SLO’s proposed $3 million Broad/Chorro bikeway is a terrible idea

A protected bike lane, also known as a bicycle track, in the city of Columbus, Ohio. Note that bollards and parked cars separate cyclists from traffic lanes.
A protected bike lane, also known as a bicycle track, in the city of Columbus, Ohio. Note that bollards and parked cars separate cyclists from traffic lanes.

Why is San Luis Obispo rushing to spend $3 million for seven blocks of unsafe, dangerous bicycle infrastructure along Broad and Chorro streets north of Highway 101?

The city tells cyclists it’s offering them a “safe, convenient, low-stress” ride.

Viewing SLO’s plans against state-of-the art bike planning, my conclusion is the city offers cyclists the promise of safety and comfort without the reality.

The “Broad/Chorro Bikeway” is a mishmash of cycle tracks, cycles mixed with vehicles, cycles moving against the flow of traffic, dozens of unmarked intersections, and busy intersections with bikes forced into dangerous diagonal movements. None of this provides safety.

Cycle tracks — also known as protected bike lanes — are physically separated bike lanes on the street. The separation’s with bollards, curbs and painted buffers.

Two-way cycle tracks, with some bikes going opposite the direction of adjacent vehicles and bikes, on Chorro from Lincoln to Mission and on Ramona from Broad to near Palomar, are the plan’s centerfold. On Broad, the track is southbound only. Northbound bikes remain mixed with traffic. The city confirms bikes mixed with vehicles on Broad are safe, so why build the disruptive southbound cycle track?

Tracks are supposed to eliminate interactions with vehicles. These don’t. In fact, they create dozens of conflicts that don’t currently exist. Thirty-one driveways cross the cycle tracks, each, to quote the city of Davis Bike Plan, an “unsignalized intersection” dangerous to cyclists.

Davis, America’s biking capital, doesn’t do cycle tracks this way. Of 130+ miles of Davis bikeways, about 1 mile is cycle track — used as short connectors between bikeways and schools, and on a major arterial without driveways. National engineering associations warn against cycle tracks crossed by driveways.

Three “driveway” crossings are actually high-use intersections — two entries to the Foothill Plaza Shopping Center on Ramona, and the entrance to the Villages senior complex on Broad. Incredibly, the Villages entry isn’t on plans, suggesting the designer is oblivious to this major intersection.

Two-way cycle tracks are particularly hazardous because motorists aren’t expecting bikes going against traffic. This is bad at any driveway — imagine backing out with poor visibility — but it’s disastrous at the shopping center’s exit on Ramona, notorious already for drivers looking left for on-coming vehicles and not seeing pedestrians in the crosswalk to their right. This dangerous spot is along the city’s ballyhooed “safe route to school” for elementary school kids.

A bike in a track, unlike one on the street, is physically trapped within the track so when danger suddenly appears, there’s little chance to evade it.

Well-designed on-street tracks, in addition to being driveway-free, are buffered from vehicles by substantial things like a row of parked cars or a planter strip. SLO’s will be immediately adjacent to moving traffic. This will be uncomfortable for vehicles and cyclists moving in opposite directions and hardly looks like the “low-stress” ride the city promises. It’s a sure recipe for turning minor mishaps into serious accidents.

National engineering organizations, as well as Davis, have enumerated places it’s appropriate to use cycle tracks, and those not. SLO’s plans hit zero for appropriateness and exemplify inappropriateness.

Davis says cycle tracks are appropriate “on streets with parking lanes, high vehicle travel speeds, high vehicle traffic volume, high parking turnover, and/or high bicycle volumes.” Engineering associations like AASHTO and NACTO echo that. None of those conditions exist on Broad/Chorro.

On the other hand, every authority I could find warns tracks with driveway crossings are dangerous.

As are two-way cycle tracks in general. The Federal Highway Administration lists them among “practices to be avoided,” stating they “create hazardous conditions for bicyclists” and are “dangerous.”

International bike experts agree. The corporate blogger at Copenhagenize, an intercontinental bikeway design firm, says bi-directional cycle tracks haven’t been built in Denmark for more than two decades, because they were found unsafe. “The bi-directional cycle tracks we see in emerging bicycle cities can't possibly be put there by people who know what they're doing,” Copenhagenize writes. “If someone advocates infrastructure like this and actually believes it is good, they probably shouldn't be advocating bicycle infrastructure.”

A Dutch cycling expert adds, “If you're trying to grow cycling in a place which does not already have a high cycling modal share, the infrastructure that you build needs to be better than this.”

Deficient cycle track design is made worse by squeezing it onto streets too narrow, so safety compromises are required for bikes and vehicles. On Chorro, the uneven pavement next to the curb with storm inlets that can flip bikes is counted in the cycle track’s minimum width, the buffer between track and moving vehicles is a half-foot narrower than minimum standard, as is the width of the parking lane on the opposite side of the street. This safety corner-cutting leaves two narrow 10-foot traffic lanes.

On Broad, which is still narrower, the bike buffer is a foot narrower than minimum standard, as is the seven-foot parking lane — so narrow many residents’ vehicles and tradesmen’s trucks don’t fit within it.

Those “design” measurements are for the wide spots on these streets. The plan notes places on both streets are narrower and unspecified additional safety compromises will be made.

Bike accident dynamics don’t support SLO’s plan. Only a quarter of accidents happen mid-block, mainly at driveways, where SLO’s tracks make accidents more likely. The danger point — three-quarters of accidents — is at intersections.

Cycle tracks do nothing to protect cyclists at intersections.

SLO’s 2-way tracks make intersections much more dangerous. At Chorro/Lincoln, riders from downtown must cut diagonally across this busy intersection to reach the track on the left side of Chorro. Since dominant bike traffic on Chorro is headed to Cal Poly, not to Broad, at Mission these riders will have to execute another mid-intersection diagonal to get back to the right side of the street. How is this safe?

At Broad/Ramona, cyclists coming towards Broad will have to exit their wrong-side-of-street track by cutting across all traffic turning at that intersection.

This is nuts! Far from making biking safe for 7-year-olds, it assures their endangerment.

None of this can possibly improve safety. For the past 5 years the police department has logged zero bike-vehicle accidents on Broad/Chorro (unless you count bike hit-and-runs on parked cars), so there’s zero safety rationale for this project.

The project itself is inherently unsafe, and common sense says it must not proceed.

So why is SLO spending $3 million for several blocks of retrograde dangerous bike infrastructure?

This project needs to be declared DOA. The City Council has the chance to do that on Feb. 6.

Richard Schmidt is an architect, planner, eight-year veteran of the SLO Planning Commission, and a one-time resident of Davis, America’s biking capital.

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