Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sharrows and stripes: bike lanes for a common good

I ride my bicycle to work most days (other days I walk or take a bus). I also use my bike to get around on my days off, if I'm not walking or taking a bus or riding our regional transit system, BART. Occasionally, when going someplace far or late at night, I drive.

Sometimes when I ride my bike I use streets in Berkeley that are designated as "bicycle boulevards" by the city. These are streets that are peppered with signs and painted/striped to notify automobile drivers that the streets are specially designated to be shared with bike riders.

This is not going to be one of those cyclists are perfect posts. I'm among the first to admit that in Berkeley (and Oakland, and San Francisco) some bike riders behave arrogantly and foolishly, recklessly ignoring basic rules of the road, and leaving common sense to wither in the gutters.

I see cyclists run stop signs and red lights, even in the face of oncoming traffic, pretty much every day. It's an ongoing marvel to me that bike riders seem to believe that some imagined moral superiority -- 'my mode of transport has a lower carbon footprint than your mode of transport' -- will keep them from getting creamed by a ton of gasoline-powered metal. Or that their recklessness won't seriously harm a pedestrian or another bike rider.

Those are misfortunes that have really happened in the Bay Area, and recently. Just this past summer, A woman who was badly injured when she was struck by a bicyclist in a crosswalk at Mission Street and the Embarcadero died (Pedestrian Hit by Bicyclist in San Francisco Dies, KCBS, 11 Aug 2011).

Double-plus-bad news, for all involved and for bicyclists everywhere whose 'relationship' with car drivers is made more antagonistic and distrustful by reckless bikers. It would be nice to fix this sort of misbehavior with the wave of a magic wand. Alas. Instead, I'm disappointed to find myself wishing a cop would ticket a reckless bicyclist almost (but not quite) as often as I wish the same for an idiot driver talking on a cell phone or texting while hurtling along a street shared with attentive but vulnerable drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

On the whole, though, as a means of transportation bicycles are a significant social good compared to cars. Now don't get wound up about over-the-top bicycle enthusiasts and their hideously neon cycling gear. I'm focusing here on pedestrian cyclists, as it were.

Bikes can get most people where they want to go, within reasonable distances and over terrain that isn't too hilly. They're faster than walking; they're easier to park; they don't require fossil fuels to operate; they take fewer resources to produce; and biking is far more beneficial to a user's health than driving. For those able to use them, and for trips that can reasonably be traversed on a bicycle, what's not to like?

I'm going to go further. I think that government -- city government, mostly, sometimes encouraged by state and federal subsidies -- is an excellent instrument by which to encourage this social good.


Most of what we see on policy questions in national news reports and widely-broadcast political debate has to do with policy that costs a lot and has enormous consequences. Things like health care, fossil fuel extraction, military spending, and public education. I think it's worth a peek into the work of effecting 'small-scale' policy: how it's done, how it evolves, and what effects it has.

That's why I liked an article I chanced upon over the weekend. Titled A Banner Year for Bikes, in the weekly East Bay Express of Feb 22-28, this article by Nate Seltenrich was an unexpectedly engrossing read. It's not a long article (heck, at the rate I bloviate, this post is just about as long as its 1200 words!).

The Express article neatly packages insight into how cities encourage behavior that results in social benefit. Benefits like making it safer for bikes to travel city streets, and therefore more common for people who can do so to rely on bikes instead of cars.

Here's the author's riff on a new mode of street striping that has been proposed for Oakland's busy 40th Street:
The idea is to combine traditional sharrows [signs painted on the pavement near the middle of the lane that encourage bicyclists and motorists to share the road, and direct cyclists where to ride] with a solid strip of green paint five feet wide, like taking a giant highlighter down the middle of the lane. This design will provide a strong visual reminder for cars to share the road with bicyclists, even if there is no extra room allotted for bikes. [...] Such a bold approach suits 40th Street because of its relatively high traffic speed, [the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian program manager, Jason] Patton said. Without a clear signal that bicycles are welcome, they're liable to get run off the road by impatient or intolerant motorists — despite their legal right to be there. "There's a lot of pressure on bicyclists to get out of the way," Patton said. "We're trying to find a way to make that legal message strong enough in how the street looks."

Oakland would be the third location -- after Long Beach, California and Salt Lake City, Utah -- to give this type of street-striping a try. Patton goes on to describe the scale of the proposed effort in terms of its potential benefit:
"I think it's gonna be a pretty dramatic message that we think will change behavior," he said. And the upside is huge: With 96,000 people living within two miles of MacArthur BART -- and with 40th Street in Emeryville poised to serve as bicyclists' on-ramp to the eastern span of the Bay Bridge starting in late 2013 -- the new $300,000 connection could become one of Oakland's most valuable bikeways. Plus, if the super sharrows work, the city may look to apply them to similarly troublesome stretches throughout the city. Such progress is the stuff of silver, gold, and platinum-rated bicycling communities.

This kind of community-based policy development is, for my money, an example of government investment that affects how we live in positive ways. It's investment of common resources for a common good -- good that wouldn't be realizable if left purely to profit-driven actors and drivers concerned with getting where they're going in a hurry. I'm happy to pay taxes for sharrows and stripes that encourage people in my community to choose bikes over cars when they reasonably can.

What do you think?

Thanks to the Humanity Ashore - On Wheels blog for the image of a sea of bikes outside St. Sebastian's Cathedral in Mannar, Sri Lanka.

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