Long-time Carbon Trace reader Robert (also a professional bicycle advocate and educator) asked this question in the comments to my post on the recent deadly right-hook crash in Boston: Do you think that bicycle facilities can be designed in such a way as to eliminate the dangers and delays? My short answer: No.
He was asking, if I understand him correctly, because many of the vocal readers of this blog are traffic bicyclists who do not think bicycle lanes and tracks are safe (among other reasons to oppose them). I understand him to be seeking solutions. I’m glad he asked the question for a number of reasons, one of which is certainly that many of my readers are smart people who like to contribute their thoughts in the comments. Some of the best stuff published on this blog has been cogent comments by readers. But I’m also glad he asked because it gives me the opportunity to essay about something that I have mentioned but never spent much time explicating: How my point of view about bicycling and bicycle infrastructure is determined by my goals.
I have often stated it negatively: I am not a participation advocate, i.e. a person who wants more people to ride bicycles. What I am is a traffic bicycling advocate. I am primarily interested in my own rights/privileges to drive the streets on my bicycle. I’m not a completely selfish asshole. To understand where I’m coming from it’s important to understand my goal: make life on the street better for me.
I’ve never written a mission statement for Carbon Trace, but if I were to do so I think this would be a part of it: The mission of Carbon Trace is to help those who wish to be traffic bicyclists learn how to drive their bicycles safely in traffic as traffic. I am always ready to help anyone who wants to learn. I became a CyclingSavvy instructor as part of my willingness. I spend a lot of time advocating for bicycling, following the bicycling scene, and writing about it here as part of my willingness. You can test this. Do you want to learn to drive your bicycle (and gain all the great benefits that come from it)? Call me (just visit the MSU website and search for me). Send me e-mail or a message on Facebook. Leave a comment on this or any other post. Shout from your rooftop. I’ll help you. I’ll ride with you. If you want it, I want it for you.
But if you’re the kind of person who just won’t ride a bicycle without special facilities, then have fun with the hassles, dangers, and expense of driving your car. I’m not interested in ruining the streets to make it easier for you.
And, yes, I mean ruin. Because another reason I’m not interested in helping you is that I am not interested in putting you in danger. I cannot participate (by advocacy or any other means) in putting you in danger while fooling you into thinking you are safe.
Bicycle lanes/tracks are dangerous — more dangerous than traffic — because they are pasted on to a system already designed to safely (and with minimum delay) move you from point A to point B. When a separate system is added, then conflicts with the old system necessarily follow. I have yet to see any examples of bicycle infrastructure (qualification: lanes and tracks) anywhere in the world that don’t create some conflicts with the system of traffic or conflicts among bicyclists (e.g. Amsterdam, where far too many people are crammed into far too little space).
While it’s cognitively easy to divide the world into dichotomies, by doing so I do not mean to suggest an unrealistic simplicity. But, generally speaking, it seems to me that bicycle advocates whose goal is primarily to increase participation are far more likely to promote bicycle lanes/tracks than advocates whose primary goal is safe movement within the well-establish system of traffic. I respectfully suggest that participation advocates ask themselves tougher questions about what it is they want and what they are willing to do to achieve it. Are you really willing to send that novice bicyclist into a door-zone lane or gutter lane for a few more percentage points of participation?
Painting lanes may lead to greater participation, but I don’t care. The cost is too high for me.
Convincing people they need bicycle education seems quixotic, but I’ll keep trying. The potential rewards are too great.
I’m perfectly happy to see more people use bicycles for basic transportation. And I am here to help. We’d all be a lot better off if our mode share were higher in the streets we already have.