Viva La Cyclista: A lesson in civil rights

[[image:right_turn_mini.jpg::inline:1]]Eradicating right-turn lanes part of bike-friendly traffic solutions

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Published June 19, 2007 by C.I.C.L.E.
Contributed by Ray Sikorski

[[image:right_turn.jpg::inline:1]]I'm on vacation from Bozeman, Montana, spending it in sunny Santa Rosa, California… and the thing that I notice most is the traffic around here. I'm not talking about the traffic situation as in, "Gee, the traffic sure sucks around here, it takes forever to get anywhere." That's not it at all. If anything, that traffic situation is too good – it takes far too short an amount of time to drive from one point to the next.

I'm talking about being a bicyclist around here. I'm an avid cyclist – and I'm not just talking about on the weekends. When I lived in Sonoma, 20 miles down Highway 12 from here, I rode my bike to work every day, which is something I've done in some capacity or another for years. When I was in high school in Manhasset, New York, I rode my bike to school. As a teenager I used to ride my bike from Long Island into Manhattan. I was a bike messenger in Boston in the summer of 1988. There's a photo of me appropriating my sister's new tricycle at the tender age of one and a half.

What I'm saying is I'm accustomed to riding in traffic. I'm not easily fazed by large trucks rolling inches away from me. Naturally I would prefer riding in streets that have large, friendly shoulders, with drivers that acknowledge your existence – and your right to that existence. Which is largely the case in Bozeman, where tons of people ride around town, even in the dead of winter.

Not so in California. But why? It's like totally sunny and nice and flat and filled with liberals. But barely anybody rides in Sonoma and, I'm now discovering, in Santa Rosa, either. Sure, there's recreational riders who ride on trails and bike paths on the weekends; there's no shortage of those folks. But the regular streets around these towns are utterly void of cyclists.

The answer, of course, is simple: it's unsafe. And I'm not trying to point out how pansy-assed Californians are to Montanans (that doesn't really require pointing, anyway). People in California drive way too fast and they have no regard for cyclists.

Which is not to say they're bad people. After all, it's not really their fault. It's largely because of the way the roads are set up – i.e., for cars, not bicycles. Or for pedestrians, for that matter – nobody walks around here, either.

I've been taking careful observations. First of all, the speed limits on the roads are all approximately five miles per hour higher than their equivalents in Bozeman. Second of all, the traffic lights have sensors that don't recognize the existence of bicycles. Third, and most significantly, the various departments of transportation have gone to incredible lengths to find ways to be able to stick more cars on the road while still keeping traffic moving swiftly.

Which is great, if you're in a car. It totally sucks, however, if you're a bicyclist or pedestrian. 1) Making two car lanes in a space that previously held one. What gets sacrificed? The shoulder, of course, which is where bicycles tend to go. 2) Making weirdo intersections out of what were once normal three- or four-way intersections. I'm talking about adding all sorts of islands and turn lanes and arrows and additional straight lanes… Look, basically anything that makes things swifter for cars makes things suckier for bikes and pedestrians. No pedestrian wants to cross eight lanes of cars turning all different directions to get to the other side of the street. Likewise, no cyclist wants to have to merge across lanes of traffic. It's dangerous.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe, and also my biggest suggestion for improvement: right-turn only lanes.

It's funny, I never really observed these things before this week, but now I see them as the most infernal obstacles to bicyclists on the roads. Think about it: Bicyclists generally ride on the right. Say there's a right-turn lane coming up and you want to go straight. You, the cyclist, will have to merge left across the right-turn lane, while cars are merging right into the lane. Danger! You're really asking to get smeared all over the pavement. Yet this is really the only way to negotiate it, short of (illegally) going up on the sidewalk.

Santa Rosa is filled with these deathtraps. Why do they need them? Can't drivers turning right just wait in line with the people going straight? Oh, right, we must pay homage to the traffic flow gods. We cannot have cars backed up. Oh, no.

Bullshit. That old line is a sham fed to you by the forces of unlimited growth. If a community seriously wants people to find alternatives to driving – which they all seem to claim they do – then traffic is their first and best incentive. Why would anybody ride a bike when driving is ten times faster? A smooth and easy traffic flow provides incentive for one thing: sprawl. Heck, if you can slide through town in five minutes, why not live thirty miles from where you work? That's the net result: people living far from where they work, depending on their cars for multi-mile commutes. The result of all that smooth flow of traffic is, in the end, more traffic everywhere.

To reiterate: The problem is nobody riding bikes. Why? Because it's dangerous and way slower than driving. How to fix that? Eradicate right-turn only lanes! This is easily done with some pylons and a can of black paint. For more permanent fixes, there's concrete curbing, or, if you're really fancy, plant some of those sidewalk bulb-outs into the lanes, which would help make it safer for pedestrians trying to cross.

That's just the first step, of course. Somewhere along the line those crazy intersections should be turned back into normal intersections, the speed limits should be lowered, and traffic systems should account for bicycles as being part of the flow, and not some alien entity. Then, when more cyclists appear on the roads, drivers will be more aware of them, which is like the opposite of a vicious cycle. A nice cycle. Like a bicycle. With more bike riders on the road, drivers will drive better, so more people will want to ride bikes. And all will be wondrous in the world.