The Case of the Erased Bike Lane

The streets will speak to us, if we stop and listen.

For example, Bill looked at the snowbanks that accumulate in our streets, and came up with some lessons we can learn from them. These seasonal curb extensions are called “sneckdowns” by street scholars, and they cover the parts of our streets that cars don’t use in the winter. The idea is that if we replicated them with concrete, we would have calmer, more pedestrian-friendly streets that would still be navigable for motorists.

Of course, winter isn’t the only time we can find evidence of traffic patterns by looking at the street. Behold the erased bike lane:

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That last photo is right outside the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition’s office, poignantly enough. These bike lanes have been erased by cars driving over them. The paint has been worn away.

It’s not just the bare pavement that’s the problem. It’s the etiology of the faded paint that destroys the bike lane. (Etiology means the study of causes. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, essentially.) A bike facility with faded paint can still function. The paint has faded on park trails and the Midtown Greenway, but these bike facilities still work great. What I’m talking about it when the paint is worn away by a torrent of car tires, which not only removes the paint, but more importantly it weakens the belief that the pavement is dedicated to bicyclists. The street is saying, “Cars drive here. This is not a dedicated space for bikes. Ceci n’est pas une bike lane.

A bike lane isn’t just a physical thing — it’s a social construct. Like money, it only matters because we all act like it does. Bike lanes serve their purpose if and only if street-users agree that these striped strips of pavement are dedicated for people on bicycles. Not for parking, not for snow storage, not for walking, not for corner-cutting cars, but for bikes. The fading of the paint, and the cause of the fading, erodes this foundation. It erases confidence in the bike lane, not just the paint.

So what can we do to protect the function of bike lanes, when they’re erased by motorists? Simply replacing the paint won’t replenish the confidence. We could curb bike-lane driving with curbs. Drivers respect concrete curbs more than they respect painted lines. I’ve seen people drive their cars on sidewalks before, but it’s a rare enough occurrence that it doesn’t pose a real threat.

I’m looking forward to the protected bike lanes that are scheduled to be built on Washington Avenue in the next year or two. I got into a Twitter tiff with an unsuccessful mayor candidate last year about the reconstruction, and he asked why the bike lanes on Second or Third avenues weren’t sufficient. I replied by saying something about access, and that there are a lot more destinations on Washington than there are on Second or Third. What I didn’t mention is that the Second Avenue bike lanes are often occupied by commercial trucks and people parallel or double-parking. These things don’t happen on well-designed protected bike lanes.

If you agree that we need better bikeways, check out Bikeways for Everyone, which is a campaign working to build a network of protected bikeways in Minneapolis. It’s a broad coalition of public health advocates, social justice activists, environmentalists, local businesses, neighborhood associations, and even a car-sharing company. There are many different ways to support the campaign. I wrote more about the benefits of protected bike lanes last fall. Let’s stop the erasure of bike lanes by making them permanent and protected.

Scott Shaffer

About Scott Shaffer

Scott Shaffer works for a nonprofit community development corporation in Minneapolis. He has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife live in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood with their daughter and two Siamese cats.