For one week of the year, thousands of riders take to Iowa roads for RAGBRAI. For the remaining 51 weeks, most riders will return back to the safety of the trails. While cyclists in Iowa have the same rights to the road as vehicles; they, however are not nearly as powerful, nor easily seen. Regardless of fault in a bike/vehicle accident, the rider is going to be the most at risk.
IF YOU BUILD IT (RIGHT), THEY WILL BIKE.
The majority of bicycle riders, roughly 60 percent, are not the “strong and fearless” or “enthused and confident” riders who will take to any road and forge their own path. They are parents with kids, new riders, and those who simply want to go for an evening ride after work. Without safe connections to trails from their homes, most do not feel comfortable to ride on the road with traffic. For many people, traditional bike lanes offer no more protection than riding on the road, after all, the only separation between you and a 4,000-pound vehicle is only a strip of paint.
This is where I feel incorporating protected bike lanes into roadways can play a critical role. A protected bike lane physically separates bicyclists from vehicles and offers peace of mind that will attract the “interested but concerned” class of riders to the road.
Iowa has one of the best regional trail networks in the nation, thanks in large part to abandoned railroad corridors. As these regional trails are connected and we close the gaps, the most difficult connections remain. It may not be feasible to construct these connections unless we look to on- street solutions.
While painted markings are a quick short-term solution, on higher volume roads these will not make people feel any safer or attract new users. The best way to leverage communities’ resources is to create an on-street facility all users can feel comfortable on.
WHAT ARE PROTECTED BIKE LANES?
Cycle tracks, green lanes, separated bike lanes … there have been many different terms used for bike lanes through the years. These terms are all synonyms for a protected bike lane. Short of an off-street trail, protected bike lanes offer the highest level of protection. This is because they have a vertical barrier to physically separate vehicles from bicycles. If a road has speeds in excess of 25-35 mph or traffic volumes above 5,000 vehicles per day, it could be a good fit for a protected bike lane. Every road is unique, so design solutions will be different and may require some creativity. Design should focus on what works best for all the users in that specific location.
Some drivers have a negative impression of bicyclists. I often hear, “Cyclists don’t obey traffic laws and are unpredictable,” or that “they dart out and weave in front of cars whenever they please.” The majority of our roadways are designed for the efficient flow of vehicles. Bicycles do not fit perfectly into this method of design and have not been prioritized as such. Some local cities however, have adopted complete streets policies which consider all modes of transportation. Complete streets policies view the inclusion of pedestrians and bicycle facilities as a core element within the roadway design and not as an afterthought or amenity. Protected bike lanes can be incorporated into the roadway design and help address these stigmas by providing a clear and defined area for cyclists. The result is increased predictability between the travel modes and lower crash rates along the corridor.
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People want to be active. They want to live in neighborhoods that are connected to our great trail system and have a healthy alternative for their morning commute. Protected bike lanes can provide the security needed to get recreational riders out and enjoying our state.
As RAGBRAI 2016 kicks off, we should consider how creating protected bike lanes offers people the ability to enjoy safe routes throughout their community. This yearly event reminds us of how many people enjoy bicycling. Let’s work together to offer everyone the ability to do so safely.
• David R. Fliehler is a civil engineer with Shive-Hattery in West Des Moines.