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  1. Health

Keeping cyclists safe while respecting their rights can be complicated

Published Mar. 5, 2015

Both sides of the contentious "protected bikeways" or "segregated bike lanes" or the now discredited "cycletrack" issue agree: The best way to improve bicycling safety is to get more people riding bikes. But how?

St. Petersburg is considering building a protected bikeway on First Avenue N. City officials, with Mayor Rick Kriseman in attendance, recently asked members of the Mayor's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee to weigh in on the idea. As usual with this group, the city got an earful.

Protected bikeways separate bike traffic from car traffic via a permanent physical barrier, such as planters or bollards. This greatly reduces the chance of a bike rider getting sideswiped or hit from behind.

Unfortunately, say protected bikeway opponents, cyclists are more likely to be injured elsewhere. They point to a 2007 study in Copenhagen that found such facilities actually increase accidents at intersections. Motorists can't easily see bicyclists moving parallel to them because their view is obstructed by parked cars, trees or other infrastructure. Bicyclists traveling east along First Avenue S in St. Petersburg can testify to the problem of cars turning south without hesitation, even though the bicyclist also has a green light and is in a lane to the motorist's right.

But — and here again both sides seem to agree — people feel safer in a protected bikeway. And if they feel safer, they will be more likely to ride that bike that has been sitting in the garage for 20 years.

St. Petersburg's new bicycle coordinator, Lucas Cruse, only a month on the job, is in the hot seat. He graciously explained the city's thinking: "The more we get people out biking, the more it humanizes them. It's normal — and simple."

Even opponents of protected bikeways agree that when there are enough bicyclists out and about, motorists will more likely anticipate them at every turn — literally. It is those turns that cause friction and present challenges for Cruse and the city.

Intersection signage, bicycle-only traffic signals, extended curbs and brightly colored street markings are a few of the tools designers use to alert motorists to bicycle traffic. But, as Cruse points out, "There aren't studies about what's the best design."

And many cyclists point to other problems with protected bikeways: debris that isn't naturally swept away by fast-moving car traffic; no escape route when two-way bikeways are curbed on each side; pedestrian invasion; driveways along the bikeway. And bikeways are not practical for those riding in excess of 12 to 15 miles per hour.

But perhaps most damning is that bikeways reinforce the idea that bikes don't belong on the road, where by law they have every right to be.

Some cycling advocates offer another approach: neighborhood greenways, which are streets designed to be bicycle friendly and car averse. St. Petersburg may be ideal for them because of its grid street system. Some existing streets could be converted through the use of simple design approaches. Speed humps slow and impede car traffic. Diverters at intersections require cars to turn while allowing bicycles to travel straight through. Stop signs used only for streets crossing greenways give bicyclists the right of way and hence, continuous travel. Chicanes, which are artificial turns, and bulbouts that arbitrarily narrow the road to slow traffic also are used in greenways.

Jan Heine, editor of Bicycle Quarterly, thinks greenways can help people feel safe riding a bike and at the same time reduce accidents at intersections where, he said, "Information overload is a problem." Citing the intersection problem, he asked, "How much safety are we willing to give up" to get more people bicycling, and "how do you mitigate for being invisible?"

Heine wishes his town, Seattle, would do more to adopt them. He and others are concerned that architects and designers, in part because of what they do — design and build things — and because of the lucrative contracts that protected bikeways can provide, are myopic.

Heine said greenways could be enhanced by development of a smart phone app that would direct people to greenways that get them where they want to go. More signage for bike riders also is helpful.

Fortunately, Cruse is aware of the neighborhood greenways initiative in Portland, Ore. St. Petersburg hopes to adopt a "Complete Streets" program that will update the city's current bike plan, which is 12 years old and trail-focused, according to Cruse. He says that while the bikeways are an idea the city is pursuing, nothing is "set in stone. Feedback is good."

And Cruse says the Seattle experience is what St. Petersburg is trying to avoid. The city is bickering so much about what to do, he said, that nothing gets done. He seems willing to give a First Avenue N protected bikeway a try, even if many Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee members would prefer Central Avenue as its location. Which presents another set of problems, such as parking for Central Avenue businesses.

Welcome to St. Pete, Mr. Cruse. Safe travels.

Bob Griendling is vice president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. He blogs at bobgriendling.com. Contact him at bob@griendling.com.

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