Of cars, bikes, and Trojan horses
Question: What do the following two quotes have in common?
Well-planned, well-designed, context-based streets are an integral part of a comprehensive transportation network that safely supports the needs of the communities and the traveling public, no matter how they are traveling.
The motor vehicle zone is generally considered the paved travel way of a street. Motor vehicle zone elements include the travel lanes, turn lanes and tapers, and channelized or striped pavement areas, and, in some circumstances, the gutter pans. Travel lanes are important for vehicular movement and capacity along a corridor.
Answer: They are both from the June 2011 draft of the North Caroline DOT Complete Streets policy, pages 7 and 56, respectively.
Here’s another quote from earlier on page 7:
Even before the founding of the Interstate Highway System, transportation planning and design was focused on the safe movement of cars and trucks from point A to point B, alleviating bottlenecks along the way, and increasing access and capacity in response to increasing traffic. It didn’t matter whether the facility was an interstate highway, a freeway, a community main street, or a rural road, the automobile was an emerging mode of transportation and getting it from its origin to its destination as quickly and smoothly as possible was the role of the transportation planner and engineer. This seemed an appropriate response to the desires of the times—a growing country wanting quick access to commerce and connectivity from city to city and region to region.
Now, I understand that part of the point of the Complete Streets movement is to get us away from the point of view underscored by that last quote, which admits what we all knew: transportation planning and engineering of the last 75 years has been all about the automobile, and only tangentially and occasionally about non-motorized users. Most people don’t realize that that is not the entirety of the history of traffic engineering.
But what about that other quote? Travel lanes and turn lanes are part of the “motor vehicle zone”?! Are you kidding me? Isn’t this exactly the public perception we fight all the time, as we are told to “get in the bike lane” (even where there is none) or just plain “get off the $@&* road!”? And now it is in an official transportation planning document?
The document goes on to say, on pages 56-57 (emphasis mine):
A shared vehicle zone allows for both motorized and non-motorized vehicles, and typically includes additional pavement for bicycles. The preferred treatment for bicycles on higher volume and speed streets is a separate bicycle lane. If a shared vehicle zone is used instead, it might consist of additional space for a shared lane, additional space with marked sharrows, or on very low-volume, low-speed streets, a regular travel lane.
As described in the description of the shared vehicle zone, if separate bicycle lanes cannot be accommodated, shared lanes are allowed if the outside vehicular lanes are 14 feet.
So, it’s all about separate space. The preferred treatment is a bicycle lane. If a bicycle lane is not appropriate, try to get additional space for a shared lane, or additional space marked with sharrows, but consider only a regular travel lane on a very low-volume, low-speed street (and we’ll only call it a shared lane if it’s at least 14′ wide).
So tell me again, how this is different from “getting (the automobile) from its origin to its destination as quickly and smoothly as possible”? What this is saying is that bicyclists and motorists should only ever use the same “zone” if the road is wide enough that the motorists do not have to ever be behind a bicycle, or if the motor vehicle volume and speed is so low (and not just low, very low) that it doesn’t matter. How convenient that what is best for bicyclists (according to the NC DOT) is also the most convenient for motorists. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
To be clear, this is not a change to North Carolina law, which like all U.S. states, gives bicyclists largely the same rights as motorists, including the right to use any local road regardless of its geometry. In fact, North Carolina is one of only a few states that has no discriminatory laws micromanaging bicyclist lane position. Actually, this language is flat out contradictory to the law. A bicyclist cannot legally be ticketed in North Carolina or indeed in any state for riding on a narrow rural road without a shoulder or bike lane (and I presume North Carolina has plenty of such roads, as does my state of Maine), or in an urban travel lane outside the door zone of a row of parked cars.
But she can certainly be harassed by motorists or law enforcement, who frequently already assume that the travel lane is intended only for cars, and that bicyclists should be using their own separate space. If this “motor vehicle zone” language only reflects the reality of what the focus of road building has been for the last 75 years, which is hardly in dispute, to see it appearing as official language authored by a state DOT tells me that the mindset has not changed significantly beyond simply giving the bike advocates the separate space they are asking for. And how much more is this mindset only going to be reinforced by an official document referring to regular travel lanes as “motor vehicle zones”? That’s going completely the wrong direction in terms of cyclist road rights.
Back to the NC DOT document, our “cyclist on the street” in Cary, League Cycling Instructor and bicycle driving advocate Steven Goodridge, reports that
A statewide cyclist organization strongly opposed the quoted language in the official written feedback they provided, on the basis that it marginalizes cyclists’ safe and legal use of general purpose travel lanes. The cyclist organization recommends that the next revision of the publication specifically note bicyclists’ legal status as drivers of vehicles under state law, and remove reference to the term “motor vehicle zone” in favor of using “shared vehicle zone” or similar language for all general purpose travel lanes.
He further notes that such language as “motor vehicle zone” frames bicycle transportation “as something other than a normal use of shared travel lanes, marginalizing normal bicycle driving on everyday roads.”
Comparing this paradigm to a more equality-based alternative, he writes:
Complete Streets paradigm is being interpreted as requiring a separate sidepath or lane for bicycles wherever possible (they consider the the door zone to be fine) or, failing that, a wide outside lane with sharrows marked at the outside edge. A street cannot be considered “Complete(TM)” unless motorists can pass bicyclists immediately, without slowing down or changing lanes.
The alternative paradigm that I’ve been trying to promote is that all general purpose travel lanes are shared lanes, but that such shared lanes may be supplemented with extra width or additional optional-use lanes where ease of passing is a design priority. This is the paradigm that aligns with traffic law and operational reality. Unfortunately, it does not match the beliefs of many non-cyclists, and separated facilities appear to be optimized for non-cyclists.
(I’ll also take this opportunity to point out Steve’s excellent article, “The Science and Politics of Bicycle Driving“, which I read a number of years ago and was reminded of again when I looked up his site to link to above. While discussing the American “taboo against bicycle driving,” he states “Bicycle driving is taboo in American society because it involves occupying lane space on roadways,” a proposition which seems just as relevant now as it was when he wrote it in 2001, if not more so.)
At the 2009 Bike Summit, the only one I’ve attended, Orlando’s own Edgewater Drive was featured on a brochure advertising a “Complete Streets” success, because this bike lane was striped on it:
At the time, I had only just met Keri, had never been to Orlando, and the brochure didn’t really mean anything to me. Two years later, I was in Orlando taking Cycling Savvy, then becoming an Instructor, and I had a chance to experience this road for myself. It is frequently every bit as busy as it looks in the pictures below, full of blind driveways, narrow sidewalks, and many vehicles of all sizes in narrow lanes. (See more at Keri’s Edgewater Drive Flickr set.) Intimidating as it no doubt was to most cyclists without the bike lanes, does it really look like the bike lanes are making it safer? Are they a substitute for educating cyclists?
Yet, perhaps they are indeed “working”, if your definition of “working” includes inducing bicyclists who are otherwise afraid to interact with traffic into the road without being aware of the dangers.
Some questions that spring to my mind:
- Did the addition of this bike lane really make this street “complete”?
- How could it be made better, and will it change, now that the bike lane has already made it “complete” according to the Complete Streets philosophy? (My sources say no.)
- Are these uneducated cyclists better off with it than without it?
- Are educated cyclists better off with it than without it?
- Is cycling as a whole benefited by this?
Expanding a bit on that last: Lacking the educational and motorist liability context present in most European countries (citizens educated in bicycling from grade school on, motorist presumed at fault in any car/bike crash), will build-out of infrastructure alone in this country advance the cause of transportation cycling merely by inducing more people who don’t know how to behave in traffic to bike? Or will it make it more difficult because it serves to reinforce the impression of the public that roads are “motor vehicle zones,” as most people already think and some traffic engineers are tempted to formalize in official documents? Will a large influx of untrained cyclists make people respect cyclists more because they are more likely to have a friend or family member who cycles, or respect us less because facilities offer so little inducement for cyclists to act as responsible and predictable fellow road users, and for motorists to treat us as such? Can infrastructure that facilitates right hooks, left crosses, drive-outs, and doorings lead to a healthy place for bicycling in the transportation infrastructure, or will it reinforce the fear of traffic and the call for ever more separation? What then of equal access to the roads?
All cyclists want to be respected by motor vehicle drivers, and to have a sufficiently safe environment to ride in. The Complete Streets philosophy aims to provide this through street infrastructure. The question is, is infrastructure alone sufficient? By accepting the gift of infrastructure, bereft of other European context, will American cyclists find that even greater inequality, such as the concept of “motor vehicle zones”, has snuck in with it, with the beguiling promise of being “separate but equal?” How has that worked out historically? (And how reliably will it be funded?)