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Posted by on Apr 4, 2012 in General | 8 comments

An Open Letter to the City of St. Louis

An Open Letter to the City of St. Louis

st louis, grand boulevard, bicycling, bicycle safety

The rebuilding of the Grand Boulevard bridge over the Mill Creek Valley will be done soon. It is scheduled to reopen some time this summer, maybe as early as June. Roger Allison, chief engineer of the design division for the city’s Board of Public Service, emailed me the signing and striping plans for the new bridge (here is a second link to the road sections). The current plan is to stripe six-foot shoulders on the new bridge, which would someday become road-edge (or “gutter”) bike lanes. Bike lanes are not due to be striped immediately, because there are no bike lanes at either end of the new bridge.

Here’s hoping that the City of St. Louis will never put bike lanes on the bridge!  For a whole host of reasons, segregated bike lanes are not the best or safest solution to encourage cycling on arterial roadways. Earlier this week I sent Roger a letter, explaining why, and offering ideas for alternatives:

Thank you for forwarding the signing and striping plans for the Grand Viaduct reconstruction. After reviewing, my request is this: Rather than creating segregated infrastructure for bicyclists on the new Grand Viaduct, would the City of St. Louis consider using integrated solutions instead?

Before offering solutions, I’d like to review the issues with segregated, or curbside/”gutter” bike lanes on arterial roadways:

  • On a road where vehicles typically travel 35 mph or faster, motor vehicles push trash and debris into road-edge bike lanes, making them dangerous to use
  • Curbside bike lanes present conflicts at intersections between motorists and cyclists. For example, motorists may need to turn right while cyclists are going straight, or cyclists moving ahead in a bike lane may be screened by slower-moving motor vehicles and therefore may not be seen by oncoming left-turning motorists
  • When bike lanes end, cyclists often do not know how to safely re-integrate with other traffic
  • There is the cultural pressure of having to use a bike lane, even when it forces cyclists to ride dangerously close to fast-moving vehicles, or may be debris-strewn, or may not the best lane to serve one’s destination. Once a roadway is striped with a bike lane, fellow road users may not understand and may take offense when cyclists must leave that bike lane (to avoid an obstacle or intersection conflict, or to make a left turn)

Advocates mistakenly think that the mere presence of a bike lane on an arterial roadway will reduce motor vehicle speeds on that roadway. This is not true. Here is a link to an article with data from the Institute of Traffic Engineers reviewing this idea, as well as local “on the ground” experience. In fact, a bike lane on an arterial roadway is more likely to make cyclists in that bike lane irrelevant to motorists.

What to do? I am not an engineer—just a user!—so have copied Paul Wojciechowski, the engineer behind the St. Louis Bicycle Master Plan. We are fortunate in St. Louis to have Paul, because he understands the inherent flaws of on-road bike lane design (though he also must have the thankless position of hearing the loudest clamoring for such facilities).

It would be safest for all users if the City would discard the idea of striping bike lanes on the new Grand Viaduct, and instead stripe the bridge with one extra-wide lane in each direction. For example, where two lanes in each direction are proposed to be 12 feet wide each, with a six-foot bike lane on the edge of the road, stripe instead as 12/18 (with one lane that is 12 feet wide and one lane that is 18 feet wide). The section where there are to be “12/15” lanes, stripe instead as “11/16.” This would allow sufficient passing clearance, and result in the collection of far less debris at the edge of the roadway.

It is my understanding that traffic engineers are reluctant to stripe 16′ and wider lanes, because they can end up functioning as two lanes. In reality, this does not happen. For visual evidence, see “Four Faces of Orange Avenue.” Orange Avenue is an arterial in Orlando, FL. (We have no streets that compare exactly, but Orange Avenue probably is best described as being similar to our Market Street if it somehow morphed into Kingshighway as it left Downtown.) A 19-foot-wide lane begins at 1:55 in the video. Motorists do not double up in wide lanes because they are not comfortable driving inches from each other’s vehicles, especially when large vehicles like trucks and busses use the road. Ironically, motorists have no problem driving that close to cyclists who are in a bike lane, as this video also shows.

I also understand that political pressure may be too great to *not* stripe special bicycle facilities on the new bridge. In this case, the best tools of which I am aware that would be appropriate for the Grand Viaduct are shared lane markings (“sharrows”) and the white information signs approved by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Design: “Bicycles Allowed Full Use of Lane – Changes Lanes To Pass.”

Perhaps Paul is aware of other solutions that will not violate what should be the First Commandment for 21st Century traffic engineers:

Thou Shalt Not Create Conflict Between Cyclists & Motorists.

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    • Thank you, Eliot!

  1. Although I’m not a bike lane advocate, I will post a counterpoint to the “extra wide lane” suggestion: motorists take up as much space as you give them. Many drivers will sit in the MIDDLE of the lane, and will not hug the left line edge. Thus, an extra wide lane can serve as an invitation to motorists to give cyclists LESS room.

    I think that in some circumstances lanes can serve a legit purpose. I’m not certain that the bridge is the right place, but I’m pretty sure that the extra-wide lane ISN’T the right answer.

    What I hope is that the city will use creativity and look at the situation and adapt proven solutions to the situation.

    • Chris: my observations of motorist behavior in wide lanes is the opposite of what you suggest. They quite consistently move to the left side of the lane to pass. It’s when they have a bike lane stripe to their right that they tend to center themselves in their lane.

      • I agree with Mighk Wilson and would add the following comments:
        There aren’t many wide lanes on major arterials in St. Louis County, where I reside, thanks to the systematic policy by St. Louis County Highways and Traffic Department , which controls most of such roads, of converting 4-lane roads with shareable curb lanes to 5-lane roads with a center left-turn-only lane. This was to avoid motorists in the inside lane from having to wait behind left-turning motorists.
        Before such a conversion of a major north-south route near my home with a 35 mph speed limit I bicycled along it and never felt uncomfortable.
        My view of lane position on 4-lane arterials has evolved so that with 12 ft. lanes I now feel confident controlling the lane, rather than trying to share it, which is far less pleasant.
        That mode of operation has been validated by what I’ve learned attending CyclingSavvy courses, both here and in Orlando, Florida.
        With regard to Karen’s letter on the subject of bike lanes on bridges, at one time I would have considered that situation the ONE where they could be used without prejudice to cyclists, since turning movements can’t occur. However, I agree with Karen’s other criticisms of them regarding accumulation of debris and issues like drain grates and possible seams which render this part of the road less satisfactory for cycling.
        I’ve used Google maps to examine closely the bicycle lane on US Route 67 over the Clark Bridge leading into Alton from North St. Louis County. The lane is separated from the travel lane by a cross-hatched area wider than the bike lane but even so I noticed an accumulation of debris, as I did when driving over it on occasions. (Note: When I just rechecked Google maps the bike lane appeared to be free of debris so maybe it is swept on occasions.)
        If the lane is widened sufficiently, as Karen recommends, to allow safe and comfortable sharing by both bicyclists and motor vehicles, including large commercial vehicles, that works to everyone’s advantage.

  2. What someone should do is SUE the city for the existing bike lane on South Grand from Shaw to Arsenal. Too narrow, too filled with road debris, too close to parked cars & Lord help the cyclist if a small truck or delivery vehicle is parked next to the curb. They hang waaaaay out over the white line. Anybody want to join me in a lawsuit?

    • While I’m not the litigious sort, I know exactly what you mean, Joe. We have used those very lanes in a CyclingSavvy course to demonstrate how dangerous bike lanes can be. We also show people how to use them safely, with awareness and caution.

      I can usually avoid them by choosing another route. It’s great to live in a city built on a pre-automotive grid: Lots of lovely routes to choose from!

  3. We are glad to see the St. Louis area developing street access for commuters.

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