Bike Lanes Vs Wider Outside Lanes

Which do cyclists prefer?  Does one encourage more use than the other?

For starters, TXDOT seems to prefer painted bike lanes:

“In particular, one general conclusion that leaps out from the results is that for both cyclists and motorists, bike lanes provide greater comfort and a better operating environment than wide outside lanes.”

In Denton’s case, traffic engineering staff clearly favor Wider Outside Lanes (WOL), which staff publicly stated are good for “experienced cyclists”.  As BFOC previously mentioned, Lance Armstrong, an experienced cyclist says:

“There are times I ride in Austin, and I’m afraid of cars, imagine what the beginner cyclist must feel like?

Lance Armstrong’s statement echoes our sentiment that the overall goal of implementing on street facilities like bike lanes, sharrows, cycle-tracks, etc is to safely encourage riders of all skill levels to feel comfortable.  We aim to encourage children, college students, parents, and grandparents to all feel comfortable and welcome, as the spirit of the Denton Plan insists that we should reduce the number of vehicle trips. Increasing bicycle, pedestrian, and bus transit mode share is the only way to offset motor vehicle use, and accommodating experienced cyclists clearly doesn’t get us any closer to the stated goal of the Denton Plan.

The following photo, which we recently took in Austin, shows parents riding with their child, clearly feeling comfortable and safe in a new bike lane added to 12th st (and existing car lanes shrunk to 10.5′).  This family is a great example of a cycling demographic we never see in Denton: parents and children riding together on the roadway.

austin family cycling

Some people might say that lanes offer no protection, as Denton’s traffic engineer Frank Payne openly stated:

“Bicycle lanes will not shelter or provide protection to pedestrians, or bicycles for that matter beyond hopefully a greater visual recognition.”
While we agree that the statement is true, it is also true that traffic lights, cross walks, lane markers, and warning signs also offer no physical protection for drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians.
As witnessed last May at the Oak/Hickory bike lane hearing, staff seemed immovable on their preferred wide (11-12′) lane width for Oak and Hickory.  As several in attendance pointed out, slightly less lane width (10′) would actually calm traffic and allow for bike lanes and parking stalls, thus leaving all parties satisfied.  The Oak/Hickory neighborhood has long desired traffic calming measures, and getting more cyclists on the roadway would significantly calm traffic, thereby making the area safer for all transit modes.
Countless examples from other cities show lane widths much smaller.  This example from the Chicago Bike Lane Design Guide shows that Chicago has no problem with 10′ lane widths, even with the far greater density and traffic load of the metro Chicago area.  If you subtract 12′ for one side of parking and bike lane, then you’d be at 32′ total, or 2′ less than the narrowest point of Oak/Hickory (34′, we think).  Now there’s a nice surplus to increase the bike lane size and/or include a buffer between the bike lane and traffic lane.
Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator for platinum-level bike friendly Portland, OR, speaks directly to this wide-outside-lane topic in his response to former Dallas traffic staff:
Your bicycle coordinator is representing an older system that works for perhaps only 1% of the population: what we call the “strong and fearless” cyclist. Basically, we credit the development of our bicycle infrastructure with encouraging more people to ride bikes. There will always be a small fraction of people willing to ride on the roadway in a shared travel lane. But more people will ride if they can get out of the traffic stream and ride in their own dedicated space. Those people are still a small minority–perhaps 7-10% of the population, but they create a presence. In Portland, that’s the group that’s largely responsible for Portland being such a bike-friendly city. They wouldn’t be there without bicycle lanes on the street and other dedicated bicycle facilities. It’s the same story in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Muenster and Beijing: build great facilities where people feel safe and comfortable and people will ride.
There is a difference between “safety” and “comfort”. A person riding in the middle of a busy travel lane is likely quite safe. They are not likely to be rear-ended. However, it is also more than likely that the average person is anything but comfortable in such a situation. Likely, they are intimidated by the cars streaming around them, or following them closely while waiting for an opportunity to pass. The cyclist feels like they are holding everybody up. The Dutch emphasize both comfort and safety in the development of their facilities (as well as attractiveness). Comfort is different from safety.
One story I like to tell is that I’ve ridden the same street to work for years. Before it had bike lanes I wore lycra, rode my road bike, carried my work clothes in a back pack and rode like hell. Once we striped bike lanes on the street I took out my clunker, wore my work clothes, slowed way down (so I don’t work up a sweat) and feel very comfortable doing so because I then had my own dedicated space. It felt great. Our story is build it and they will come. We’ve built it and we now are approaching 6-8% mode split.

We recently rode the new striped bike lanes in Austin, TX, especially on Dean Keaton, MLK, 12th street, and Chestnutt, and our feeling of comfort was dramatically different than when we last rode these streets on wide outside lanes.  The painted lanes seem to inform the drivers as much as the cyclist that “this space is designated for cyclists, and they have a right to be here”.  Austin traffic engineer, Nathan Wilkes, explained that the traffic counts for autos stayed the same before and after auto lanes were slightly narrowed and bike lanes were added.

The perfect comparison exists here in Denton, and we challenge all city staff and politicians to ride the city streets on a bicycle, as we do.  Ride Oak St from the square to UNT.  Then ride Hickory St from UNT to the square.  There is a dramatic increase in comfort when using the bike lane on Hickory, and traffic flows smoothly past the bicycles.  However, on Oak the traffic often changes lanes to pass the cyclists (thus disrupting smooth traffic flow), and the cyclist feels crowded and out of place.  A simple observation of the exponentially greater cycling traffic on Hickory concludes that an overwhelming majority of cyclists seek out a painted facility rather than a wide outside lane.  Comfort, safety, and increased ridership are clear goals of the Denton Plan and citizens.  A policy of wide-outside-lanes will never meet all three goals, and it certainly won’t encourage cycling in Denton.

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6 thoughts on “Bike Lanes Vs Wider Outside Lanes

  1. Stuart says:

    Based on 551.103(a)(4)(A), I don’t think it really counts as a Wide Outside Lane unless it is 14 feet or wider.

  2. Nathaniel says:

    Amen. Great write-up, couldn’t imagine it being stated any more profoundly. Only think I would change is the Bike Friendly Denton symbol should be a tall-bike or x-tra cycle possibly.

  3. Trent says:

    I look forward to getting involved. I’ve been riding to UNT from the north end of town and the bike lanes on Hinkle are better than nothing, but not ideal. There is too much debris (rocks, sand, glass, wood, trash, etc) in the bike lanes as well as a couple of man hole covers that aren’t even close to even with the pavement. (probably 2-3 inches rise) Riding it in the dark in the morning you really have to be on your toes. Cars parking in the bike lane on Stuart Rd is also a problem I frequently encounter.

  4. Renee says:

    I could not have said this any better myself. These are concerns cyclists think about everyday. I ride Oak & Hickory almost daily and the Hickory bike lane makes a major difference in the flow of traffic and my comfort level while riding. I would be so happy if there was a matching bike lane on Oak or even better, bike lanes all over Denton.

  5. Tom Wald says:

    Careful with that 44′ cross section in the Chicago guide. Two of the cars in the diagram appear to be about 5′ wide. What is most telling though is the 12′ combination of bike lane and parking lane. A 12′ wide combination usually does not leave enough room for a bicyclist to remain fully within the bike lane and to avoid the “door zone” of parked cars simultaneously. Even 13′ is not enough, so Austin has shifted to 14′ combination for recent implementations.

    I’m an experienced bicyclist (~25 years of street riding) and I appreciate bike lanes. However, they need to made properly to be effective and safe.

  6. howard says:

    Tom, thanks for the comment. I used the Chicago example to illustrate that a dense metro area uses 10′ traffic lane widths and 7′ parking stall size. My real-world example of Hickory and Oak St width of 34′ could actually give us the extra 2′ to make that bike lane + parking 14′, like you recommended. Or we could do 8′ parking, 10′ lane, 10′ lane, 6′ bike lane.

    The average width of a car is about 6 feet: a Ford Expedition is 6.5′ wide, a Toyota Corolla is 5.6′ wide, so I think the Chicago car images aren’t necessarily misleading.

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