The United States is not a country that’s terribly friendly to cyclists, despite pushes in recent years to encourage more people to cycle as an environmentally-alternative alternative to driving, and a way to reduce congestion on the roads as well. Yet, cycling in urban areas can be dangerous, and I’m constantly reading about cyclists killed on the road — almost 800 cyclists were killed in the US in 2013, and tens of thousands more were injured. Bicycles belong on the road, and yet many motorists have trouble understanding this.
For cyclists, the safest approach to being on the road is to have dedicated bike lanes, which are common in Europe. They’re starting to crop up here as well, but the process has been slow. Such lanes isolate cyclists from car traffic, allowing them to move smoothly and efficiently along roadways with a greatly reduced risk of injury, while still complying with traffic signals and signage — right now, behaving exactly like car traffic can sometimes be actively dangerous for cyclists, which is why cyclists in San Francisco staged a protest this year at the famous ‘wiggles,’ illustrating what happens when they stick to the letter of the law and behave exactly like cars. The result: Radically slowed traffic, angry drivers, endangered cyclists.
A study on road signage conducted by George Hess and M. Nils Peterson took a closer look at the way we communicate information about bicycles to drivers, and what they discovered was quite enlightening. Urban planners should certainly be taking their results into account when redeveloping, particularly if they aren’t creating dedicated bike lanes, because their findings have big implications for bicycle safety — particularly since many people in the US aren’t familiar with the laws regarding bicycles. Many drivers, for example, can cite stipulations that bicycles should behave like traffic (rather than pedestrians) but they aren’t aware that cyclists are entitled to take the lane, and that in fact taking the lane can be significantly safer for them than trying to share a narrow lane with cars.
The researchers presented study participants with two different signs. One was a ‘share the road’ sign, a familiar sight for many of us — I see them constantly, often near the beginning and end of bike lanes in particular. The other was a ‘bicyclists may use full lane’ sign, which is much less common in the United States. Participants were also presented with lane markings, which use a stencil in the middle of the road with strips to clearly indicate that bicycles can take the lane. Finally, a roadway with no markings was also presented.
In light of the options, the researchers found that ‘bicyclists may use full lane’ yielded the clearest and most effective results. Participants understood the sign and agreed that it provided the greatest degree of safety to cyclists. Critically, the signage was especially understandable to novice cyclists — who are understandably nervous about taking up bicycle commuting — as well as private motorists, who heavily occupy roads and have a duty of care to cyclists, particularly during busy commute hours when there are numerous private vehicles and bicycles on the road.
‘Share the road’ was found to be ambiguous and less helpful, as it didn’t specify what kind of ‘sharing’ was involved. As a driver, I freely admit that before I became more aware of bicycle safety issues, I thought such signage simply meant that I should watch out for bicycles and give them a wide berth for their safety. It didn’t occur to me that these signs were also meant to serve as reminders and indicators that cyclists could take the lane when warranted.
Shared lane markings seemed to fall out somewhere between with study participants, which is something I’ve definitely observed anecdotally as well. I spend a lot of time driving down 40th, for example, and note that while some drivers seem to comprehend the shared lane markings and move to the inner lane to pass cyclists if they feel that they’d like to go faster, others are aggressive with cyclists and attempt to lanesplit rather than ceding the entire lane, as is the law.
This would seem to suggest that such markings might not be an ideal way for communicating traffic safety information — at least, not unless they’re paired with signage to remind drivers about their role.
I work very hard to be conscientious about bicycle safety and to protect cyclists both from my vehicle and others, but many drivers don’t share that trait. And notably, though drivers insist on repeating the claim that ‘bicycles should be treated like traffic,’ they don’t actually treat bicycles like traffic — they want it both ways, to be able to treat bicycles however they feel like it depending on the circumstances and their mood. If bicycles are indeed traffic, they have full rights to the road just like cars do, which is as it should be — they aren’t pedestrians, and they shouldn’t be ridden on sidewalks and in crosswalks, which is sometimes where they are driven (so to speak) by cars.
If the United States wants to pull away from car culture and promote the use of bicycles, it needs to also provide effective support infrastructure. That means better signage in the short term, and dedicated bike lanes in the long term — if cities routinely remap their lanes every time roads are ripped up for maintenance and repaving, cyclists will gradually be able to ride in safety in more and more places.