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?

Wrong Way Weaving

What could go wrong?

Running the Gauntlet

Swerved Without Looking

Unaware of the multiple threats

Wrong Way Cyclist Approaches Right Way Cyclist

The bike lane is so terrifying that many cyclists still choose the obstacle-ridden sidewalk instead

The sidewalk is not passable for strollers and wheelchairs

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?

In 2010, cyclist Marcus Ewing was killed when impact with a suddenly-opened car door threw him into the path of a delivery truck. Two others, Jasmine Herron and Megan Charlop, were similarly killed that same year, all in NYC. To this day, door zone bike lanes are still being promoted and installed as part of "complete streets" projects.

In 2002, cyclist Dana Laird was doored in Cambridge, MA. Impact with the door launched her into the road where she was run over by a bus and killed. This crash was thoroughly analyzed in 2002 (click the image). As a result, all planning professionals should be aware that, when used as intended, this kind of bike lane can result in death. Unfortunately, the intended users do not know.

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?)

12 replies
    • John Brooking
      John Brooking says:

      Most of our roads outside major cities (and many even in major cities; of course Portland, our largest city, is still not what most states would call “major”) are two lanes. Some are numbered state routes, and those are often the worst for cyclists because the traffic is usually heavier. Most are not numbered state routes. We don’t have the concept of state bicycle routes.

      Our DOT, at the urging of bicyclists, has made a priority of putting paved shoulders on rural roads to make them more welcoming to bicyclists. That is generally helpful operationally, but just as this article speaks about, they are almost universally viewed more as bicycle facilities than as passing convenience facilities. Some people have even used the hybrid term “bicycle shoulders”.

  1. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    “…bicyclist cannot legally be ticketed…”

    Actually, as John well knows, the legality of a ticket issued to a cyclist is virtually irrelevant to that ticket being issued, or even to a conviction being obtained. Even poor, sweet, meek yours truly has been threatened with imaginary offenses which, if acted upon would likely have mutated into something or another a prosecutor might make stick.

    OTOH, looking at the photos of how people on bikes often ride, and noticing how attached people in cars seem to be to cell phones and such, it is amazing that so few pedalcyclist deaths occur. Well, at least the sidewalk rider was riding with traffic…

  2. John S. Allen
    John S. Allen says:

    John — good post. I clicked on the link in it about the history of traffic engineering, and found a page about William Phelps Eno, who pioneered it — for maritime and aviation purposes as well as streets. Then on that page there was a link to the Eno Transportation Foundation site. On that site I found support for rail and aviation projects — this is not a car-centric organization. But look at the icons at the lower right. Truck. Ship. Plane. Train. Car. Bus. No bicycle, no pedestrian.

    You are very correct that transportation engineering isn’t just about motor vehicles. One of the most annoying things to me about many bicycling advocates is the presumption that it is — a presumption which they share with the transportation engineers they oppose. This supports the sequestration on dysfunctional bicycle facilities. I think that generally open-minded organizations such as the Eno Foundation might be convinced to look at bicycling in a more rational way, but that will require an effort.

    • John Brooking
      John Brooking says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, John. You may have noticed that the photo about the Dana Laird case, as well as the dooring link in the text above it, links to your page about that. I thought several times I should probably give you a heads-up that I was doing that before I did it, but obviously I never got around to it. I’m assuming you don’t mind.

      • John S. Allen
        John S. Allen says:

        John — Thansk for linking to my pages. If I didn’t want people to read them, I wouldn’t have posted them.

        Dana Laird, by the way, was someone we would want to have in this world, because she was talented, courageous and committed to the effort to make this world a better one. She was studying international law and diplomacy. She had survived Tienanmin Square, Bejing, China, escaping via the Trans-Siberian railroad through Russia, only to die pointlessly in a door-zone bike lane in Central Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. What a loss.

  3. Keri
    Keri says:

    I’ll offer this answer to the question of “How could it be made better?”:

    Get rid of the bike lane. Add 2.5ft to the sidewalk on either side so pedestrians can actually use it. Eliminate one or two parking spaces on every block and plant trees that generate shade. Get rid of the tree-wells that carve holes in the sidewalk to support non-shade-producing shrubs and palm trees. Put sharrows in the center of the effective lane. Add painted crosswalks at every intersection, signalized and unsignalzed. That will create a more walkable environment, add space for sidewalk cafes and restore legal equity and safety for bicycle drivers. It will turn Edgewater into the village mainstreet it ought to be.

    Will it happen? Not until that’s the standard upheld by the peddlers of complete streets policies and enforced by watchdogs.

  4. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    Even better yet – put crosswalks in the middle of the blocks so pedestrians do not experience turning conflicts from motorists turning left or right without enough caution.

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