Bike safety has been in the news here in Seattle this past week, after a man driving a dump truck killed one cyclist and injured another in a heavily traveled intersection notoriously dangerous for cyclists. Both cyclists reportedly moved into the intersection as the truck was turning; neither was wearing a helmet. The truck dragged both men for 25 feet.
The problem with the intersection is both topographical and logistical. It's at the bottom of a long hill in both directions, which gives cyclists time to build up speed and makes it hard for them to stop. And the intersection allows cars on each side to move in three possible directions--left, right, and forward--and includes bike lanes in each direction, creating a perfect storm for bike-car collisions. Sometimes, these collisions are the biker’s fault--a cyclist speeds too quickly on the right side of a turning driver, giving the driver little time to stop and running into the side of the vehicle. Sometimes, they're the fault of the driver--a left-turning driver fails to yield to a cyclist in the bike lane, putting herself directly in the cyclist's path.
In all cases, however, the biker is the one in danger; making the streets safer for cyclists is therefore far more important than assigning blame for crashes.
Whether bikes and cars should be separated or co-exist is an interesting debate, but one that's largely irrelevant in most cities, where even segregated bike paths must connect people with their jobs and homes on streets shared with automobiles. How, then, to make them less dangerous and potentially deadly? In the wake of the accident, one interesting option being discussed on Seattle's Metroblog is to designate parts of particularly dangerous streets as "blue lanes," so-called because they consist of an area painted solid blue to demarcate a bike lane on a thoroughfare where bike-car conflicts are common. Such lanes are common in European cities including Copenhagen and Berlin (where the lanes are actually red; elsewhere, such lanes are yellow or green), and are starting to make their way to the United States, where they've being found useful in reducing bike-car crashes. According to a Portland, Oregon study, the addition of blue lanes dramatically increased the percentage of drivers who properly yielded to bikes, and prompted more cyclists to follow the "recommended" path.
Given that many bike-car collisions occur in intersections, another simple solution is to install a bike signal head--a dedicated traffic light that allows only cyclists through. The famously bike-friendly town of Davis, California has installed several of these bike signals on its streets, where they've reportedly resulted in a dramatic reduction of bike-car collisions.
Image from "Portland's Blue Bike Lanes," City of Portland Bicycle Program
As a daily urban bike commuter that averages 100-200 miles a week, I think the best option may be eliminating traffic signals completely, as has been famously done in parts of the netherlands, and now other places in europe
But that seems unlikely to happen in car-crazy USA, especially here in fly-over country. I think bike lanes can be a decent tool, though I think widespread driver education may be better. Personally, I think in absence of bike lanes, bikers need to stop hugging the right side of the road in general as it encourages unsafe passing and the view that bicycles are only "kinda-sorta vehicles".
I'd love to do my urban commuting on mostly bike only greenways. My enthusiasm for taking back the streets from cars died about 4 car doors, 700 insults, one hoodroll, 15 stitches, and too many thrown bottles, cups, and trash ago. But until I have an awesome system of greenways, I'll continue taking the lane and protecting my space as aggressively as I need to.
My only worry about bike lanes is that they often don't help with the most dangerous spots of riding - the car turning right, or the car coming through the intersection perpendicular to the bike lane -- drivers simply aren't trained to look on the side of the road, but the middle of the road (some cities have bike lanes in the middle of the road, which I generally think are much safer)
I can see how painting an entire section would raise the visibility of that section. How does it affect braking for the cyclist, particularly when wet? I'm sure there's an answer, since Europe gets rain, but I'd be interested to know what it is.
It's not just car-crazy USA. Three hours north of Seattle, in Vancouver, the car-bike argument never gets solved.
The present provincial government is all about building capacity for cars and has a mess (read nonexistent) of a regional transportation plan.
Meanwhile, the City of Vancouver has done a fair amount of work on cycling infrastructure, but there are still places it's very hard to go by bike. Once you get out of Vancouver, it's a total crapshoot as to how well your cycle commuting can go.