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Hiles, Jeffrey A. Listening to Bike Lanes. September 1996.

Chapter 1
The Problem: Bike Facilities and One-Eyed Prophets

It breaks your heart. You try your best to make the world a better place for bicycling. And what is your worst obstacle? It’s not the entrenched motoring establishment, not skeptical planners and politicians, and not lack of public understanding and support. You find that your stiffest opposition comes from a most disheartening source: other bicycle advocates.

Different cyclists have different reasons for bicycling and different beliefs about what makes bicycling safe and fun. Some speed through city streets, keeping pace with heavy traffic. Some saunter along village sidewalks. Some prefer to drive their cars to the country or to a trail to ride where traffic is scarce. Some cycle solo, others join clubs and pedal in packs. Some ride for fun and exercise, others just to get somewhere. Being such a mixed lot, bicyclists naturally have their differences over how transportation planning should serve bicycling—and who it should serve.

Depending on your viewpoint, the Lycra-clad “advanced” cyclists represent the keepers of ultimate knowledge and wisdom about bicycling, or they comprise a cadre of athletic elitists who are out of touch with the wants and needs of the bicycling masses (in so far as there is such a thing as bicycling masses). Adherents of these opposing views have wrangled for decades over what to do, or not do, for bicyclists. The wrangling continues.

Bruce Epperson (1994), a senior transportation planner in Miami, Florida, says that the “elitists” who oppose facilities such as bike paths and bike lanes selfishly ignore those who need bicycle transportation most:

Bicycle planning must return to an emphasis on specialized bicycle facilities. In the short and middle-term time frame, this is the critical factor. Only specialized facilities separated from the flow of motor traffic can accommodate the needs and wishes of those who bicycle because it is the only feasible method for them to increase their personal mobility. Safe and comfortable bicycle transportation (and yes, recreation) will be achievable only when the overall transportation system can accommodate cyclists of all abilities and strengths (p. 8).

If anyone is the voice of opposition to “specialized bicycle facilities,” it’s California engineer and bicyclist-education-manual author John Forester (1994), who disputes the idea that separated facilities are the best way to accommodate cyclists. The desire for bikeways, he contends, springs from a constellation of bogus beliefs and false fears, a kind of phobia even, that he has dubbed the cyclist-inferiority superstition:

Most bikeways involve roadway prohibitions, encourage dangerous behavior by cyclists and by motorists, are poor to ride upon, and use space that should be used for roadway improvements, and all bikeways reinforce the superstition that cyclists should not ride on roadways if it is possible to ride elsewhere. Bikeway advocates are not motivated by admiration of bikeways as such; they want to get “everybody” cycling when “everybody” is frightened of riding on roads and acting like drivers of vehicles. The issue is not bikeways themselves; it is how best to arrange for cycling by deciding between two incompatible views...

Society has not been an impartial judge between conflicting cyclists. Society, as embodied by the public, legislators, administrators, and even many scientists, has always taken an active part by believing in the cyclist-inferiority superstition, even though that superstition has never been formally stated as a hypothesis or supported by data (p. 21).

Epperson, on the other hand, argues that the “society” of which Forester speaks, far from being partial to bikeway advocates, has been held hostage by an anti-bikeway clique:

...the (bicycle planning) field reacted to legitimate criticisms of its early shortcomings by embracing the position of its most extremist critics for reasons having little to do with the veracity of their arguments. As a result, bicycle planning now advances the interest of an elite minority of cyclists while it ignores the needs of the majority, including the young, the old, and especially the poor. It has adopted positions that have left it open to charges of racism, sexism, and classism. Worst of all, bicycle planning is ignored as irrelevant by the majority of municipal residents. A captive of special interests, it is no longer able to capture the imagination or stimulate the enthusiasm of the average citizen and tax-payer. In a time of increasing financial stress for cities and states, it may not survive the decade (p. 4).

For the would-be advocate, joining either of these camps could make bicycle transportation planning feel less messy: the ends, means, friends, and enemies become more clear when you religiously adhere to a narrow point of view. Strength flows from clear vision. Yet it seems that both sides are spinning their wheels, arguing the same points decade after decade, and making the collective vision for bicycling far from clear. At various times, in various places, one side has spoken louder than the other and seemingly won out; but the feud goes on. While individual advocates draw sustenance from hardened convictions, bicycle advocacy as a whole suffers from in-fighting and presents a divided front that confuses outsiders.

One reason bicycle planning is so messy is that, like many technologies, nearly every type of bicycle facility has both good and bad attributes. Neil Postman (1993) has examined how we, as a culture, have trouble dealing with technology’s dual nature:

Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.

Nothing could be more obvious, of course, especially to those who have given more than two minutes of thought to the matter. Nonetheless, we are currently surrounded by throngs of zealous ... one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo.... They gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future. They are therefore dangerous and are to be approached cautiously. On the other hand, some one-eyed prophets ... are inclined to speak only of burdens ... and are silent about the opportunities that new technologies make possible.... For a bargain is struck in which technology giveth and technology taketh away. The wise know this well, and are rarely impressed by dramatic technological changes, and never overjoyed (p. 5).

The goal of this paper is to look at bicycle facilities with both eyes open. It is not to choose sides, but to treat various viewpoints as windows, each with its own revelations and limitations.

In Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer describes insights into depression and the biochemistry of the human mind that the medical community has gained from patients who have been put on Prozac, despite the ethical controversy surrounding that popular antidepressant. Like Prozac, bike lanes have been described as immoral emotional bandages that remove incentive for true knowledge and healing. Also like Prozac, bike lanes have been heralded as minimum-side-effect wonder remedies for all sorts of illusive ailments. In the spirit of Listening, I have tried to step out of the bike-lane fray to see what insights we might gain from our experience with these popular facilities.

To be as fair to the reader as possible, I will say right here and now that I am not an impartial observer of the bike lane saga. I am wary of bike lanes, to say the least. Nevertheless, I recognize that, as Postman puts it, “it is inescapable that every culture must negotiate with technology, whether it does so intelligently or not.” This paper is a quest for intelligent negotiation.

The next two chapters look at some of the car-bike crash statistics that people use to paint scientific-sounding facades on their arguments. The chapters after that cover bicyclist behavior. One describes what some prominent bicycling advocates consider to be ideal behavior. The other shows the ways cyclists more commonly get around in the real world. Next, a brief introduction to environmental design concepts precedes two chapters that examine the ways that physical settings affect bicyclist behavior and motorist-bicyclist interactions; the second of these chapters focuses on bike lanes and alternative bike lane designs.

The final chapter summarizes conclusions drawn from the preceding chapters and includes a list of recommendations for bicycle transportation advocates and planners. These are philosophical recommendations, not warrants for what kind of facility to use where. This is not an engineering guide, but rather a guide to help advocates and planners come to terms with the complexities and contradictions of bicycle transportation and to avoid the seductive, yet simplistic, path of the one-eyed prophet.

This paper mostly discusses issues related to bike lanes. But I intend that these issues illustrate a larger topic: the many ways in which bicycle transportation advocates, planners, engineers, and researchers fall prey to one-eyed beliefs. Perhaps because the bicycle seems like a most simple vehicle, perhaps because the act of bicycling is widely regarded as the quintessential example of something that learned once is learned for life, perhaps because of human nature not at all unique to bicycling, for some reason there seems to be a strong tendency among people who get involved in bicycle issues to want to reduce the entire field to a few simple solutions, often to a single, simple solution. I intend to show that bicycling’s simplicity is an illusion, that integrating bicycles into a environment dominated by fast and powerful motor vehicles is complicated business. My hope is that by seeing how even so-called experts on bicycle transportation limit their perspectives with dogmatic blinders, the reader will more likely approach bicycle issues with a fresh and open mind. In the end, this paper describes the state of our current understanding of bicycle issues. Those who want concrete solutions to specific problems may be disappointed to find that this paper is more about questioning answers than answering questions. I believe that the most important step toward moving beyond one-eyed prophecy is to realize that many bicycle transportation questions are far from closed.

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) has compelled transportation planners to give more weight to bicycle issues. This has created new opportunities for planning and funding bicycle facilities. But it has also made squabbles between bicycle advocates more public. At the same time, it has brought more non-bicyclists and more less-experienced bicyclists into the arena. I believe we will need minds that are not fettered by one-eyed dogma if we wish to make the best of the resulting cacophony of ideas. The alternatives are a bicyclist community so fragmented that it carries little clout or spawns projects planned and implemented with tunnel vision.

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