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Friday, August 16, 2013

Why do American streets treat bikes like cars and pedestrians?

People new to riding bikes as transportation routinely tell me they’re confused about their place on the road. It led me to wonder: Are people riding bikes like slower, more vulnerable drivers, or faster, glorified pedestrians?
In countries like the Netherlands, it’s not hard to find where people riding bikes are supposed to be; they’re given the proper infrastructure and treatments at intersections. Biking is safe and practical. In other European countries, while not always as wonderful as the Netherlands, biking is still popular and people riding bikes are often given the proper infrastructure, and/or inherently dangerous road users (drivers in cars) are accepting of a bike’s place on the road.
Come back to America. It’s hard for a lot of people to understand where a bike belongs.
Until I was late in high school, I thought bikes belonged on the sidewalk. I grew up in a small town, and bikes were for recreation (or a trip to Madison, which my parents and their friends lauded as a “great place to bike,” as if it weren’t possible in our own town). When I started to get into riding a bike for everyday trips (which was neither easy nor interesting on rural roads), I was surprised to learn bikes were supposed to ride with traffic – and I thought it was absurd. Apparently so did several drivers around me, who would act aggressively toward the “obstacle” I was. The people driving were just as unaccustomed to bikes on the road as I was.
Anyone who is used to bikes as recreation and not transportation will likely relate to my story. It does not come as a shock to me that with the increase in riding a bike as transportation in American cities, more people are confused – drivers, bike riders, and pedestrians alike. At times, bikes are placed with pedestrians (e.g. the Chicago Lakefront Trail); other times, with drivers. When asked about the situation, drivers who complain about illegal bike riding behavior often describe behavior that is completely legal, yet unfamiliar, to the driver.
The Chicago Lakefront Trail is used by tens of thousands of people daily – people walking, running, rollerblading, and biking. Image: Northwestern.
My theory is that people riding bikes are closer to pedestrians than cars, and deserve infrastructure that is more similar to pedestrian infrastructure than driving infrastructure. However, bikes are still not pedestrians (I’ll get to that). Here are two examples:

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