Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Problem with Segregated Lanes

I had an experience that was a beautiful example of why segregated bike paths, in an urban setting, can be more dangerous than lanes that integrate cyclists with motor traffic.

It was on my regular morning commute from Budapest to Szentendre. I was about midway, at the beginning of the dedicated bike path that heads north from Bekasmegyer. The path, which is for both directions of bike traffic, runs right next to the southbound lane of Szentendre út. As I say, I was heading north, and up ahead, a small flatbed truck was pulling out from a compressed gas filling station on the left. The driver had pulled most of the way across the path, and was intending to turn south toward Budapest. Naturally, he was looking to his left, watching the rush-hour traffic and waiting for a gap so he could make his turn.

I ought to have just waited for him to make the turn and clear the pathway -- but it was heavy traffic and I was too impatient to wait, besides being irritated that he was idling there blocking the path. I chose to go around his front end, and at the instant I passed by his front bumper, he hit the gas and plowed right into me. I actually had an inkling that this might happen, and I managed to jump off the bike and land on my feet. I was fine, except for a scrape on my thigh where the bike's cross bar raked the skin. My bike also seemed ok. The driver immediately hit the brakes, jumped out and was clearly upset and worried. I was pissed off, but refrained from expletives and instead told him he should look both ways before turning. He said something about traffic being bad -- a lame excuse for his having been idling there across the bike path trying to make his turn. My main thoughts were, I'm very lucky that nothing worse happened, and that I was foolish for taking the chance of going in front of a driver who I could see was not paying attention.

Beyond that, the experience reinforced wisdom that's gaining more currency these days: on urban roads where traffic crosses other streets and passes driveways, lanes that put the cyclists into traffic can be safer than lanes that keep them separate. Motorists don't pay attention to you when you're removed from traffic, and then when you do cross their path -- at an intersection or driveway -- you take them by surprise. The AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities notes that there are only certain places where it's appropriate to put cyclists on segregated paths (or "shared use paths," in AASHTO parlance). The book states, "Generally, shared use paths should be used to serve corridors not served by streets and highways ... ."

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