Wonder why some bikers don’t always use bike lanes? You might think they would improve safety, but that’s not always true and for more than one reason.
Some bikers choose not to ride in the lane if the traffic is moving slowly, and they move into the middle of the lane for better visibility. This discourages drivers from attempting to squeeze past in what could be an unsafe move for the biker. And if the lanes are too narrow, inexperienced riders stay closer to the edge of the road than is truly safe, leading drivers to think they can pass because there’s enough space, when there isn’t.
Pleasanton, Calif., planned a pilot project for a protected bike lane on West Las Positas Boulevard that took all of these scenarios into consideration, partly because the strip of road runs in front of Hart Middle School. Mike Tassano, city traffic engineer, said he was very pleased with how it all came together.
“The crews began work as soon as possible, painting the streets and installing plastic bollards to create the protected lanes and intersections. We had some bollards on hand for another project and knew we could use those if what we ordered didn’t come in on time, because of the supply shortages everyone has been dealing with. We also needed to do some contract reconstructions. We had to fix drainage inlets and issues, and the roadways had some settling issues that had to be built back up to be level. The striping was set for the last of March.”
Tassano said all this wasn’t done solely for school safety, however.
“It was kind of like a combined ‘yes.’ The pedestrian bicycle plan, as updated in 2018, had first prioritized the corridors.”
He further explained that besides the school, there are residential and retail areas within a mile, so a person can walk or bike to those destinations as well. Nevertheless, Tassano said the school safety issues were tantamount.
“Biking wasn’t working as well as it could have because the kids were sharing the sidewalks. A lot of sixth, seventh and eighth graders don’t feel comfortable on the roadway. And it was a six-lane roadway, so their parents weren’t comfortable with it, either. Our anticipation was that with a protected bike lane, it would have four lanes – nice, wide lanes with those plastic bollards every 30 feet. Cyclists shouldn’t have to be crowded on the sidewalk and neither should the pedestrians.”
“Our corridor previously had the most collisions, but maybe not the way you might think,” he noted. “It doesn’t carry much vehicle traffic volume, but we were still seeing a number of collisions with pedestrians and bicycles – too many. Las Positas had an equal number, with a larger area and more traffic. So this provided a good pilot. We really wanted to provide safety.”
Tassano explained, “In nearby Petaluma, a lot of parents have been driving their children to school. Here, this was an effort to increase safe biking and walking, and the parents wanted that improved safety too. It’s interesting because this corridor goes into a central business district, essentially office and industrial areas: We thought people would have concerns about losing a lane. So we built it as a pilot because we could make adjustments if they said something to the effect of ‘Oh, we like this, but we don’t like that.’ It’s actually an easier way to do a project like this.”
It didn’t require huge fundraising efforts, either.
“Of our 1 cent sales tax increase in Alameda County, a portion comes back to each city for bicycle projects. We’ve just been stockpiling it. It started in 1986 as a half-cent, and then in 2014 it went up to a penny.”
In addition to expanded and protected bike lanes, bicycle boulevards are also gaining in popularity, with benefits for bike riders and drivers alike. Bicycle boulevards use signs, pavement markings, and speed and volume management measures to discourage through trips by motor vehicles and create safe, convenient bicycle crossings of busy arterial streets. Conversely, in these situations, streets with low motorized traffic volumes and speeds benefit from designated and properly marked boulevards too, where safe bicycle travel is given priority.
In November, Petaluma laid out plans to install the area’s first “bike boulevard” on the city’s west side. The intent was to give both cyclists and pedestrians higher priority and safety by incorporating traffic calming elements such as diverters, curb extensions, speed humps, stop sign removal and then installing signage, lane markings and high visibility crosswalks. The plan was to have it completed by spring.
Tassano said other communities can do a project similar to Pleasanton’s protected and expanded bike lanes by researching established bicycling patterns and paths and seeing what’s near residential areas and schools.
“Identify the corridors most in need. We do recommend the pilot approach: Look into ways to repurpose unused spaces. One of the struggles that a lot of local agencies might face is not being focused on alternate means of transportation. Maybe bike lanes aren’t a thing in your town, but jogging paths are. Start there, where cycling isn’t a vision, and fit it back in.”
And after the pandemic and resulting quarantine, a little push to get back outdoors and active again can only be helped by safer areas to ride. “We used to have to stay 6 feet apart just for walking. We don’t need to do that when we’re biking; we just need to stay in safe areas and enjoy,” said Tassano.