Is it “separate but equal” for bicyclists?


I heard through the grapevine (the sustainability folks in communities and governments at all levels have wicked powerful grapevines: organic, of course) that the bike infrastructure and traffic calming plans for Madison Avenue in Albany are in high debate. And debate is good, so long as no one leaves the table.

Madison is a wide, long thoroughfare in Albany, NY that runs from nearly the Hudson river up about three miles toward Schenectady. It then combines with Western Avenue to travel on past Schenectady and turns into Route 20, AKA the Western Turnpike, which provides travel far west into the Finger Lakes. In the city it has two lanes in each direction, with parallel parking on both sides. People drive fast and mean, and pedestrians crossing these four lanes in rush hour or even in off-peak times are both brave and foolish.

There are two goals for the planning from what I know from public meetings, websites, and whispers: 1) reduce traffic speed through traffic calming strategies and, 2) introduce better support for bikes, approaching “complete streets” usability. There are two plans (basically) in discussion right now. “Protected” means making a fully protected bike lane, so from one side to the other the street would consist of a two-way bike lane, curb or curb and parking, one car lane, wide median (not a full lane) one car lane in the other direction, parking or parking and curb. The “Shared” option includes a shared turning lane in the middle and designated bike lanes or wider shared lanes. From one side to the other: parked cars at the curb, designated bike area, one car lane, shared full lane for turning, one car lane in the other direction, designated bike area, parked cars at curb.

Rumor is that the bicycling community is dead set (sorry for that phrase) on the “protected” option. I am a bicycle commuter, and use my bike or Segway three days a week in three seasons and I am slowly working up the guts (cold and ice trouble me) to use my bike through the winter. I very much prefer the “shared” option for long-term growth of and respect for the bicycling community. Let’s see if I can communicate my reasoning.

By creating separate “protected” lanes we do some good things – we truly protect the bicyclists, at least for that three-mile stretch. We do quiet the roadway. We also do a couple of truly terrible things. We increase needed maintenance for the route, we create complexity, we reduce space for emergency vehicle passage, we create different biking strategies and rules for different roads throughout the city, and we literally create a division between vehicle types which amplifies the existing figurative distance between car drivers and people using non-car modes of transit.

Sharrow Graphic

Sharrow Graphic

With the “shared” option, we don’t protect the bicyclists as well, in fact, some reports indicate that “sharrows” (the minimum shared road designation strategy) can actually increase injuries because bicyclists get cocky.  In the Albany plans, one version of the “shared” option goes a bit further by having marked full lanes for the bikes.

The benefits of the “shared” option are much greater for Albany, for the bicyclists, and for the drivers if we look not only at the moment, but at the long-term viability of bicycling in the city.

  • We are improving the situation greatly over the current scenario.
  • We are calming traffic.
  • We are providing better control to drivers via a shared turning lane.
  • We allow greater opportunity for emergency vehicle travel in the case of traffic jam or accident.
  • We are designating lanes for bikes, and those lanes are readily maintained and plow-able with the road, reducing additional maintenance burden.
  • We are, over time, conditioning drivers to see and accommodate bicycle riders.
  • Bicyclists will learn the rules of the road as well – we are vehicles and MUST follow road rules.
  • We are simplifying the transition to other roads – the rules will not change, even if the proximity to cars on roads with no bike markings is tighter.

All in all, creating a separate but equal layout on a three-mile stretch of road in Albany is a shortsighted solution that will do nothing to grow ridership of bikes or to foster acceptance of modes of transport beyond the automobile. The “protected” solution can only be truly safe if EVERY road allowing bikes were to have a fully protected lane, as the transition between road types will be dangerous. And making separate routes on every roadway in Albany, or any town, along with the extra lights and controls, is way beyond fiscal reasonableness or even potential reality.  Even the Netherlands does not have separate bike lanes everywhere, just on main thoroughfares from one center to another, on road rings around city centers, and on touring routes.

Ready to ride.

In the Dutch cities, you ride on the road, and you learn to share it. We, in our city of Albany, must work together so that everyone is safe, everyone has access, and everyone reaps the benefits of the shared and diverse transportation options in our community.

Ride Road Rules,





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  • Can we also include rules of the road training for bicyclists in elementary school? That’s where I learned them, but neither of my childrens’ schools have provided it.

    • Our Montessori school used to do this really great thing for a week with all the younger kids. They took over the gym and built a neighborhood our of boxes and tape and paper trees. Then they let all the kids bring in their bikes and scooters and for an hour or so a day and in after school care they got the play while learning the rules of the road. They had to stop at stop signs, signal their intent, obey speed limits, and wear safety gear. At the end of the week, if all went well, they received a wallet card with their “bike driver” license.
      This is a great, fun start.

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