One of the silliest arguments in the bike universe -- bike lanes, pro or con -- has flared up again. As is typical for this day and age, the current flare-up involves Portland, Oregon, the poster child among cities for implementation of bike lanes and the favorite target of facilities-averse 'vehicular cyclists.'

Last fall two Portland riders were crushed by right-turning trucks. Both riders had been positioned in Portland's ubiquitous bike lanes before the incidents. People who spend a lot of time and energy hating bike lanes immediately incorporated the tragedies into their diatribes. Deaths that were already relatively high-profile locally-- in most other cities the victims would have passed without much notice at all, while in Portland their deaths were the focus of cyclists and non-cyclists alike -- became fodder for rabid anti-facilities refuseniks thousands of miles away. Such silliness has recently been pushed to a new level by John Schubert in his column in Adventure Cyclist magazine.Adventure Cyclist is not available on-line, but you can download the article by visiting BikePortland's commentary about it.

In a column titled "Portland's Agony," Schubert's main thrust is given in the subtitle: "Two cyclists died as a result of poorly-designed traffic control devices." In other words, blame the bike lanes. In this view, all the problems of bicycling traffic safety can be solved with paint thinner.

I wrote previously about the deaths of Tracey Sparling ('I HAD MY HAZARDS ON') and Brett Jarolimek (36 FEET) and tried to relate that there are often subtle contributing factors in such incidents that aren't immediately apparent and may never become so. Often the causal factors that emerge are different than those imagined in our first knee-jerk reactions to news of the event: what seems obvious often isn't. In these particular incidents, for instance, one of the victims may have been lured into a fatal position by a cement truck sitting parked with its hazards on for over a minute; the other victim was rolling fast toward a trash truck that he may not have been able to see due to an obstructed line of sight. To claim outright that these very different incidents that occurred on very different roads can both be pinned on bike lanes, and leave it at that, is amazingly short-sighted or disingenuous. Of course bike lanes may have contributed to these tragedies, but to imply that such things won't happen on streets without bike lanes is highly irresponsible. Riders have been known to park in blind spots and pass on the right and enter intersections at high speed anywhere there is space to do it, no bike lane required.

Portland's Agony? Indeed, if bike lanes are as dangerous as some insist, Portland should have an elevated number of cyclist fatalities to match its elevated number of bike lanes and elevated number of cyclists. There should be constant carnage on the streets of PDX. But, as Roger Geller, the city's bike coordinator, aptly points out in his answer to Schubert, that doesn't seem to be the case. Portland doesn't seem to have an unusually high number of fatalities. In fact, according to Geller, the accident rate for Portland cyclists is dropping 'precipitously' as the cycling population grows.

Meanwhile, cyclists all over get hit by cars while riding on non-bike-laned streets, at a much greater frequency than incidents involving bike lanes. Of course you won't hear Schubert or his compadres moaning about these non-bike-laned streets somehow causing the deaths of those who get run over while riding on them -- only bike lanes do that.

The danger of bike lanes has been greatly exagerrated by some. The whole issue is far less consequential for cyclists than Schubert and others would have you believe, in my opinion. That said, I agree with Schubert that bike lanes are generally inappropriate for a crowded and tight downtown area like Portland's. I don't think they help matters and believe Portland cyclists would be better off with a system of large 'sharrows' installed in the middle of the street, like those in Santa Fe, NM. Outside downtown it's a different matter.

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