a little kid, stores were closed on Sunday, and “blue laws” were the norm. The basic entertainment growing up for most of the neighborhood kids was either the bowling alley at Park Lanes, a movie at Park Terrace, Freedom Park, one of the malls in town (South Park or Eastland), playing in the neighborhood somewhere inventing our own games, or simply riding a bike to meet up with everyone to play video games, get a “Slurpee,” or even grab something to eat.

Over the course of my teenage years, Charlotte started to wake up and smell the potential, by developing slowly, piece by piece into the city that it is now. It would be quite a travesty not to recognize a great many young entrepreneurs that believed in Charlotte as a future “world class city,” many of which developed out of the music, fashion, art, theater, and widespread cultural movements washing in and out of the various “hip” neighborhoods where creativity mixed with poverty. In the music and artistic scene, there was always a bit of rivalry between Charlotte and the “Triangle” (Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Durham), where colleges, college radio, and business supported a vibrant independent “scene” for the young adult crowd, mainly in or right out of college. Charlotte, of course, had plenty to offer as the music and the arts grew, but the Triangle represented the center of North Carolinian   culture for independent thinking and thinkers. Nevertheless, Charlotte was able to attract a different type of creative personality – the entrepreneur. Over the years, Charlotteans and Neo-Carpetbaggers from the North, transplanted to this city, and brought with them a sense of urgency to make a place in this town, as a big fish in a small pond, and with growth a big fish in an even bigger, better pond. Their connectivity with corporate America (i.e. Banks and Industry) created a perfect petrie dish to sustain and maintain what we now call the Queen City.

As someone who grew up playing in bands around town and the region, biking was always seen as a recreational activity. You rode in neighborhoods, parks, and if you dared across main arteries to other locations where you could meet friends from other schools (busing was the norm during my teenage years). Because of the nature of punk/hardcore/indy music, many of us always considered our little cohort to be in antagonism with corporate Charlotte, corporate North Carolina, and corporate America, and lastly “corporate rock.” In later years, this attitude turned towards the Triangle, because that area seemed, not only to gather all of the attention in music etc. It also seemed to represent the “power” in NC music. After all, the management companies, entertainment lawyers, record labels, national clubs, and the overall music business “appeared” to be centered in that part of the state.

Later on I would begin to see these categories as “artificial,” created by some sort of partial defense mechanism of my cohort group, and also the belief that “Charlotte” was somehow the unwilling underdog (I now think teenagers and young adults like to be the underdog). In any case, this seemingly “harmless” small feature of Charlotean naivety transferred in some ways to the culture of biking in town. It wasn’t just my cohort, it seems to be a feature of other cohorts around town, representing both historical differences (diachronic), but also cultural differences (synchronic). The features that I have observed appear to be widespread features of this particular society. Why, of course, I am not sure exactly, but it may be that cycling shares a similar function, or disposition with other cultural forms (like music and art). Anthropologists sometimes categorize these cultural tokens as the relationship between the social actors in a set locale, and than the function of sharing particular objects and actions with one another. In other words, riding a bike or playing in a band, isn’t just an individual activity, that one simply (is it ever really simple?) engages in as some sort of aesthetic for pure aesthetic. Instead, riding a bike is a social activity that engages individuals in cooperation, and reflection of social ontologies, of relationships, of cultural and cognitive constraints and processes.

I always thought the biggest hurdle for a greater cycling culture in Charlotte was the mainstream voice – corporate Charlotte. As Charlotte has grown it has produced  exaggerated suburban sprawl, where people in Matthews and Ballantyne are asked to engage in civic relationships, commitments, and responsibilities with center city “folk.” Approaching close to a million people, Charlotte, is hardly a connected city in agreement of ideals, morals, and cultural reflection, it is rather a set of loosely connected tribes, or fiefdoms of modernity. We have seen over the last decade or two, the rise of cycling functionalism – where adults now use bikes to commute to work, to socialize, to grocery shop, and to transport themselves and their belongings through and to different neighborhoods. Of course this transition has been more explosive in certain parts of town (i.e., Plaza-Midwood, NoDa, Uptown, South End etc.); however, it is not clear whether it was because of the “urban infrastructure” that has accompanied it, or that these two things happened side by side with correlation, but not cause and effect.

What I have now come to realize is that cycling in Charlotte doesn’t need to fear corporate, or mainstream society (i.e., car commuting). Of course there is a great deal of education that needs to accompany infrastructure to both drivers of automobiles AND cyclists throughout the area. No, the greatest hurdle for a greater cycling culture in Charlotte, is in fact bicyclists and some organizations that advocate cycling. It seems counterintuitive, but many in the cycling world are so pessimistic about Charlotte becoming a force in the “domestication” of cycling city/county wide, that they are unable to see the great strides the city has made historically, as well as, culturally. Recently, I was even on a Facebook group page that advocated cyclists as drivers nationally. I engaged this group on a particular issue about infrastructure (e.g., bike lanes).

The general idea, which I am many others support, is that bicycles are vehicles, and therefore, they shouldn’t be marginalized by the creation of bike lanes. The statistics seem to back up this argument, because bike lanes “hide” many hazards, yet give the rider a false sense of safety (see Bike Lane hazards). Although, I agree with the theory that cyclists should act as a vehicle (this is backed up by many state laws), I also realize that bike lanes represent a material cultural artifact that promotes explicitly biking space, and implicitly that bikers have rights to the road, and in some places where it is problematic to “share the road” a space to differentiate themselves from other hazards (i.e., cars and faster and heavier traffic). In my opinion, the domestication of cycling culture in Charlotte can’t be earned by solely educating the masses (both cyclists and drivers). It must also be supported by material infrastructure to be successful. So, education, action (riding as a vehicle), and infrastructure to promote, achieve, and sustain a mainstream cycling environment for all vehicle types. This particular website featured a hostile response to myself and several other responders that “we don’t need more infrastructure,” and that “we don’t want to be treated different, we demand our rights as bikers in the lane.” While this might seem quite harmless for a group of small like minded advocates, the attitude seems to be one I find quite frequently in cycling, very reminiscent of ideology rather than pragmatism.

I certainly don’t claim to speak for all cyclists everywhere, but the attitude of fundamentalist cycling echoed with me long after all of us as “infrastructuralists” were thrown off and blocked from the group. The idea of extremist idealism that cyclists are equal to cars (really it isn’t egalitarianism, but rather we deserve more rights than cars, but that is implicit reasoning), and the pessimism that Charlotte is such a horrible cycling culture, makes it hard for the hundreds of people who are trying to make it a better “commuterverse” for bikes and biking culture. I am not entirely put off by the skepticism, but I have also seen the historical transformation over the last several decades. I would argue that critical reflection is an important component of growing this city’s cycling culture. However, I would also proffer that cynicism for the sake of tearing down, is cheap and unhelpful. It is easy to throw the stones, hard to create something exciting, important, dynamic. There are several hundred cyclists around Charlotte working with the government, lawyers, businesses, NPOs, event and communities, and others who haven’t ridden yet that hopefully will someday. Some of us believe that Charlotte can become the Portland of the East Coast one day, but distinctively Charlotte. Biking in Charlotte is better served by appealing to mainstream and marginal individual groups in and around town, not by forcing marginal beliefs upon the mainstream. Riding is about health, community, and culture. Biking is one step towards improving these communities and connecting the people that live in them. Riding bikes and creating an infrastructure to support it creates a marketplace – a marketplace of ideas shared by those on bikes.