What Protection Does a Bike Lane Actually Provide?

What Protection Does a Bike Lane Actually Provide? Photo Credit: Shutterstock Photo by Shutterstock

You're 30 miles into your Saturday ride, cruising along in the bike lane and dreaming about what you might have for lunch, when a goliath pickup blasts by, its side-view mirror less than a foot from your head. Shaken, but thankfully uninjured, you watch as the vehicle's wheels drift further and further over the white line and then fully into the bike lane before the driver—who must have been texting (you assume)—suddenly veers left, back into their lane of traffic. You've lost your appetite. Lunch is long forgotten. For the rest of your ride, the only thought you have is: If I'd been 50 yards further up the road, I'd be dead.

This scenario has played out for many of us. If things had been slightly different—if we'd left just a half minute earlier or later for our ride, if we'd been positioned on the road just a few inches to the left or right, if we hadn't noticed out of the corner of our eye a driver pulling out from a parking lot—our lives would have been significantly altered. And for many more of us, there is no happy ending.

Adult cyclists generally understand that our sport or choice of commuting comes with some very serious hazards. Oftentimes, all that separates us from two or 10 tons of steel is a white painted line. While comforting, a bike lane provides no actual physical protection—a problem that has been identified by the Red Cup Project, which seeks to show just how insignificant a painted line on a road is when it comes to providing safe infrastructure for cyclists.

The Red Cup Project Reveals How Often Drivers Veer Into Bike Lanes

The Red Cup Project, which has been enacted in numerous countries, involves placing red plastic cups—the type synonymous with frat parties and beer pong—along the white line of bike lanes. Then, you wait and watch. And not for very long. Unsurprisingly, many of the red cups placed along such unprotected bike lanes are crushed within minutes. Sometimes tomatoes are used for a more visually dramatic representation of what might have happened if an actual cyclist had been using the bike lane at the time. The results are shared on social media to show just how trivial a painted line really is. Drivers cross lines on the road all the time. An unprotected bike lane provides no magical force field, no invisible barrier of entry for sedans, SUVs, and delivery trucks from plowing into the back of a cyclist using that lane. Yet, bike lanes (unprotected bike lanes) are the single-largest aspect of bicycle infrastructure in the U.S. This makes sense, considering the creation of an unprotected bike lane often requires

What Are Our Infrastructure Options?

From crossing signals, extended curbs, and signage, there are dozens of types of bike infrastructure. However, when it comes to creating actual space for cyclists to use, these are our options:

  • Side of the road without a shoulder—The cyclist is expected (required) to ride as far to the right as safely possible.
  • Sharrow—A sharrow (shared arrow) attempt to inform road users that cyclists are on the road and have a right to exist there. Sharrows do not, unfortunately, provide any separated room for a cyclist to use. In practice, they can also be confusing to non-cyclist motor vehicle drivers.
  • Shoulder of the road—The cyclist in this case may have a foot or two (or a few inches) on the shoulder, which may or may not be enough to fully contain the cyclist.
  • Unprotected bike lane—Bike lanes range in width depending on the street and the county. Some provide ample room (six or more feet across) while others may be as narrow as two feet.
  • Buffered bike lane—A buffered bike lane is a normal bike lane with an extra wide strip of paint, or possibly a rumble strip—which itself can cause a crashing hazard for cyclists when they cross over it.
  • Raised bike lane—By raising the bike lane a few inches, it somewhat improves visibility of cyclists while also discouraging drivers to drive in the bike lane, or hang a wheel over into the bike lane.
  • Protected bike lane—Protected bike lanes offer some actual protection against vehicles in the form of a solid barrier. In order to be considered a protected bike lane, the bike lane must be separated from traffic by:
    • Plastic bollards (which in practice offer more of a deterrent than actual protection).
    • A concrete barrier.
    • Parked cars.
    • Or another solid object, such as planter boxes.
  • Car-free bike boulevards—Some cities are banning cars from certain streets, making bike- and pedestrian-boulevards that run a few blocks at a time before diverting cyclists/pedestrians back into bike lanes or low-speed neighborhood streets.
  • Off-street bike paths—The true gold standard of bicycle infrastructure, bike paths or shared-use paths remove the danger of drivers entirely, except at street crossings. There are a few downsides to off-street paths:
    • They often follow rivers or creeks, which can be prone to flooding.
    • Snow, ice, and debris removal can be haphazard.
    • Bike lanes can be less direct than streets, making them less desirable for commuters.
    • They are often congested with pedestrians and other path users (maybe demand should impact the supply!).

The Cost of Bike Lanes

Bicycle infrastructure is usually the lowest priority of a municipality, falling well behind resurfacing and pothole-filling. As such, when bicycle infrastructure is taken into consideration at all, the cheapest measures are usually enacted over the safest measures. According to the Department of Transportation, and reported by Denverite, the following represent average costs for various types of pedestrian and bike infrastructure:

  • Unprotected bike lane—$50,000 per mile (single side of the street).
  • Buffered bike lane—$75,000 per mile (single side of the street).
  • Protected bike lane one-way—$300,000 per mile (single side of the street).
  • Two-way protected bike lane—$750,000 per mile.
  • Sidewalk—$300,000 to $1 million per mile (single side of the street).
  • Off-street bike path—$9.5 million per mile (city of Boulder estimate).

The Argument For Bike Lanes—Protected or Not

While the Red Cup Project clearly points out the lack of real protection provided by a white line on blacktop, unprotected bike lanes do serve a purpose. They work by causing “more consistent separation between bicyclists and passing motorists,” according to the Federal Highway Administration, and they also provide ease of mind to cyclists, which in turn leads to more people riding their bikes, which in turn increases the safety of all cyclists and road users by approaching critical mass.

Call a Qualified Denver Bike Crash Attorney if You Were Injured

If you were hit while riding your bike, whether you were in a bike lane or not, you deserve to be compensated by the at-fault party. We encourage you to call ColoBikeLaw today to talk with Colorado bike crash attorney Brad Tucker as soon as possible.