Bike lanes, not sidewalk banishment, will solve traffic woes

A letter to the editor this week in The Washington Post was both spot-on and completely off the mark in how it framed both the problems with an increase in bicycling in D.C. and the solutions for those problems. When it comes to enforcement, resident Charles Yulish is right that bicyclists need to follow traffic laws and should be cited by police if seen violating them. But when it comes to where they ride, Yulish’s solution that they “should be banned from all pedestrian sidewalks” is far too simplistic and misses the point of why so many people ride on the sidewalks — because they feel safer there.

This really highlights a lack of biking infrastructure in the city, which is often bustling with traffic and people who drive erraticly — bicyclists are caught in quite a bind because the city is just as driver-heavy as it is pedestrian-heavy. Drivers get frustrated with bicyclists who can’t match the speed of traffic, and pedestrians get frustrated with bicyclists who speed by and weave through them (I’ve even seen people riding their motor scooters on the sidewalks).

What bicyclists need is their own domain on the roads — bike lanes. Until there is space made for bicyclists on the road, they will forever have to choose between possibly getting run over or navigating pedestrian-filled sidewalks. Many people want to bike, but riding with traffic is daunting in a city where stories about pedestrians and bicyclists being hit by cars are common. (This isn’t saying that drivers are responsible for all these accidents — but an SUV packs a much bigger punch than a bicycle or a pedestrian.)

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 43 percent of people don’t have access to bike lanes or bike paths (which often run parallel to but are set off from the road) — add the 24.1 percent of people who only have access to bike paths — not bike lanes — and that means about two-thirds of people don’t have access to bike lanes. Bike paths are great, but they often are set back from the road and are so limited in where they reach that many people don’t find them to be efficient — bike lanes are much more convenient in this sense.

And for cities that do sport bike lanes, their placement is often sporadic and not especially cohesive. In D.C. they are routinely adding bike lanes to streets (I understand this is a time-consuming project if it means expanding the width of the street), but their placement is scattered. And for bicyclists who don’t feel comfortable in the road, it likely leads to them weaving on-and-off the sidewalks, which makes them less predictable and more likely to get into an accident.

Personally, my hometown’s bike lanes are pitiful. A few streets have them, and I think the ones that do run parallel to each other, and the bike lane itself doesn’t go very far distance-wise. So while some cities can claim to have bike lanes and on paper look good, the quality of those bike lanes also might have a lot of room for improvement. As bicycling increases, the infrastructure must increase with it — slapping a bike lane down a main street isn’t going to cut it anymore.

It sounds like Yulish is a pedestrian, so simply banishing the bicyclists from the sidewalk works for him as a pedestrian, but it doesn’t address the problem as it relates to all travelers. Quality bike lane infrastructure positively benefits all these travelers — it would draw more attention to bicyclists’ right to be on the road, leave sidewalks as a space for pedestrians, and overall leave drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists with a better attitude about their own safety when traveling.

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