By April Gadsby
Yesterday we took a bike tour of Atlanta cycling infrastructure. We experienced a variety of infrastructure types including bike lanes, cycle tracks, a mixed use-path, and sharrows. As someone who has ridden around Atlanta outside this tour, I already had some thoughts on these infrastructure types.
As would be expected, sharrows or no infrastructure at all causes me the most stress when riding. These situations make me feel like I need to move as quickly as possible. I also worry that a driver who is predisposed to be an angry or reckless driver will come behind me and due to my slower speed will react rashly, endangering me. Additionally, sometimes people miss things when they are looking for a certain expected thing, so sometimes I worry a driver will not notice me, even with my light on my seat post, or misestimate my speed because they are preoccupied by looking for cars. Finally, when being mixed with cars, if something were to happen (accidentally riding into a large pothole or being hit by a parked car door opening) that caused me to crash, I could be run over. Altogether, I prefer at least some level of separation and I am a fairly fit and capable cyclist. I would certainly not want someone I cared for riding on these roads. I felt safe with the group riding at a time of low traffic, but typically I would be riding alone and at a time with higher traffic.
I feel most safe riding on the beltline because there are no vehicles for me to come into conflict with. However, it can get very crowded with slow moving pedestrians, making me nervous that a conflict will occur between me and a pedestrian. The next safest I felt was on the cycle track with the curbs because it would be difficult for a car to come into contact with me most of the time, and I would be able to only be highly vigilant at certain sections such as driveways or intersections. Overall, the fewer interactions with cars, the safer I feel. Coupling that with a situation where I also do not have to worry about pedestrians, makes for an easy and pleasant ride that I would be willing to make on a daily basis. I think this separation is even more important when considering families or people who are less physically capable with biking. When starting out, I think the physical stress of biking added to the stress of worrying about traffic, car doors opening, and potholes can all be too much. To get people to start biking, I believe we need facilities that more than just experienced cyclists can feel comfortable on.
Bike lanes are the type of cycling infrastructure I grew up with and I generally feel safe in them, but less safe as traffic speed increases and bike lane width decreases. I also find the potholes in the bike lane a significant problem because they may cause me to swerve into a traffic lane and if I hit one it could be much more dangerous than if a car hits one. For me, this could mean falling off my bike and into a vehicle lane and potential serious injury or death. For a car, this just means discomfort and some minor property damage at the worst. Having a space for just cyclists is an improvement over a sharrow, but it could be much more effective. For example, people parking in the bike lane, which we experienced on this ride, can cause a dangerous situation. Additionally, a bike lane creates a false sense of security that could cause cyclists to be less aware of their surroundings than they should be. It is easy to forget that the line on the road is a guideline and not a true barrier to a conflict with a vehicle.
Cycle tracks allow more separation and are definitely an improvement over a simple bike lane, in my opinion. Cycle tracks are more visibly separated, giving vehicles further cue to stay away. Additionally, unlike bike lanes, cycle tracks don’t have to deal with any potential danger from doors opening on parked cars. But the barrier used is important. The plastic bollards are not a separator that could stop a car from entering the bike lane, like a painted line they are more of a visual cue than a physical impediment and can also create a false sense of security. The cycle track on 10th St. only has this type of barrier. However, the one on Peachtree Center, had concrete curbs separating the vehicle and bike lanes. This is an actual physical barrier that is a great improvement. However, the bike lane on 10th street has no active driveways on it, but the other does. It may be too idealistic to have no driveways along a cycle corridor, but the concrete curbs could realistically be added in more places, such as along 10th street. These cycle tracks feel much safer, and due to the increased separation may encourage more people to try biking. Increasing the number of cyclists can make drivers more aware of cyclists on the road, which may make these driveway conflict points a safer situation. Another thing that might help cycle tracks in Atlanta would be to time the signals for cyclists. There were some stretches where we would be stopped at a light, it would turn green, and by the time we got to the next light, it would be red. This isn’t a big challenge as a cyclist on flat ground, but on the hills in Atlanta, it can be frustrating to need to regain momentum every block. Timing the lights so an average cyclist who starts going as the previous light turns green can make it through the next light would make commuting by bike much less physically taxing.
I find making left turns when cycling very uncomfortable. It can be difficult to move from the right to the center lane because I don’t want to be riding in the center lane too long, but cars will be using the left lane and I need a much bigger gap to change lanes than a car. It can be very tricky. I do not like the crossing at Myrtle St. and 10th St. It isn’t uncommon for vehicles to ignore the beacon. Additionally, it is multiple lanes to cross and having one car stop doesn’t necessarily mean all the other lanes will stop as well. I hate even more crossing from the 10th St. cycle track back on to Myrtle. There really isn’t any set up there for a cyclist returning that direction.
I watched a lot of the videos by Mark Wagenbuur following the bike tour. They were mesmerizing. With the wide, highly used and connected bike paths that give cyclists priority over cars, biking there looks so pleasant (the calm, pleasant music might have helped), except during rush hour. But I would rather have that kind of rush hour traffic than that of Atlanta. At least they were moving and the que seemed to always clear during the lights. I think the Dutch bikes reflect well the difference in how they are used. They look much more comfortable than bikes here, more suited for commuting and less for recreation than bikes in America. I think that reflects how the Dutch consider bikes more of a common, everyday means of travel whereas Americans see it more as a recreational thing. We do have more hills than the Netherlands, which requires more effort and the ability to change gears. But we also have bike facilities that make us feel a need to go as close to traffic speed as possible, calling for things such as road bikes optimized for speed. But, if we had such separated facilities as in the Netherlands, perhaps we could make bikes that were a bit more comfortable. The most surprising video was the one entitled “How the Dutch got their Cycle Paths.” I didn’t realize that they were ever a car centric society. This makes me more hopeful that their infrastructure practices can be used in America. A lot of the times people make an argument that we are just too built around cars to move in that direction, but they were able to do it. However, it would require a major shift in thinking. Biking would have to move up in priority in comparison to where it is now and something would need to be sacrificed to do so, which could be a politically unpopular thing to do. Taking away from pedestrians may also not be the answer, although the Dutch did seem to have some trouble with parking on the sidewalks. I saw one video of his that talked about creating zones for each mode/purpose to reduce the congestion on the bike lanes (mainly meaning, bikes could now take the roads in some areas). It may be possible if we implement some Dutch ideas, to improve them and adapt them to our own situation. To get the biking infrastructure in place, the Dutch rallied to make the cultural shift they needed because of the high death toll caused by automobiles as well as the environmental and health benefits of cycling. America too has a high death toll from vehicle accidents, although the percentage of deaths out of total VMT reduces from improved safety measures. I wonder if it would be possible to get the American people to rally behind such an idea if we started bringing these challenges to the forefront of people’s minds.