Bike Lanes

Similar to sidepaths, bike lanes function better or worse depending on the context and design.


Topic 15: Bike Lanes

Context is Everything

Similar to side paths, bike lanes function better or worse depending on the context and design.

The best road for a bike lane is one with few intersections and driveways, and the best design offers enough space in both the bike lane and adjacent lane for the bicyclist to have an adequate buffer from passing cars.

Some designs work

Good design at intersections helps to resolve conflicts with right-turning cars, and increases your vantage and visibility.

This could mean ending the bike lane before the intersection, encouraging motorists to move into it to turn, or routing right-turn lanes to the right of the bike lane.

In the basic course, we discussed the most common bike lane issues:

  • Turning conflicts
  • The potential for poor sight lines, and the
  • Door zone of parked cars.

Some newer design standards provide for a buffer between parked cars and the bike lane. This is a big improvement. If the bicyclist stays away from the buffer, this eliminates the dooring risk. However, there are still potential conflicts with cars entering and leaving parking spaces.

Intersection conflicts may also be improved by moving the bicyclists farther left. They aren’t likely to be eliminated, though, so it’s still important to maintain situational awareness.

Similarly, we’re encouraged to see more bike lane designs that move bicyclists farther to the left even where there are not parked cars. Moving bicyclists to the left is consistent with the crash countermeasures we learned in the Basic Course.

Some designs and contexts increase workload

Many of the bike lanes we encounter will require us to find a balance between safety and compliance. The more frequent the intersections and driveways, the more being in a bike lane increases our workload of scanning and negotiating with motorists.

On a city street with short blocks, moving in and out of the bike lane for intersections can be impractical.

Some of us simply stay out of the bike lane, and occasionally use it to release traffic that can’t easily pass otherwise. This may be a problem if your state has a mandatory bike lane law.

Sometimes it’s easier just to find a parallel route without a bike lane.

Left Side Bike Lanes

On one-way city streets, bike lanes are sometimes put on the left side of the street. One-way streets eliminate left cross conflicts.

The hook conflicts — which are now left hooks — are less problematic since the bicyclist is on the driver’s side of the car where the blind spots are smaller. Passing slower traffic in the bike lane should still be done with caution. And passing large trucks is still a bad idea.

While the door zone is on the passenger side, making for fewer openings, passengers may be less likely to look before swinging the door open. And parked cars can still create sight obstructions for entering traffic.

Another reason for placing the bike lanes on the left is to avoid conflicts with bus stops, which are typically on the right.

Interacting with Buses

Bus stops and bike lanes are certainly a source of frustration.

Properly trained bus drivers don’t pass a bicyclist immediately before a bus stop. Unfortunately, that very behavior is a common complaint among bicyclists.

It’s happened me. Your first instinct might be to pass the bus, like you would in a car. But if you do, you could end up playing leapfrog, repeatedly being buzzed and cut off.

Unless you know you can stay ahead of the bus, it’s better to stay behind it until it departs.

Bike lanes where they should not be

We’ve talked extensively about door-zone bike lanes and why we need to avoid them. Unlike door-zone bike lanes, which are — frustratingly — still promoted in national design guidelines, the following designs are not allowed. And yet, they still get painted.

Bike lanes should never be placed inside roundabouts or traffic circles. As we learned in the last section, lane control is imperative to safety in a roundabout.

Many modern roundabouts on roads with bike lanes will provide a pedestrian option for cyclists. It’s easier and much faster to simply merge into the travel lane and use the roundabout as a driver.

If you do encounter a roundabout with a bike lane, ignore the bike lane and control the travel lane. The bike lane will only lead you into conflicts.

Bike lanes should never be routed to the right of a right-turn only lane. Nonetheless, they sometimes are. If you see such an arrangement ahead, negotiate into the through lane and control it through the intersection. No mandatory bike lane law can require you to ride there!

Stubs, Jumps and Mixing Zones

We know that we definitely don’t want a right-turn-only lane to the left of a bike lane. There are still several possible issues where bike lanes are placed to the left of a right-turn-only lane:

  • How it gets there: There is always going to be a mixing zone where the right-turning traffic is crossing the bike lane, or vice versa. We’ll take a closer look at mixing zones in a moment
  • Width: If the bike lane is narrow and is between lanes that are narrow, or the road carries a lot of large commercial vehicle traffic, you might feel very pinched in that pocket
  • Debris patterns:  Most of us who use bike lanes have noticed that street debris tends to get swept into them by passing cars. This is especially evident with the bike lane pockets between two lanes. Due to sweeping motion from both sides, there is often a debris field that extends from the bike lane into the intersection. Because intersections are where most crashes occur, the debris often includes broken glass
  • No bike lane on the other side of the intersection: This is a frustratingly frequent problem which we’ll discuss in a minute

These last three issues may provide a good reason to stay out of the bike lane pocket and control the through lane through the intersection.

Mixing Zones

Now let’s take a closer look at “mixing zones.”

In an ideal world, motorists would wait for a bicyclist to cross the mixing zone before entering the turn lane.

It’s not an ideal world, of course, so be aware that drivers may cut across your path as you cross this zone. You might choose to proactively merge into the through lane to avoid this conflict, allowing right turning drivers to slip off to your right as you would if there was no bike lane.

The most problematic mixing zones are the ones where a bike lane jumps across a lane that drops or diverges.

Recently, green paint has been used to call attention to mixing zones. While this might make some motorists more attentive, it does not do anything to resolve the conflict.

You can choose to resolve this conflict yourself by ignoring the bike lane and treating the diverge exactly as you would if there was no bike lane. Use a gap to move to the through lane, and control it until the bike lane no longer creates a conflict.

Where the bike lane ends

When bike lanes end, we need to reintegrate into the travel lane, and usually transition to lane control. In some places, there is good guidance for bicyclists to make this transition.

Poor signage and poorly-ended bike lanes can lead us into a variety of awkward situations, forcing us onto a sidewalk, or pinching us into a curb. A surprised cyclist may need to pull off the roadway and wait for traffic to clear before continuing on.

Because resurfacing and road-widening projects often end at an intersection, bike lanes will sometimes end there too with no guidance or thought as to how the unsuspecting cyclist should handle it.

If the intersection is large and the road is crowned, you may not be able to see if there is a bike lane on the other side. This is especially problematic if you’ve waited at a red light with a large platoon of traffic and suddenly have nowhere to go on the other side of the intersection.

If you’re in a new area, there’s really no harm in controlling a through lane when approaching an intersection. It may feel weird, especially if there is a pocket bike lane.

But it is always easier to go back into a bike lane — once you have confirmed it is safe — than to get out of one at the last second after you realize it is leading you into a conflict.