Bike path crazy pants

Given the spleen that has been vented lately in L.A. regarding bike lanes, I paid close attention to how an integrated, multi-modal transportation network functioned while I was in Vienna. The city is quite small, about 1.5 million people, and it offers easy transport by walking, cars, buses, streetcars, subways, trains, and bikes.

The city’s bike paths are extensive and very well-planned. There is a bike path ring around the inner city, which is actually more like a “D” than a ring, with the straight side being the Donau river. The city’s bike paths follow many of the major streets, are fairly well marked and maintained, and will take you to any part of the city you want to go. In addition to these transportation-oriented bike paths, there are major touring and recreational paths that provide extensive access to large parks and that crisscross the entire country.

Numerous bike shops exist to support recreational and transportation cycling. The city of Vienna offers free City Bikes for trips that last less than an hour, and there are more than 120 pick-up/drop-off bike areas.

Bike paths play a major role in transportation planning. There is a major bridge crossing the Donau that is for bikes only, a completely separate structure that runs parallel to the one for cars. It is pretty boss to ride across that thing and look over at the cagers and think, “Yo, I got a bridge, too!”

After spending ten days riding in the city and its environs, it became abundantly clear that if the goal of this type of bike infrastructure is to provide an integrated, safe, usable, easily understood cycling network, it is, for the most part, a colossal failure. And if this type of bike infrastructure fails so miserably in a small city that has been committed to including bikes in the transportation grid for decades, then I can only conclude that attempts to do this kind of planning in Los Angeles will also fail, only on a larger and more catastrophic and more expensive scale.

As a backdrop to this anecdotal, off-the-pedal critique, I’d like to note that the only time in Vienna and the surrounding countryside I was able to safely and predictably and comfortably get around was when I rode in the lane and behaved the same way that motor vehicles behave. It was necessary to do this because the bike infrastructure always seemed to run out just when you needed it most. This is of course the same experience that anyone on a bike is familiar with in L.A.

Here is what a mature, open-minded, integrated bike path network looks like in one of the most advanced cities in the world:

  1. Haphazard AF. The paths start and stop with no warning. Despite being pretty savvy about the routes after nine days of riding, my wife and I got immediately off-path simply riding from the Waehringer Guertel to downtown the one day we tried the City Bikes, getting lost on about as easy and well-trodden a path as there is.
  2. Massive bike-ped conflict. Although some of the paths were well blocked off from vehicles, they were often side-by-side with pedestrian walkways. In a city that has huge pedestrian traffic, especially the inner city, and where large numbers of those walkers are tourists who have no idea how the bike/ped paths work, there was constant friction between walkers who were on the bike path, and bikers who wound up on the ped path.
  3. Car cut-throughs. The downtown ring is continually bisected by travel lanes for cars to cut through. Each one of these intersections is a potential collision. It also requires much more attentiveness to navigate the constant cross-traffic than it does to simply ride in the traffic lane with the cars.
  4. Inadequate signage. When you construct a completely alternate transportation system of bike paths, you apparently run out of money to sign it properly. Hence I found myself having to stop and look and think often, something that drivers never have to do–and that you wouldn’t have to do if you were biking on the street.
  5. Suburban breakdown. As soon as you got very far out of the main city, the bike paths became few and far between. Out of town they vanished completely. Since ultimately you have to learn how to ride in the street anyway, why bother with having to also learn all of the extra bike path skills and techniques and hazard-avoidance and wayfinding?
  6. Motorist acceptance. The times I rode along Waehringer Guertel and Linke/Rechte Zeile, hugely busy thoroughfares, I had zero problems with car traffic. The lanes are so much narrower than L.A. that there is no option for cars to squeeze by. They have to change lanes. I could tell they didn’t like it, but I only got honked at a couple of times, and had zero punishment passes or close calls. It was much hairier on the inner city bike path ring, as I was constantly afraid of hitting pedestrians.
  7. Extreme gutter bunny. Many of the bike paths are nothing but striped lanes up against an endless row of parked cars, with treacherous streetcar rails on the left, for example. It requires inordinate skill to thread these hazards and would be much easier to simply ride out in the lane. Many of these bike paths are only a couple of feet wide, with high curbs and traffic islands for the streetcars.
  8. False security. The green painted bike paths initially feel safer, but you quickly realize that ped traffic and constant vehicular cross-traffic are omnipresent and lethal. It’s more mentally exhausting to ride the paths than to ride in traffic.
  9. Inefficiency. You have to go much, much slower than you would in the traffic lane. The easy speed of 20-24 mph that you can hold on the guertels would get you or a pedestrian badly hurt on the painted bikeways in the city.
  10. Salmoning. Because the bike lane/bike paths create a separate travel maze, it is often faster to salmon for short distances, and I saw lots of people doing it. It drives the cagers crazy and doesn’t look terribly safe; in any event it encourages lawbreaking.

Of all the bike infrastructure I saw, the only ones that really did anything for me were the bike paths along the river and inside the parks, where there were no cars at all. It was pretty cool to zoom along a wide, well maintained, well paved bike path for mile after mile and to see only other cyclists. But as far as using bike paths as an efficient way to get around, it seems to me that by far the easiest, safest, most easily understood, and best way is simply to use the existing roadways and follow the same rules that the cagers do.

Auf wiedersehen.

END

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