Editorials

We’re not lazy. So why aren’t more of us biking to work?

A cyclist bikes toward Cal Poly in the green bike lane along California Boulevard in 2016.
A cyclist bikes toward Cal Poly in the green bike lane along California Boulevard in 2016. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

We know biking to work is good for our health. It’s better for the environment. And it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than buying gas.

Yet countywide, only 3.4 percent of us commute by bicycle, according to U.S. Census data. (The figure for the city of San Luis Obispo is a much more respectable 9 percent.)

So what’s holding the rest of us back?

Chances are, it’s not an aversion to exercise. Nor is it necessarily a lack of equipment (if you have a bicycle gathering dust in your garage, raise your hand).

It’s something far more basic: fear.

Experienced cyclists may scoff, but for novice and/or timid riders, it’s daunting to ride close to traffic — even though California law requires drivers to stay at least 3 feet away from cyclists.

Consider: Most of our streets and highways were built only for cars.

Posting a “Bike Lane” sign and painting a white stripe doesn’t automatically turn a narrow shoulder into a bonafide bike lane, especially when that shoulder is potholed or full of pebbles or overgrown with plants.

Nor does the admonition to “share the road” solve all conflicts. Sometimes, there isn’t enough road to share — Corbett Canyon Road comes to mind — so we end up blaming one another for accidents and close calls and unpleasant encounters. Drivers blame cyclists, cyclists blame drivers and, depending on the circumstances, pedestrians blame both.

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A “share the road” sign on Corbett Canyon Road in San Luis Obispo County. Stephanie Finucane sfinucane@thetribunenews.com

Instead of griping, let’s (1) acknowledge that infrastructure is oftentimes at least partly fault and (2) consider ways to improve it.

For new developments, that’s a no-brainer; there’s an opportunity to design better bike lanes from scratch.

The proposed Avila Ranch project in southern San Luis Obispo, for example, calls for slightly narrower traffic lanes — 10 feet instead of the standard 12 — on streets inside the development. That leaves enough space for 8-foot-wide bike lanes, each consisting of a 3-foot-wide buffer zone with white diagonal hash marks, and a 5-foot-wide riding lane.

For the perimeter of the project, plans include a mile-long, 12-foot-wide bike path that’s separated from traffic along Buckley Road. There’s also a more conventional bike lane for the serious cyclists who want to get from Point A to Point B ASAP. It would run parallel to the bike path.

Avila Ranch developers considered installing an actual physical barrier, such as a curb or planter, alongside the bike lane on Buckley to create what’s called a protected bike lane.

“It’s certainly something we would be willing to do,” said project planner Stephen Peck, adding that he wasn’t sure whether the city and county have standards for them yet.

If not, it’s something local agencies should work on, because protected bike lanes are the nudge many would-be riders need to get them past their fear of cycling.

Sometimes described as sidewalks for bicycles, protected bike lanes are popular in other countries, and are starting to catch on in the United States. In 2011, there were 78 protected lanes. By the summer of 2016, there were 292, with more added every day. (Connecticut’s first protected bike lane, located in New Haven, just opened Friday.)

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Rendering of Buckley Road bike path at proposed Avila Ranch Development in San Luis Obispo. SteveP Avila Ranch LLC

They aren’t particularly fancy — flexible posts, raised bumps, bollards, even parked cars are used as barriers — but they provide a feeling of security for bike riders and drivers.

So far, protected lanes are mostly in larger cities like San Francisco, Portland, Austin and New York. We hope they filter down to smaller cities and towns.

Some of the benefits:

▪  They reduce cycling on sidewalks, which is dangerous for pedestrians.

▪  In New York City, injury crashes dropped by 40 percent in areas with protected bike lanes.

▪  They lead to an uptick in sales for businesses along the route.

▪  Because people feel safer, ridership increases — sometimes dramatically.

▪  Increased ridership helps cities and counties meet greenhouse gas reduction goals. The city of San Luis Obispo, for example, is aiming for 20 percent of all resident trips to be made by bicycle by 2035.

We don’t expect protected bike lanes to appear overnight, and we defer to the experts — including engineers and experienced cyclists — to prioritize what biking infrastructure is most needed in San Luis Obispo County.

But we do we believe protected bike lanes should be part of the conversation when we discuss bicycle safety.

If local leaders truly want more people to bike to work — and why else would the entire month of May be devoted to that goal? — they need to recognize that many of us don’t trust a “share the road” sign to protect us.

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