City planners and some cycling advocates insist that protected bike lanes are the best and safest way to encourage many San Diegans to ditch their cars and join the cycling transportation revolution.
Bordered by raised asphalt barriers and bright plastic pylons, these protected lanes create a supposed safety bubble to protect cyclists from vehicles moving alongside them in the same direction. In theory, cyclists of all ages and abilities can enjoy the San Diego sunshine and scenery, while cars and trucks whizz by in the adjacent vehicle lane.
Motorists will supposedly see the fun loving bikers not slowed by traffic jams and join them in droves. Soon, we’ll all be pedaling together, in cycling bliss.
But those rosy assurances crumble, when we confront the real dangers of protected bike lanes, and the emotional and economic cost of the accidents, injuries, and deaths that plague them.
According to statistics gathered by North County cycling advocates, there were 24 accidents — all at slow speeds — in just eight months on a one-mile flat protected bike lane stretch installed last year on the Cardiff 101 beach route.
Fifteen of those crashes were caused by cyclists who collided with the raised asphalt barriers designed to keep vehicles away from the bike traffic. A ten-year-old rider flopped into the traffic lane after colliding with an asphalt barrier and, fortunately, was not run over by a vehicle. Many of these crashes resulted in ambulance rides to a hospital, including one knocked unconscious, one neck injury, two multiple bone fractures, one broken pelvis, two pedestrian crashes, and one hit surfboard.
The protected bike lanes on popular beachfront roads also attract pedestrians, joggers, families with strollers, beachgoers carrying umbrellas, coolers, and chairs, and scores of other non-cyclists. Those pedestrians don’t always pay attention to the cyclists, which creates a serious hazard for everyone. Raised barriers are also a pedestrian trip hazard. When a bike lane is on a steep grade, the added bike speed makes the situation even more hazardous.
The raised asphalt barriers, plastic pylons and fences also give cyclists a false sense of security. Bike riders assume cars and trucks can’t jump the barriers, but in reality vehicles easily can. The barriers also pen in the cyclists, reducing the “escape routes” they need to avoid vehicles that drift into their bike lane, or vehicles that cut them off with a quick right turn, or their need to maneuver around obstacles and debris.
Protected bike lanes are also a magnet for trash, sand and other debris. The raised barriers block the normal “sweeping” action created by vehicle traffic movement. Plus, the narrow lanes can’t accommodate street cleaning and repaving equipment. Accumulated debris and sand thus causes more falls and collisions.
A cyclist on Leucadia Blvd suffered a much worse fate. A truck driver made a right turn in front of the rider, who was killed when he collided with the truck. The plastic pylons designed to protect the cyclist had the opposite effect; they prevented the truck driver from slowly moving towards the curb as he prepared to make that right turn onto Moonstone Court.
Those collisions are an unfortunate but predictable result of a noble but misguided plan, and flawed designs.
Experienced bike riders immediately see those dangers and most will not ride in a protected bike lane, preferring the safety of marked traffic lanes shared by both motorists and cyclists. They know the protected bike lanes give novice bikers a false sense of security.
Traditional buffered bike lanes with wide painted vehicle exclusion zones are a much safer design alternative facilitating safer right turns for vehicles and are routinely swept and paved.
Buffered bike lanes are also much less expensive to build. That’s crucial now, and will be for years to come, because local governments hobbled with huge, pandemic-induced budget deficits can’t afford to build at a cost $2.6 million per mile and maintain protected bike lanes. That money could build miles and miles of sustainable buffered bike lanes, with wide painted vehicle exclusion zones, providing a much safer, cleaner, and smoother riding experience.
Plus, the supposed extra protection offered by the protected bike lanes could soon be unnecessary, as more vehicles are equipped with standard safety software for human and bicycle crash avoidance.
In response to these real-world safety problems, advocates for protected bike lanes downplay their dangers. “Barriers may bruise elbows, but they save lives,” is their motto. “Build more.”
That’s a catchy phrase, but as too many cyclists — many of them novice riders — already have learned the hard way that it’s bad advice, with serious — sometimes even deadly — consequences.
Phillip Young is a longtime road and mountain bicycle rider and member of several bicycle clubs. He lives in Pacific Beach.