With friends like these…

You know, I gotta wonder if the folks making “pro-bicycle” decisions in this city ever actually ride a bike.

Actually, maybe they do—maybe they’re the people I see cycling all the time. The ones who scare the hell out of me, and/or piss me off, with their combination of blatant disregard for their own safety, obliviousness to traffic laws and rules of the road, and poor bike-handling skills. In fairness, the average cyclist is probably no worse than the average motorist, once you factor in differences in vehicular capabilities. And I’ve never been able to observe a motor vehicle for more than a block, and not see them do something dangerous/illegal/stupid (and i’ve been behind the wheel for most of my employment history, so I’ve seen a lot of motor vehicles). But the sheer stupidity of some regular cycling behaviors just boggles the mind: passing a stopped bus between the bus and the curb? Heck, passing any vehicle on the right, if you’re anywhere near any sort of intersection, driveway, or open parking spot. There’s plenty of room on the left side, where people expect to get passed. And yet, just because somebody painted a stripe on the pavement, cyclists think it’s ok.

Back to the city decision makers: They’ve recently put in bike lanes on several stretches of street that I regularly ride. In every case, the bike lane goes for a few blocks (2-4, depending on the instance), and there is nowhere particular to go at at least one end, and sometimes both ends, of the bike lane. That is, it’s not a bike lane that starts where a path dumps onto the street, or something like that. Nor does the street necessarily change width at one end or the other of the bike lane—and if it does, there’s no provision for merging. The lane just starts, out of nowhere, and then ends nowhere sensible. If you believe in the importance, or even necessity, of bike lanes, what’s the point of one that just runs for a few blocks along a road that doesn’t change character before or after the bike lane? If it’s dangerous enough (or whatever the criterion is) to need a bike lane here, it’s got pretty much exactly the same traffic flow before the bike lane begins, and after it ends.

The really dangerous one (Cottage Grove Rd.) ends at an intersection, and the road is one bike lane narrower on the other side of the intersection. So if you’re not turning right, to follow the bike lane dictates, you have to merge into 30+mph traffic while crossing the intersection. [Yes, i know it’s a 25mph speed-limit road; but i can keep up 25-30mph for a few blocks on the flat, and traffic there blasts past me.] Now, at that intersection (Dempsey Rd.), cyclists might well turn north to meet up with a multi-use path a few blocks north, or south to use some side streets that go reasonably-useful places. Though if you’re turning south, doing so a block earlier, onto a much-lower-traffic-volume road, and where you won’t have to wait for traffic lights, probably makes as much or more sense. Plus, if you’re turning south, i.e. left, the idiotic ending of the bike lane is a moot point, because you’re going to be two lanes away from it anyway. If you’re the sort who’s inclined to use a path, why not get on it a few blocks earlier? This bike lane starts at the end (or beginning, as you prefer) of the path, there’re no residences and only a handful of businesses in the few blocks it runs, and essentially nothing between the road the bike lane is on and where Dempsey crosses the path. So, unless you’re actually going to/from one of those few businesses, turning left (which is easier at an earlier intersection) or going straight (which the bike lane makes extra dangerous) using the path is going to be a shorter route, anyway.

The other new stretch of bike lane was probably intended to minimize negotiation errors, and cut down on motorists right-hooking cyclists on a relatively major street that is also optimally located for cycling (and is a bottleneck that a bike route and two multi-use paths feed through). However, the intersection in that direction is marked No Right Turn on Red, so there shouldn’t be anybody turning right on the red anyway. And by putting the bike lane in, it all but guarantees that motorists will be in the center, rather than right lane, when they begin their right turn. Before the bike lane, a fair number of motorists would actually pull to the right—get close to the curb—before making their right turn. Now essentially none of them do, regardless of whether there are any bikes in the bike lane. Which, like all these things, is marked as restricted to bicycles and right turns only—something that motorists are apparently unable to read. And now, because there’s a bike lane, cyclists zip up between motor vehicles and the curb with impunity—even moreso than they did before the bike lane.

My personal evaluation of this new bike lane (in the 600 block of Willy St.)? I am now required to be much more cautious approaching the intersection, especially during rushhour, than before the bike lane, to avoid unobservant (and/or illegal) right turners. And I now need to ride farther from the curb and thus impact motorists more, than before the bike lane. Used to be, I was generally positioned about where the center of the bike lane currently is: a couple feet from the curb. However, due to the bike lane, and motorists now avoiding the last 6′ of roadway, irrespective of the presence of bikes, the outside 2-4′ of the road is usually too gravelly and full of glass to make for safe cycling—especially at 20+mph in 20-35mph traffic. Generally, the furthest right that i can safely ride is on the bike lane line. It took 3 days from the painting of the bike lane stripe to it getting too gravelly for safe riding. And now only consider it safe riding after it has rained hard, or the day after a street sweeper has been through.

The latest plan to “promote cycling”? Biking, walking event will close 3 major streets to vehicle traffic. The asinine bike lanes, I sorta understand. I can usually see what the designers thought they would do, and how they thought that would be helpful. And some of them are probably intended to be extended, and they’re just building them in stages. This thing, I don’t understand at all. OK, so you want to promote cycling. There are two components to that: making cycling attractive to people, and mollifying drivers. Madison isn’t exactly a big city—traffic is already quite navigable on a bike. But I get that beginners may be intimidated. Still, on a Sunday, in the Summer, before noon, traffic borders on non-existent. I used to be out there driving a cab regularly on Sundays. So, they’re going to shut down parts of John Nolen Dr, East Washington Ave, and the Capitol Square to motor vehicles.

OK, what does this accomplish? East Washington is already one of the most-bikable streets in the city, especially downtown. Virtually the entire stretch either has a 10′-wide bike-and-bus lane (but, really, the buses are no trouble, and only come by in a small cluster every half hour), or a wide outside lane. And if you don’t like biking on busy streets (I find them noisy and stinky—but often choose them because they go where I’m going, and I’m the most visible to motorists), there’s a secondary street with a bike lane running parallel, 3 blocks over, a multi-use path running parallel 2 blocks the other way, a designated bike route 2 blocks beyond that—and that’s not even considering the residential streets through the area. The Square doesn’t go anywhere, and has minimial motor vehicle traffic on it to begin with. Admittedly, John Nolen isn’t very bike friendly: it’s multi-lane, divided, minimal intersections, and high speed limit. I’ve biked on it, but I’m a pretty strong and skilled cyclist, and a professional driver. But there’s a very nice (well, as nice as these things can be) multi-use path running along the entire length of it. And the only real reason to avoid the path is the pedestrians all over it. Well, if this is an event for “cyclists, in-line skaters and walkers”, that means they’ll be on the road with me, too—depending on turnout, the road may not be any better than the path. And if you’re willing to deal with the pedestrians and skaters, then the path is just ducky, and it’s always there. Plus, if a cyclist really needs to have the scary cars kept away, this event is still leaving several relatively-busy intersections open for motor vehicles.

Next, there’s the timing: 8am-2pm on a Sunday. The downtown doesn’t open up until at least 10am, and plenty of stores and restaurants aren’t open until as late as noon or 1pm on Sundays. And, of course, all the offices are closed on a Sunday. So this isn’t a particularly useful timing for actually going somewhere—like shopping, or out for brunch, say. Maybe lunch. And if the point is just to go for a ride, as opposed to going somewhere, there are lots of far more pleasant places to just go for a ride in Madison, regardless of what sort of cyclist you are. From multi-use paths and parks, through pleasant low-traffic residential sidestreets, to virtually pedestrian-free trails (both paved and unpaved options) through the surrounding countryside, to miles of wonderful country roads, many with very low traffic volumes (especially on a Sunday morning).

OK, so it doesn’t accomplish much: it “opens up” several areas that are already optimal bicycle transportation routes, but which don’t actually take you anywhere meaningful on a Sunday morning, and which are of dubious attractiveness for leisure cycling. What’s it cost? Well, it’s going to close down a couple of optimal transportation routes for motor vehicles. Admittedly, per my earlier comments, at a relatively low traffic time. But, nonetheless, banning motor vehicles from a road that’s not particularly desirable to cycle on anyway (in the summer, the heat off large multi-lane roads is gonna be there, regardless of the traffic), and which has built-in cycling accommodation (for those who feel bicycles need accommodations), just seems pointless. How about making a couple of perfect cycling routes (roads that don’t have a ready alternative, are intimidating to less-experienced cyclists, and go somewhere useful) off-limits to cars for a day, instead? I nominate Atwood Ave/Monona Dr, Mineral Pt Rd, Fish Hatchery Rd, Milwaukee St, and N Sherman Ave.

If they’re really trying to show some dedication to cycling, how about give us something that would be an actual concession, not just throwing us a meaningless bone. The article cites Bogata—last I checked, Bogata’s car-free days have been workdays. The first one Google finds was a Thursday. Now, you want to promote cycling, demote private cars, and control air pollution? Next time there’s an air quality alert, don’t just make the buses free—ban private cars for the day. Oh, sure, that would piss off a lot more drivers. But at least it would be in the service of a meaningful statement that actually accomplished something. Not rerouting a few hundred cars on the lightest-traffic day of the week, at one of the lightest-traffic times of the day. What they’re doing now is still gonna piss off a bunch of people—and for no real gain.

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