Bicycling Infrastructure: Don’t Let the Perfect Become the Enemy of the Good

When it comes to safe and efficient bicycling infrastructure, few nations can rival the Netherlands.  It really seems that the Dutch have thought of everything.

As this video shows, a transportation system that gives equal consideration to those choosing to travel under their own power by bike and purposely addresses the differences of speed and mass between bicycles and motor vehicles can result in a win-win for all road users.  We need only look at the number of fatalities to see the proof.  The Netherlands experiences 1.1 deaths per 100 million kilometers traveled versus the US average of 5.8 for the same distance.

I pointed out in last week’s post about helmet usage that the remarkable aspect of Dutch bicycling being five times safer is that their number of trips taken by bike is also twenty-seven times greater than ours.  Success like this heartens bicycle advocates who truly believe in the Field of Dreams approach; “if you build it, they will come.”

In a perfect world – or more precisely a perfect United States – citizens would come together and demand a transportation system that accommodates all users equally.  Whichever mode an individual chose for him or herself – personal vehicle, mass transit, bicycle, or own two feet – would be equally safe by design.  There would still be trade-offs and sacrifices among choices, but personal safety wouldn’t be one of them.

As we cycling advocates talk amongst ourselves and admire the Dutch (and the Danes), we’re all painfully aware that they didn’t become ultra bike-friendly overnight.  Political will for major changes began in the 1970s when the nation became fed up with the number of children killed by automobiles, the leveling of historic buildings to create parking spaces, growing traffic congestion, gasoline shortages, and worsening smog.  They vowed to nip their problem in the bud and today have a much different flower to show for their efforts.

We’re not so lucky in the US.  Our love affair with the car grew unabated through two oil shortages and volatile swings in gasoline pricing over the past 40 years.  Vehicles didn’t shrink in size like they did in Europe, they grew larger!  Mass transit has had to fight tooth and nail for federal transportation funding.  Bicycling and pedestrian advocates have only held a seat at the table for the past decade and we’re still sitting on folding chairs.

As much as we bicycling advocates would like to achieve the perfect, we’ll be lucky if we can attain the “good enough”.  Not that we won’t keep striving and pushing the general public toward that tipping point when not riding a bike will be viewed as more hazardous to one's health than riding a bike.  We just need to stay patient, remain persistent, and continue to win little battles, savoring our victories and inspiring our troops.

But we also have to be realistic.

We need to acknowledge that right now and for the foreseeable future, we have an incomplete infrastructure.  Too few protected bike lanes.  Too many lanes that end abruptly or deliver us to unsafe intersections.  Too much inconsistency with sharrows, bike lanes, and cycle tracks.  Lanes that put us in the door zone or subject us to the hazard of the right-hook.  We all know the system’s shortfalls.

In the meantime, we still need to ride the streets we have and stay safe doing so.

The best thing we Illinois cyclists have going for us is Public Act 095-0231 or as I like to refer to it, the Three-Foot Law.  In this 2008 transportation act, motorists must give a minimum of three feet of clearance when passing a bicycle traveling in the same direction.  We are not only required to stay as far to the right as is practicable, but as is safe.  This means that we may pass other cyclists on the left, move left to avoid potholes, ride clear of the door zone, cross to the left turn lane, and move to the left of the right turn lane at intersections.

This is the law and these are our rights.

While we wait for the good to become the perfect through the efforts of our advocacy groups, we can all learn to adjust our riding to the incomplete infrastructure we have in place right now.

Tomorrow I will host a 3-part series by John Brooking, a cycling instructor for CyclingSavvy.  The idea for this guest post developed over a discussion from my post last month entitled Chicago Cycling Fatalities: Making Sense of the Senseless.

Please welcome John and take the time to join the discussion.  Part one, part two, and part three of his series are found here.

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Keep riding and be safe!

Thanks to Momentum Magazine for originally sharing this video on Facebook and Grid Chicago for, well, everything...

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