And you may ask yourself, how do I work this? -Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
We were in Des Moines earlier this week and stumbled across some freshly painted bike lanes along Grand Avenue in the city’s trendy East Village neighborhood. They were protected bike lanes, too…the kind that used parked cars to shield cyclists from speeding motorists. This is good because study after study shows that the general public is more likely to use bicycles for transportation when and where this type of infrastructure exists. More bikes means less cars. Less cars means more livable places. Move smarter. Live better.
So all is well in River City, right? Well, no, not exactly. As I walked around and shot pictures, I couldn’t help but notice the confused looks on both motorists’ and pedestrian faces. They didn’t know how to interact with the new markings on the street. Pedestrians crossed the bike lane without looking for oncoming cyclists. Motorists struggled to figure out where to turn. A Pepsi truck ran over the pylons protecting the lane. Most of these issues will work themselves out with time but as someone who rides a lot of this sort of infrastructure I know good and well that it’s gonna take a while and that in the meantime people are placed at risk. I found myself wondering if maybe there might be a better way of implementing this type of change.
Take safe passing laws, for example. More and more jurisdictions are implementing laws governing how motorists should overtake cyclists on the streets. This has resulted in a hodgepodge of laws. In some cases, it’s a three foot law. Other places have four and five foot laws. Some have laws that require motorists to move completely into the other lane. None of these laws are ever explained. In many cases, they’re not even marked. They’re just enacted and so motorists have no clue what they’re supposed to do. Neither do many cyclists.
The same is true of new infrastructure. It’s great that communities are building this, but it’s simply not enough to throw paint down on the street and pretend that it changes everything. That’s completely unrealistic. You have to explain the how and why behind it and few places make the effort to do so. If you don’t, frustration mounts and resentment builds.
I don’t know when we got so sloppy as a people. It seems that when I was younger we did things like this a little better, a little more completely. We sweated the details. Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe it’s just revisionist history combined with a longing for the good old days. I don’t know.
What I do know is this. Bicycles are transportation and we need more infrastructure. Just as importantly, we need more education and enforcement of laws for all road users. Engineering, education and enforcement are the three legs of a metaphorical tripod. If you have all three, the thing stands just fine. Take one away and it falls down.