It was big news in Central Iowa yesterday that the city of Des Moines has decided to remove protected bike lanes through the East Village, a vibrant, urban neighborhood that connects downtown to the state capitol. It was the lead story on the evening news. With the exception of RAGBRAI, I can’t remember the last time bicycling led the news cycle.
I suspect that I’m a minority voice in the cycling community here, but I don’t think this is such a bad thing. These lanes were poorly executed right out of the gate. Motorists weren’t given any warning when they went in and many drivers found them to be confusing as a result. Count me among them. When I drove through this area, they were very hard to see and understand. The cyclists who used them were virtually invisible from the traffic lane. I say this as a cyclist myself. I knew what to look for and still struggled. If you’re not a cyclist, I suspect you wouldn’t have a clue.
There was also a constant stream of people walking in the lanes as they parked their cars and headed for the shops and restaurants on the other side of the bike lane. Most didn’t realize they were crossing a traffic lane, even if the traffic was people on bicycles. Add it all up and you have a scenario that’s far more dangerous for cyclists than riding along with cars on a street when nobody’s going more than 20-25 mph.
I went out and looked on Google Maps and before these lanes were built there were sharrows here. Sharrows were perfect for this location in so many ways. The street is almost always crowded and speeds seldom exceed 30 mph. There are numerous stop lights and motorists are always weaving in and out of parking spots. It’s the perfect environment for everyone to share the road. In fact, the absolute safest place for a cyclist in this environment is in the middle of the traffic lane where he or she is most visible. I’ll never understand why the city felt compelled to mess with it.
I realize that a lot of cyclists like their safe spaces and I don’t mean to step on anyone’s toes, but poorly designed infrastructure like this doesn’t make anyone safer. It frustrates motorists who then take reckless chances. It mitigates one set of risks and replaces them with another set…one that most cyclists never think about. Yes, Virginia, there are crashes on the cycle path.
Our elected officials and advocates need to do better. You can’t just slop this stuff together and expect it to work. These folks need to recognize that for the most part protected bike lanes belong next to high speed arterials where the speed differential between motorist and cyclist is the most extreme. As average speed differentials fall, the need for protection falls right along with them.
I doubt this is going to happen. The people who advocate the loudest for protected bike lanes are almost always the advocates, consultants and engineers who benefit financially from building them. They exploit (whether intentionally or not) the typical cyclist’s fear of being struck by a car or truck and sell it to the cycling community as “safety” but this is not necessarily the case. The biggest risk we cyclists face is not that we might be hit by a motor vehicle, but rather we might fall or crash into an inanimate object. Poorly designed infrastructure like these protected lanes makes this kind of crash more likely.
For those who view this as a loss, I’d like you to reconsider. All is not lost here. The plan is to replace the protected lanes along East Grand with more traditional striped lanes. They will be buffered to greatly reduce the risk of dooring, but not protected. Speeds in the adjacent traffic lane will remain low. Cyclists will be more visible than they were hiding behind a row of parked cars. It’s less likely that clueless pedestrians will stagger in front of us as we pass. Buffered lanes are a better treatment for this particular stretch of road than protected bike lanes. A return to the original sharrows would have been even better still.