Friday, June 01, 2007

Should Cars Share the Road With Bikes?

This morning, I've been leisurely perusing through The Register. I may not always agree with their opinions (OK, so it's more like ALMOST NEVER, but whatever), but I like their local news and I like their columnists. Well anyways, I was reading Gordon Dillow's column today and I was stopped in my tracks!

I was driving along an open stretch of Pacific Coast Highway the other day, at or just under the posted speed limit of 50 mph, and every hundred yards or so I was passing groups of two or three or a dozen bicyclists pedaling along in the bike lane. And that's when it occurred to me:

I don't want to share the road. More specifically, I don't want to share a high-speed road with bicycle riders – not because it's that big of a problem for me, but because it's too dangerous for them.

Now in case you haven't heard, "Share the Road" is the slogan that's here to encourage motorists to be more aware of bike riders while on the road, and to cooperate with them. Now this sounds like a good idea, but is it really? Or are we just asking for accidents on places like PCH? Gordon Dillow thinks so, and I think he might be onto something.

Follow me down below for more...

(Cross-posted at Calitics)

So maybe bikes can share the road with cars on streets in residential neighborhoods and other areas where the speed limit is 35 miles per hour and less...

But on roads like sections of Pacific Coast Highway, where speed limits range up to 55 mph, it seems like utter madness to have 3,000- or 4,000-pound cars going 55 mph hurtle past 25-pound bikes going 15 mph – with nothing more substantial between them than a thin white stripe delineating the shoulder or the "bike lane." It's like allowing baby strollers on the freeway.

Yes, I know we've spent millions of dollars creating bike lanes – as opposed to separate, no-cars-allowed bike "paths" and "trails" – along our streets and highways. I also realize that in this day and age there are few things more politically incorrect than to suggest that cars be given preference over bicycles. After all, in the popular view, motor vehicles are pollution-spewing, gas-guzzling (and gasoline tax-paying) monsters, while bikes are benign, environmentally friendly little munchkins.

But the problem is that when monsters mix with munchkins, the munchkins are inevitably going to get stepped on – too often with tragic results.

Really? Munchkins? Stepped on? Tragic?

Consider the numbers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2005 there were 115 "pedalcyclists" – that's the NHTSA's word – killed in traffic crashes in California, nine of them in Orange County. True, bicycle fatalities were only about 3 percent of the total 4,300 traffic-related fatalities in the state, but if you factor in such things as "fatalities per miles traveled," it's pretty clear that statistically it's more dangerous to ride a bike on the roads than to drive a car.

Yep, when we look at the numbers, it just seems unavoidable. It really is dangerous to have bikes on the same lanes as cars. Now we can argue that all this danger is caused by the slower and lighter bikes trying to mingle with the faster and heavier cars. Or perhaps, we can argue that all this danger is caused by all these cars just going too fast...

But the point is that regardless of who is at fault in a car vs. bike collision, it's the bicyclist who's going to suffer, physically at least. Once again, no 25-pound bike is ever going to "win" in a collision with a 4,000-pound car – and yet we persist in trying to mix heavy, high-speed motor vehicles with light, low-speed bikes on high-volume, relatively high-speed roads.

And this is why cars and bikes just can't get along on the same road. And perhaps, we should start taking this into consideration more often when we plan more bike lanes.

Perhaps we should follow Irvine's example. The City of Irvine has 44.5 miles of off-road bike paths connecting to the 282 miles of on-road bike paths. In Irvine, bike riders have the chance to get off the road once they leave those quieter residential neighborhoods with the slower cars, and get onto these special paths just for bikes that take them to lovely parks and gorgeous nature preserves. Maybe Irvine is doing something right that other communities in Orange County, as well as other parts of California, should pay attention to.

And perhaps we should create more off-road bike paths besides busy highways like what is being done on SR-133/Laguna Canyon Road from Irvine to Laguna Beach. What Gordon Dillow saw recently on PCH also used to happen all the time on Laguna Canyon Road. And sometimes, that mix of speedy bikes and even speedier cars was quite a deadly one. But now, the bikes are getting their own lane. And most likely, this will make both the bike riders and the car drivers both happier and safer.

So perhaps when we're considering new roads and new bike lanes, we should try to keep the two separated. And perhaps we should especially do this with highways where dozens upon dozens of cars speed by every day at 50 miles per hour. After all, shouldn't we keep the good, brave bike riders safe and happy? : )

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