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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Protected bike lanes will change the fearful realities of urban cycling

I have seen the potential future of biking in cities across the country.

                                           Cyclists try out Chicago's first protected bike lane, the first of its kind in Chicago, while it is
                                           still under construction. When it is completed, cars will park along its left side, protecting cyclists
                                           from traffic. (Provided by Chicago Department of Transportation/MCT)

And friends, our heart-pounding, car door-fearing, bus-dodging urban rides may never be the same.

In Chicago, you can get a glimpse of it. It is a protected bike lane, the first of its kind in Chicago, under construction as part of a federally funded test.

But I recently saw and rode a fully operational version in New York, where 4.9 miles of protected bike lanes have been built over the last few years. I was ambling through the Village when I came upon a stretch of protected lane. I stepped off a curb on a major avenue and stopped, dumbstruck. I was standing in the parking lane, only it wasn't a parking lane. It was painted green and it looked to be a two-wheeled version of a pedestrian mall. People were strolling, in a cycling sort of way. They were riding unhurriedly and sociably, some of them chatting with friends riding next to them.

But wasn't this the parking lane? Where were all the parked cars?

They were in the next lane over, forming a protective barricade between the bike lane and moving traffic.

But what happened when the drivers parked and then opened their doors onto the bike lane?

They would be opening them onto the white-striped, no-go lane, twice the width of a car door, painted clearly on the road to the left of the parked cars.

My New York friend smiled indulgently as I gaped. It was just a bike lane. Didn't Chicago have bike lanes? Gamely, I defended our honor.

Certainly, we have bike lanes. They are narrow strips painted onto busy streets and marked with signs reading, "Good Luck, Pal." What fun it is to ride on them! The excitement of edging into traffic to keep out of parked car door range, the amazing sight of bikes pouring around both sides of stopped traffic like lava, the thrill of the bike messenger chase.

Dangerous? So what? It isn't urban biking unless you need an advance directive.

So I tried to defend Chicago's bike lanes, but my heart wasn't in it. There was only lust for those protected bike lanes in New York.

Then I came to the light.

The dedicated bike lane light, with its own signal — a little bike icon that blinks red or green.

I hung my helmeted head.

But now, Chicago is getting a protected bike lane of our own. Just one, and just a half-mile long — but look what the future portends.

"Under the mayor's transportation plan, the city would build 100 miles of protected bike lanes over his four-year term," said Adolfo Hernandez, director of advocacy for the Active Transportation Alliance.

The lanes would transform urban biking.

"You see kids riding their bikes, senior citizens," said Hernandez, who has ridden protected lanes in New York, Washington, D.C., and Seville, Spain.

"Anyone can just go out and ride, on any bike they have, in whatever they want to wear."

People bike more slowly and with more sociability, he said. And New York's bike lanes have not only reduced bike crashes, but also crashes involving pedestrians and vehicles.

"It serves as traffic-calming," he said.

Washington, D.C. is increasing its number of protected bike lanes in heavily-biked areas of the city. Officials say that the emphasis is on protecting cyclists.

"Separated bike lanes have been installed with great results in other cities including New York, Montreal and Madison, Wis., and they are the logical next step here in the District as well," said Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein. "Half of our residents don't drive to work: they bike, walk and take public transit, and we need to provide the infrastructure for them to get back and forth safely."

Only a minority of New Yorkers has complained over loss of parking spaces, space for driving and the lack of sidewalk access to shops, he said. The majority support bike-friendly street improvements, as shown by two polls and annual double-digit growth in bike ridership.

"There are around 200,000 people riding our streets on any given day," he said.

Much as I have enjoyed my time racing in the peleton in the Tour de Milwaukee Avenue, I'm ready.

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