Indianapolis' brave bicycle commuters can celebrate the good, the bad and the ugly this time of year.
"The good: Commuting by bike has become a bit safer.
The bad: It is still pretty dangerous.
The ugly: Bikers aren't welcome around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The good: Mayor Greg Ballard has become a cheerleader for biking. Last week he observed Bike to Work Day by taking a ride. Last month he celebrated Indianapolis' inclusion in Bicycling magazine's top 50 bike-friendly cities. Next month he plans to open bike lanes on Allisonville Road.
The mayor has led the way in adding bike lanes all over town, including a plan to open 35 miles of lanes this year. He also has championed the Cultural Trail -- a Downtown bicycle-friendly path that Brian Payne of the Central Indiana Community Foundation has pushed with commendable perseverance.
Ballard sees bicycling as one part of protecting the city's environment. "A city linked by trails, sidewalks and bike lanes for people of all ages to travel where they need to go is a major component of my vision for making Indianapolis one of the most sustainable cities in the Midwest," he said recently."
I don't share Pulliam's enthusiasm for those downtown bike lanes. They are not "safer." In fact those bike lanes are downright dangerous for bike riders and drivers alike.
First rule of urban bicycle commuting is that you don't ride your bike right next to parked cars. People parking throw open their doors, with only a glance over a shoulder looking for cars, not a much harder to see bicycle. The downtown bicycle lanes often run right by parked cars, putting bicyclists at risks. Even worse, those bike lanes weave in and out of traffic lanes. Vehicular traffic is often crossing over the bike paths. It is a very dangerous situation.
You also have the problem of broken pavement, debris and standing water often in the narrow bike lanes. Confronted with those obstacles, a bicyclist has to make a suden manuever often by going outinto a traffic lane. Go west on the Michigan Street bike lane. The pavement is in awful shape. The picture above is of standing water in the New York bike lane. With the traffic lanes narrowed to make room for the bikelanes, there is less room for the cars which creates a more dangerous commute for everyone involved.
Here is the truth about biking in Indianapolis. Downtown has always been one of the safest places in the city to ride a bike. The lanes are extremely wide allowing bikers to easily maneuver out of the way of obstacles (which you can't do if confined to a narrow bike lane.) Traffic rarely fills up all the lanes. A decent bicyclist can fairly easily keep up with traffic and if you're really slow, you can ride on the sidewalk. (Contrary to what many people think, riding a bike on a sidewalk in Indy is not illegal.) When you create bike lanes you change that dynamic, creating a more dangerous situation for drivers and bike riders.
Pullium's column does correctly note that bikers are more safe on dedicated trails and that the Ballard administration has not lived up to the promise to expand those trails. Heck, I'd be satisfied if the Ballard administration simply paid attention to upkeep of the existing trails. The White River trail is in terrible shape. The pavement is buckling and grass is growing in the cracks.
Frankly those in the organized bicycling community have an inferiority complex. After years of being ignored, they are thrilled that someone is finally paying attention to them, even if nothing of substance gets accomplished. Me, I prefer real progress on making bicycle commuting in Indianapolis safer. That we are not seeing.
ADDENDUM: I posted this as a note below but it is such an important point that I thought I would put it into the main post.
Here's another reason why bike lanes in general can be unsafe. Bicycle instructors teach people to "ride large." You are not supposed to ride on the far right side of a traffic lane because it's hard for cars to see you there. Instead you are supposed to ride well off the side of the road so cars can see you and make decisions to pass by going into the OTHER lane. If you ride along the side of the road, you're likely to get a brushback pass where a car passes within inches of your bicycle, assuming of course the driver sees you at all.
What these bike lanes do is to throw out that long-time safety instruction about "riding large." The bike lanes confine bicyclists to a narrow strip of road next to traffic where nearly every pass is a brushback pass. The bicyclist is left hoping the driver stays in his lane and/or isn't distracted and crosses into the bike lane. If so, the bicyclist has nowhere to go.