Bicycle lanes only result in greater confusion

Dave Campbell’s deceptive op-ed “City must unite to support bicycle-friendly street design” Sept. 16 calls for correction. Berkeley cyclists have an opportunity not to just dutifully cheerlead poor proposals but instead insist on truly world-class bike facilities.

Most of the projects that Campbell confidently declares “are coming” to Berkeley are, in fact, just proposals for our City Council to accept, reject or improve, based on public input.

And that’s where we cyclists come in.

Do you really feel “protected” while riding the “protected” bike lane that Mr. Campbell’s group stampeded the city to hastily jam into Fulton Street with minimal public process or design review?

Or do you feel like you’re taking your life in your handlebars whenever you reach Fulton’s Channing Way intersection, where Mr. Campbell’s intervention has introduced an awful, needless conflict with right-turning motorists?

Worse, have you noticed how impatient and impulsive those motorists are — after they’ve been bottlenecked down to a single southbound lane? That crazy design mistake should never have happened.

If you agree that Fulton Street’s reconfiguration is an epic fail for everyone, we should be asking the city to fix it, not to replicate the same mistake further down Fulton Street — nor on Bancroft Way, Milvia Street and elsewhere, as Campbell lectures us.

Worse, if you inspect the Berkeley Bike Plan redraft that’s up for public comment through Sept. 29, you’ll see a similar lack of vision, in failing to adopt best practices from elsewhere.

A small example: For decades, my native Montreal has led the continent in installing “protected” bike lanes (lanes nestled between car parking and sidewalks). But we rarely shoehorned these wide bike lanes onto narrow streets such as Fulton Street or Milvia Street, as Campbell demands. Because that’s just nuts.

Montreal puts them on wide, six- or eight-lane boulevards with side lanes — where there’s room. Berkeley’s equivalent would be Shattuck Avenue with a reconfigured median. (Shattuck has its width, and that median, because trains originally ran down the middle.)

Moreover, Berkeley shouldn’t simply be avoiding foolish mistakes. We should be building on the world’s very best bike facilities.

I’ve rolled around two of the world’s most bicycle-friendly cities, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Copenhagen has invented a brilliant, citywide system of bike paths that use two-level sidewalks. Pedestrians get the top level, bikes the middle and cars the street level. No silly plastic separator poles required.

How well does this work? Bike-happy Copenhagen residents take some 37 percent to 67 percent of their trips by bike, depending on the survey. (While riding around, I saw plenty of cyclists commuting in formal officewear.) Copenhagen’s two-level sidewalks have since spread elsewhere in eastern Denmark.

The vertical separation protects everyone. If you’ve experienced being nearly killed while walking — thanks to one of Berkeley’s Sissy Sidewalk Cyclists — you’ll recognize why.

Those cyclists are breaking the law, but there’s no enforcement. If so many cyclists will inevitably ride on the sidewalk — regardless of street design — why not follow Copenhagen’s example and put bike lanes on a well-defined part of the sidewalk?

San Francisco has already planned five pilot projects to install Copenhagen-style raised bike lanes, according to the S.F. Bicycle Coalition. But Berkeley? Not one. We haven’t even applied to register this world-class technique as an approved “treatment,” eligible for Alameda County funding.

Why not? Because Berkeley is stuck playing an old zero-sum game from the 1970s: carving bike lanes out of street space.

That nostalgia trip appeals to ideologues who viscerally hate cars — even if today’s cars are increasingly cleaner and are more broadly affordable thanks to sharing services. These ideologues just want to displace cars, by any means available. They don’t care if they thereby create “bike” facilities that disserve cyclists.

But some of us cyclists really prioritize cycling safety and convenience, as ends in themselves. And we recognize that in an increasingly crowded and high-pressure city, we need solutions that offer a safe space for all travel modes.

In the zero-sum game, everyone loses: Motorists lose space, becoming more frustrated, less predictable and more dangerous. And nonmotorists get tossed planning fads that keep recirculating without evaluation or evidence and often add new hazards.

For example, “traffic circles” and curb extensions (“bulb-outs”) at tight intersections are presumed to somehow protect nonmotorists. But there’s scant real-world evidence for this.

Meanwhile, both devices pose physical hazards to cyclists. And traffic circles create line-of-sight hazards for cyclists and pedestrians alike.

If you’ve been nearly killed while walking near a traffic circle — as I nearly was, by a taxi driver who couldn’t see me through the circle — Berkeley’s visionless draft bike plan proposes plenty more traffic circles.

Berkeley was once a leader in urban design. Today, we aren’t even copying from the best. Where Campbell’s Oakland-based group urges us to order off a limited menu, Berkeley cyclists are capable of demanding — and designing — a far better future for ourselves.

So I invite you to join us in pressing for innovative strategies, such as Copenhagen’s — bike facilities that truly make cyclists safer, without introducing new hazards. Our City Council needs to hear the best ideas from all of us.

Michael Katz is a Berkeley resident and daily bike commuter.

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