On Monday morning a few of us from the office attended the opening of a new bike lane on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh. For some of you out there in locations closer to bike-topia this is no big deal, but for Pittsburghers, this is only our second official bike lane (and the only one on a busy street likely to be useful to commuters), and getting it took several years of work by a local advocacy group, Bike Pittsburgh, in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Department of City Planning. At the event we heard speeches by Bike Pittsburgh’s Executive Director, Scott Bricker, and by the Mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, then we all rode the length of the new lane, accompanied by the Mayor’s police escort (also on bikes). With Scott and the Mayor in suits and cameras all around, it was like a more official, short-track Critical Mass, and a truly momentous occasion for those of us who get around the city by bike.

There was a lone dissenter at the proceedings, however: a guy who seemed intent, to the point of interrupting the first speech, on spreading the message that the new bike lanes were actually dangerous. He passed out a flyer that argued that the lane markings cause several dangerous situations in the bike/car mix, including putting cyclists too close to the doors of parked cars on the street, and that by attempting to separate bikes and cars, the lanes give the impression that bikes don’t belong anywhere else on the streets. A friend who is on the staff of Bike Pittsburgh, Erok Boerer, referred to this dissenter as a “Forester”, and this along with some websites listed on the flyer led me to read some of the writings of one John Forester, who is apparently at the core of a controversy I hadn’t known existed.

It would be easy for me (and many others at the bike lane event) to dismiss this lone dissenter’s opinion, if only based on his rudeness and the fact that he was riding a low-slung recumbent without a flag, virtually invisible to motorized traffic, and somewhat erratically at that. But just after this I came across the opinion, “Bike lanes and bike paths create the impression that bikes need a separate but equal space, like Jim Crow for cyclists,” and a quote from John Forrester’s website, “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles,” which both made me think about the situation more.

I do think that in order for cyclists to gain the respect and acceptance of drivers, we need to adhere to the rules of the road as best we can. If confronted by cyclists running lights and stop signs and putting the onus on drivers to watch out for their safety, I can understand how the average motorist could be startled and frightened, and then get mad, and then perhaps vote against any cycling-friendly candidates or worse yet, do something rash in a tense moment. This is no justification, of course, but I believe that we have to cooperate to coexist. Official sanction and support from cities and municipalities is necessary, and it will come more quickly if we are not seen as public enemies. At times, commuting by bike can feel like going into battle, with every speeding behemoth of a motor vehicle against you, and it’s really tempting to give back what you get and then some; but I liken the situation to that of mountain biking in its beginning stages, when some riders rode wherever they pleased without trying to respect other trail users, and thus caused enough controversy to put some trails off-limits for good.

So I can see the point of trying to integrate cyclists and make us part of traffic, rather than separate us and complicate the interaction. But due to the physical size and weight difference, cyclists are not the equal of automobiles on the roads, and because of this I think we need some form of recognition and a bit of protection, which bike lanes can provide. Biking in other cities with bike lanes seems easier, not just for the physical space, but because it seems drivers in these cities are more aware of my presence and more courteous. It’s a chicken-and-egg question: is a more bike-aware population the reason why those communities have bike lanes, or did they get that way by being reminded of cyclists’ presence by every bike glyph painted on the pavement? I hope that in Pittsburgh, the latter will be true.

If you’d like to check out all sides of the issue, here are some links.
Pro: The League of American Bicyclists – a national advocacy organization whose platform includes the use of bike lanes and paths.
Con: John Forester’s site – Forester is an engineer by trade.

By the way, the “Bike lanes and bike paths…” quote was part of a question from an interview I did for Pinch Flat News. (I don’t think it was necessarily the opinion of Hans, the interviewer, he was just asking for my reaction.)