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Unorthodoxy of Cleveland's W. 25th bike lanes raises concern

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/08/15 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Biking, Transportation choices

The pace of Cleveland’s progress in painting bike lanes has picked up since the passage of its 2011 Complete Streets law, and since the city announced last year that it was setting a goal to build 80 miles of bikeways by 2017. When the city resurfaces streets, bike lanes must be considered. (Not every street gets the upgrade—the likelihood is greater, city officials have said, if the street is on the city’s 2007 Master Bike Plan). Cleveland is on pace to paint 22.16 miles of bike lanes in 2015 after painting just over 10 miles in 2014.

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Observers still have questions about Cleveland’s ability to keep pace with other cities— both in pure numbers of bike lanes and, more recently, in how the city designs them.

Case in point—West 25th Street.

Chalk lines appeared on fresh blacktop last week marking out a bike lane on the northbound stretch between the West Side Market and Detroit Avenue. Ordinarily that would be cause for celebration—a bike lane on a major thoroughfare in Cleveland before 2011 would have been a long shot.

But, an “unorthodox” design of the W. 25th bike lane was enough for the region’s flagship advocacy group, Bike Cleveland, to poke some fun while raising serious questions. The post questions why the city wants to add a buffer facing away from traffic? Instead of adding protection between the bike lane and cars (aka travel lane), the city appears ready to “protect the concrete (curb) instead of people” on a bike.

We caught up with Bike Cleveland Executive Director Jacob Van Sickle and asked about the post. Is this a black-socks-with-white-shoes moment for Cleveland?

“It’s not something I’ve ever seen before,” Van Sickle says. “We are disappointed. It doesn’t do much to improve safety. There is space available to do a buffer between the bike lane and travel lane. Why not use it to keep people safe?”

The decision to buffer the curb doesn’t align with national standards, says Van Sickle, who cites that of 2012 National Association of City Transportation Officials, a group of planners and traffic engineers from 21 participating city.

In an email to Bike Cleveland, Cleveland traffic engineer, Andy Cross, is dismissive of NACTO. He reasons that buffered bike lanes pose a danger to cyclists from cars turning right.

“The terms ‘best practices’ and ‘protected’ are often used with what is shown in the NACTO guide,” Cross writes. “A design that encourages or requires hook turns across the path of through cyclists is neither a ‘best practice’ nor ‘protected.’”

He goes on to explain that the more common left side buffered bike lane will be installed on West 25th—where right turns are prohibited. 


That doesn’t hold with the kind of empirical evidence that has spurred cities such as Portland to paint 319 miles of bike ways. The city recorded zero bike fatalities in 2013; while two bike fatalities have been recorded in 2015. In part, the increase in fatalities is due to Portland increasing its share of bikes on the road to 6% of all commuters—the highest in the country. It’s a virtuous cycle where biking increased 283% in ten years in large measure due to the array of amenities the city installed to recognize it as a real form of transportation—bike traffic lights, 5,000 places to park, events and particularly the lanes including 9 buffered and 3 protected offering more distance or barriers between cars and bikes.

“He is out of step with the more progressive members of his field in refusing to install buffered or protected bike lanes,” observes Angie Schmitt, a reporter and editor for the national transportation site, Streetsblog. “He doesn’t see the bigger picture. If more people bike in a city, biking gets safer.”

Studies have shown that cyclists overwhelmingly prefer more protection between them and moving cars. Portland State University, Center for Transportation Studies, evaluated bike facility preferences in 2011 and found that buffered bike lanes were the overwhelming favorite among people who bike. Seven in 10 cyclists will go out of their way to ride in a buffered versus a standard bike lane.

“Only the super fit 1% will bike in a traffic lane and behave like a car,” Schmitt adds. “We want new groups of people to feel comfortable riding a bike somewhere—little old ladies, moms with young children, etc. To do that, we need real infrastructure that gives people some degree of separation from vehicle traffic.”

Van Sickle says he mostly concerned about the “precedence” that the West 25th bike lane design might set. He prefers to work out problems face-to-face rather than be cut out of the conversation all together.

“Regardless of his concerns, we have to weigh that against the ability to attract new riders,” he concludes. “We hope we can get Andy to realize he can break from norms and install a more progressive facility. He’s a smart guy. Let’s figure this out rather than cross arms and say we’re not going to do it.”

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A buffered bike lane—the kind that NACTO and Bike Cleveland recommend—is allowed as per federal law known as the Manual of Uniform Traffic Code (MUTCD) guidelines / section 3D-01 for buffered preferential lanes.

A recent report from U.S. Transportation officials delves into this issue of city traffic engineers perhaps holding fast to standards that even the Federal Highway Administration has said might be outmoded. “That could clear the path for more and better bike and pedestrian infrastructure.”

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Austin
9 months ago

I agree with Ant. The floating bike lane on Detroit Ave. is not only unsettling for cyclists using it but also confusing for all users of the street. The fact that the paint is so quickly worn doesn't help matters either. Has the paint issue been addressed? I thought that the plan was to use thermofoil.

Ant
9 months ago

I live in Torino, Italy, where I'm a cycling advocate. I cycle around Cleveland which I often visit for business reasons. I found a similar buffer on the "wrong" side on Detroit Avenue where I tend to ride much near - if not on - the buffer to keep more distance from passing vehicles. From personal experience at home and other places, I don't see how (citation) "buffered bike lanes pose a danger to cyclists from cars turning right".
More protection = less casualties.

Marc
9 months ago

Austin - I was also feeling positive about the city's complete streets law, however, one of the reasons it doesn't rank highly in the National Complete Streets Coalition's annual ranking is, in part, for the reason you point out. The policy exemptions are not clearly spelled out in the ordinance. That is not to say that the city couldn't revisit the ordinance -- and update it with some of its subsequent, internal policy directives on how and where to apply complete streets. In addition, there is a cap for how much the city will spend on a project. How that cap might impact on the design of a roadway like West 25th -- where advocates asked the city to consider a protected bikeway -- is another concern with the Cleveland complete streets ordinance (that, again, could be revisited and changed).

Austin
9 months ago

I was heartened by the passage of Cleveland's Complete and Green Streets ordinance but have been disappointed and surprised by its effectiveness (or lack thereof) and uneven application. Is there an transparent, official step that a city official, like the traffic engineer, must take to claim an exception and exempt a project from the ordinance?

Marc
9 months ago

Ken - Bike Cleveland did directly reach out to the city and had a conversation with the traffic engineer who designed it, asking them to consider the more common practice of a left side buffer. There is very little to no on-street parking in the northbound curb lane of W. 25th Street between Bridge and Detroit. The traffic engineer has dug in his heels on this; convinced that he knows better than the collective experience of a dozen or more other cities who have not experienced the danger he foresees with left side buffers. I don't think anyone's sure that the city can be convinced to see the empirical data that left side buffered bike lanes are not dangerous and in fact are the standard. Otherwise, the FHWA would not have approved them.

Ken
9 months ago

Did you reach out to the city? There could be a reason for this design such as metered parking.

Mark
9 months ago

Let's get some "traffic engineers" that also happen to commute by bike. Our society is way too car centric!

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