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 The infrastructure is now actually out of date with the patterns of growth.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.

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