I was interested to read the June 17 commentary by Minneapolis public-works director Steve Kotke. Over the past decade, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have done much to encourage cycling and to try to improve safety. They are improving on some early efforts that really weren’t as safe as intended. One example of excellence and clarity in design is the bike lane at Portland Avenue S. and E. 26th Street. Its markings make proper, safe and predictable movement obvious. While the situation is much improved, undoubtedly some dislike it because it has eliminated a traffic lane.
These special facilities work best when everyone understands how to operate in and around them properly — and therein lies the need for education.
Kotke is right when he says that cyclists need to ride more predictably and lawfully. Cyclists must be constantly mindful and vigilant — even in bike lanes and on bike paths. It is especially true at intersections, where vehicles can turn in front of bikes. Cyclists should always enhance their visibility through the use of bright clothes, a high-visibility vest or lighting. Safety starts before you leave home. Avoid wearing the same black, gray or earth-tone colors of the roadway and background. Make it easy for drivers to see you, so they can respond appropriately.
Many don’t realize that use of the bike lane is not mandatory. Cyclists can, and should, choose not to use them at times. For example, they may leave the bike lane to make left turns, to avoid hazards on the roadway, to avoid the door zone of parked cars, to legally pass vehicles on the left (not on the right) and to avoid vehicles turning across the bike lane.
Cyclists in the bike lane have the right of way to that space. A motorist who turns across the bike lane in front of a cyclist is failing to yield the right of way. There is a correct and legal way for motorists to make a turn if a bike lane is present. First, signal your intention to turn. When it is safe, pull into the bike lane, blocking it so bikes won’t pass inside your turn. Complete the turn consistent with other relevant traffic laws and controls.
Cyclists must be extra-cautious around large trucks and buses, which will rarely be able to pull into the bike lane first. Despite having the right of way, it is safest if cyclists never pass a truck or bus at an intersection where it could turn in front of them. When a cyclist collides with one of these large vehicles, it is often life-changing or life-ending. Either pull into the traffic lane behind the large vehicle as you would in a car, or wait behind it in the bike lane until the front of the vehicle is through the intersection.
The last type of bike facility being utilized more frequently is called a “sharrow.” It is a roadway with lanes too narrow for a motorist and bicycle to share side by side. Marked with a chevron symbol, it denotes that cyclists should control the entire lane by riding near its center. Motorists should respond as they would with any slower-moving vehicle; slow down as necessary, and pass in an alternate lane when it is safe and legal to do so. Learning to treat every roadway as a sharrow, when necessary, would be the ultimate solution to bicyclist safety. Sideswipes and near-misses don’t happen if the lane is properly shared and the cyclist doesn’t feel obligated to let the motorist “squeeze” by in the same space. The law does not require it.
In an ideal world, bicycles would be considered and treated as equal road vehicles, and bicyclists would act and be treated as full and equal drivers of vehicles in traffic laws and policies. The need for expensive and separate bike facilities would be a thing of the past.
Aside from increased enforcement (which Kotke mentions), the missing component to bicycle safety in Minneapolis is increased education. Driver educators must teach their students how to deal properly with bicycle lanes and facilities. Licensed drivers need reminders on billboards, on buses and in public service announcements. Bicyclists can greatly enhance their safety, skill, knowledge and enjoyment by taking a training course in cycling. For information about affordable, convenient and fun cycling courses in Minnesota, check with the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota at www.mnbike.org. Click on “Education.”
Kirby Beck, of Coon Rapids, is a retired police officer, bicycle patrol instructor-trainer and works as a consultant on cycling safety issues.