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Cyclists At Center Of Bitter Debate Over Bike Lanes

WBUR & NPR: Cyclists At Center Of Bitter Debate Over Bike Lanes

NPR STAFF April 5, 2012

Bike lanes accommodate cyclists and help with visibility, and some people view the lanes as a way to facilitate urban transportation. But sharing the road has its challenges. Drivers bristle at the thought of losing parking spaces, and drivers and pedestrians both worry about reckless riders.

Bill Strickland, editor-at-large for Bicycling worked on a piece for the magazine called "We Have Met the Enemy" with colleague Matt Seaton. In it, they examine what they call the "vicious" opposition to bike lanes in many cities and towns, and come to a startling conclusion: The toughest obstacle to bike lanes is the reputation of the cyclists themselves, who are often seen as rude and dismissive of the rules of the road.

Strickland admits he's guilty, at times. "I myself will roll through a ... stop sign," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "I never run any stoplights. Every once in a while, I'll go the wrong way ... if it's just more convenient, if there's no one there, if it's an off-peak hour."

Bike riders, though, aren't necessarily the worst offenders. "Cyclists, I think, break the law with no more frequency than drivers," says Strickland. "But we're very much more visible when we do break the law."

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What it Says About Us, says the case for bike lanes is compelling. "Statistics ... clearly show that when you put in a protected bike lane on a city street, the safety record improves for every class of people using that street."

But he thinks there's a vicious cycle of blame and distrust between drivers and cyclists that poisons the debate, in spite of the evidence that bike lanes work.

"In the U.S., sometimes, there's kind of this marginalization, almost criminalization that cyclists feel on the road, attributed to a sense of persecution," Vanderbilt says. When a car and a bike collide, he says, "the cyclist is immediately put into question first. Often [there are] no repercussions for the driver, even when they were clearly at fault. So I think sometimes cyclists can internalize some of that rage, if you will, and project it backward into kind of a law-breaking mentality."

But someday, there may be leeway in some of the laws cyclists are known for breaking, and that could benefit both parties. "There's a slight move afoot to make it legal for bicycles to yield at stop signs but otherwise do a rolling stop," says Strickland. That, he explains, is much better than the alternative. "Once a cyclist has to come to a complete stop and put a foot down, and say they're in a group of 10, that's just going to drive the person behind them crazy if that's a person in a car."

Ultimately, Strickland thinks bike lanes are a step in the right direction toward making the streets work for everyone. "It's not just about giving bikes a place to go. It's about making the street inhabitable and calming traffic — pedestrian, bike and car — and everything improves."