A Visit to a Bike Culture Town • Part I

Pedal to Properties uses cruiser bikes to show Real Estate in Boulder, CO.

Boulder’s bike culture is intoxicating!

Imagine, walking down the street and seeing bike racks every ten feet, filled with every kind and configuration of bicycle, from messenger-style fixies and new retro Townies to antique Schwinns and hybrid workhorses with xtracycles and trailers.

We enjoyed riding around the City of Boulder and the surrounding rural areas. Motorists seemed much more aware of cyclists than they are in Orlando — and with good reason, you can’t go 1/4 mile without seeing a half-dozen of them.

Boulder has installed a lot of cycling infrastructure to accommodate its bike culture. Some of it is excellent, some not so great. The following are my observations.

There is Much to Love

Did I mention bike racks every 10 feet? Old parking meters have been converted into bike racks (they now use pay-stations for metered parking). There are additional U racks at regular intervals, and multiple U racks are to be found on most corners.

Geographical features like rivers or creeks make for good bike paths. The Boulder Creek Path is a scenic, quiet way to get across town. It’s not necessarily fast—it must be shared respectfully with other users—but it is free of the pesky interruptions of road crossings. Path users can access the cross streets with ramps or continue along the creek under the streets.

Sharrows (Shared Use Arrows) make me feel all warm and fuzzy. Boulder has begun implementing them downtown.

The sharrow in the photo above encourages cyclists to ride in the lane and outside the door zone of the parked cars.

Of course, there were bike lanes in Boulder. Below is one used to give cyclists access to travel both ways on a one-way street. Contra-flow bike lanes can be a bad idea, but this one is implemented pretty well—it’s essentially a south-bound lane for bikes only. Notice the use of a sharrow in the northbound shared traffic lane.

The rural highways surrounding Boulder were as full of cyclists as the city streets. We were amazed to see more recreational cyclists in the country on Monday and Tuesday than one encounters in Clermont on a Sunday. They were mostly solo riders or groups of 2 and 3. That may speak to the level of safety they feel from the local motoring population.

The high speed rural highways feature wide, clean shoulders with the same quality of pavement as the travel lane. I’m not a huge fan of riding on the shoulder, mainly because so many of ours are substandard and full of debris, but on a highway with a 60mph speed limit, I was happy to have a 6-foot lane of my own.

Climbing in the canyons, there were shoulders on the uphill side. This is a nice feature on a road with short sight-lines, allowing a slow-climbing cyclist to move out of the way. There’s no need for a shoulder on the downhill, as cyclists should always use the full lane when descending.

But Beware that Swinging Door

Like most cities that “accommodate cycling,” Boulder uses a lot of bike lanes. Some are innocuous, some gratuitous and some dangerous.

The worst of these are the door zone bike lanes (aka DZBLs). Boulder has a lot of on street parking, and therefore a lot of bike lanes in which all or part of the space is within reach of car doors.

The car in the photo is positioned against the curb and its left wheels are on the bike lane line. To be clear of the door, a cyclist must ride no farther right than the left line. The bike lane defines exactly the part of the road where we teach cyclists NOT to ride.

First of all, striping a bike lane on a wide, 25mph residential street is gratuitous to the point of being insulting. What’s the point? But worse than gratuitous, is a design that initiates new riders (who typically start out on slow, low volume streets) into a riding practice that could kill them.

If you think that wouldn’t happen here, pedal over to Baldwin Park.

And Some Other Funky Features

Boulder has way too many sidepaths. While I like trails on their own easement, sidepaths are an abomination. In addition to being dangerous, they endorse sidewalk riding, which is an unsafe practice. I saw cyclists barreling down hills, facing traffic on sidepaths. They shot straight through intersections without even looking.

The traffic circles were interesting. It was nice not to have stop signs, but the circles created pinch points at the intersections. This would not be a problem for a cyclist claiming the lane, but the streets had bike lanes (DZBLs, at that) striped all the way to the intersections. So the pinch points force segregated cyclists to a conflict with motorists at the intersection. I noticed many motorists were determined to get there first.

I did notice that most of the cyclists were wise to the door zone and rode outside of it. It looks like they are also wise to the pinch-point problem. But again, why install facilities that cyclists have to outsmart to stay safe?

Another interesting paint feature is the handling of bike lanes that have to merge across right turn only lanes. This speaks to the inherent flaws of bike lanes — safe intersection behavior cannot be demonstrated with paint.

The safe cycling practice here is to merge into the lane well ahead of where this bike lane cuts across. That way, right-turning traffic can easily pass on the right. If there is a queue of right-turning traffic, the cyclist can easily pass on the left. It’s a fluid movement which does not disrupt or endanger anyone. Painting a bike lane like this creates a potential point of conflict rather than encouraging cyclists to merge when it is appropriate.

I saw a lot of cyclists swooping across lanes just before intersections. Sometimes across several lanes to get to a left turn lane. This is an unhealthy side effect of a system which reinforces a far-right bias.

We passed though one major intersection where a bike lane cut directly across a high-speed turnout (with a large percentage of turning traffic). We had merged out of the bike lane a block before and were riding in the flow of traffic. We easily passed the right-turning cars on the left and didn’t get in anyone’s way. But novice cyclists wouldn’t know to do that.

As I noted before, there were some bike lanes that didn’t cause trouble. There were some that were very wide and some next to parking but not in the door zone. It’s difficult to put bike lanes into a complex urban setting and not create conflicts.

My hope for Boulder, and for the rest of us, is that the urban bike lane will be replaced by the sharrow. And the concept of segregation will be replaced with integration, cooperation and education.