The city's plan to make changes to Spruce and Pine Streets is advancing too quickly to assess whether it will achieve its stated goals — and could ultimately fail to make the streets safer for cyclists and others.
The city's Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS) recently announced plans to shift bicycle lanes on Spruce and Pine from the right to the left side. OTIS's proposal, intended to improve safety, particularly for bicyclists, is tied to repair and repaving work scheduled for this fall or next spring. OTIS is pressing forward, so action must be taken quickly to ensure real benefits are delivered.
OTIS has good intentions, but has not made a convincing case for its plan. Instead of embarking on a rigorous, well-researched endeavor, it opted for a quick, highly visible lane change while not acknowledging its limitations or potential risks.
OTIS's plan focuses almost entirely on the observation that trucks and other large vehicles have a bigger "blind spot" on the right-hand side. While this observation is relevant, it's not sufficient to ensure that safety will be improved for cyclists and other users of Spruce and Pine.
Transportation experts agree that left-side bike lanes are the exception, not the rule, and that they are not suitable for every street. Rather, they are appropriate only if certain conditions are present, and when the safety benefits significantly outweigh the risks. To date, OTIS has not made that case.
To determine whether the bike lanes should be moved to the left side of Spruce and Pine, one has to understand the number and percentage of cars, trucks, and bicycles that turn right versus those that turn left at every intersection. For example, if more cars and trucks are turning left, then a left-side bike lane would introduce more potential conflicts for cyclists. Similarly, if more cyclists are turning right, then a left-side bike lane would result in more cyclists having to cross vehicle travel lanes. OTIS has yet to provide the information needed to answer these and other critical questions.
Equally important, appropriate information, once collected, should be made available to key stakeholders for their input and comment before, not after, fundamental decisions are made. This step is essential to fostering community understanding and buy-in, something missing from the current approach.
Presently, civic associations, bike advocacy groups, and citizens alike are responding to a plan with limited information and whose basic blueprint had been pre-determined. As a result, OTIS is in the awkward situation of having to sell a plan to stakeholders omitted from the decision to move the lanes in the first place.
Indeed, a number of stakeholder groups have privately expressed an interest in a collaborative approach where all issues are on the table. Given the right commitment, this work could be carried out in months, so efforts to improve safety on Spruce and Pine need not be delayed.
In sum, a new way of working is called for — one based on objective study and meaningful stakeholder input. If adopted, a safer plan could become a reality on Spruce and Pine and could serve as a model to improve safety on other city streets.