Fear and a lack of safety are the most common reasons I hear for people not riding their bikes in Bloomington. And, really, I can't blame those who feel unsafe on Bloomington's roads. The town has not encouraged bicycling by incorporating bicycle infrastructure into its planning in any significant way.
The only bike lanes of consequence in town run on North-South roads. But a large number of residents live to the East and West of downtown. For those who live on the far East side of Bloomington, the only way to commute by bike to downtown would be to ride on the narrow and busy 10th and 3rd streets or to ride through Indiana University's campus (and, really, what adult wants to be reminded of the fact that the incoming freshman were born in 1990? As if aging weren't hard enough). IU's campus is not exactly the easiest to traverse on bike because there is no road that goes straight through campus (which makes, by the way, for a beautiful campus--just not thru-ride friendly). The solution, obviously, is to put bike lanes on Third and Tenth streets.
The same lack of infrastructure also exists for those on the far West, South, and North sides of Bloomington. Although the city planners have thrown the bicyclists a bone by putting in some bike lanes on Walnut and College (the two main thoroughfares), these lanes are inadequate and a joke. The two roads are among the busiest (and fastest) in town, yet the "bike lane" is really a "shared" lane for the several blocks around the square. I don't know about anyone else, but I don't feel like that lane is really "shared." Actually, I* have used the "shared" lane twice, and now avoid it like the plague.
On the North side of the square, running from around 10th street to 13th streets, on both College and Walnut, the city allows commuters a segregated (by a line) bike lane. Thank you city planners. Those few blocks--on one of the biggest hills in Bloomington--really come in handy.
The bike lane on Walnut street at Walnut and Cottage Grove.
Let's get real here. Those lanes were added, not for the comfort of cyclists, and not to encourage bike-commuters, but to get cyclists off the planners back. Needless to say, I have rarely, seen another cyclist riding in those two lanes.
Bloomington also likes to make their existing bike lanes a bit confusing. Take the intersections on Lincoln and Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth. Whereas, for most of Lincoln, the bike lane runs smoothly along the right-hand side of the road-
as it approaches Third Street, it disappears.
The road branches into two lanes, a straight and a turning, and, instead of providing a safe crossing over Third Street, cyclists are left to fend for themselves.
This happens again at the intersections of 4th and 6th streets.
Lincoln Street bike lane disappearing at 4th street
Lincoln Street bike lane picking up at Kirkwood and disappearing again at 6th street.
Clearly the people who planned these bike lanes were not bicyclists.
Figuring out what to do at these intersections is not instinctive. The first option is to keep going straight because the bike lane doesn't curve in anyway. But if the cyclist goes straight, then he finds himself to the right of cars that are turning--that is not a good place to be in a town where cars don't look out for bicyclists.
The second option is to move to the far left hand lane--the lane going straight. But, by doing this, the cyclist places herself right in front of traffic moving much faster than she can.
The third option, which is the best option out of the altogether-not-so-great-options, is to move between the two lanes (the straight lane and the turn lane). This is the option I choose. This way, I am visible to those going straight, but not in their way, and I will not die when the dump truck decides to turn right into me.
This option is problematic, as well, however, because the bike lane picks up again after the intersection on the right hand side. And, at fourth street, it disappears a second time. This means that the cyclist must constantly veer in and out of traffic if she wants to ride straight on Lincoln Street. Drivers become confused (especially if they need to move to the right of the cyclist now moving left because the cars want to turn right). Confused drivers are dangerous to cyclists.
As moving to the center is the safest option, it remains the best way to navigate these intersections, but we need a new plan.
Copenhagen, where at least 35% of the city commutes by bike each day, year round (another 30% takes public transportation), has developed solutions to a lack of visibility at intersections. Throughout the city, planners have instituted different types of bike lanes. Some bike lanes are separated by a low median between traffic and cars (which looks nice bricked over). Others are separated with a low, raised curb. A third separates cars from bicycle lanes with paint--this is the chosen method in Bloomington, although in Bloomington cars can park on the right of the cyclists, putting them in more danger of open doors; on some roads in Copenhagen, cars park on the left of the bike lanes.
Additional ways to increase visibility include painting bike lanes a different color. This is especially important for bike lanes as they approach and cross intersections. This photo from Copenhagenize shows how different colored intersections increase bicycle and pedestrian visibility.
With none of these safety solutions, Bloomington has a long way to go before bicyclists feel that they can safely ride through the city. The city needs to increase the numbers of bike lanes, and they need to make sure that the bike lanes are logical and safe. Painted lines help, but those lines offer a minimal amount of security. More lanes throughout the city in more logical places (particularly on the main East-West thoroughfares), lanes segregated by something more than a line, and painted lanes traveling through intersections would be a good start.
Here are two ideas for making bike-safe cities:
Bicycle Blueprint (New York City)
*And I should note here, that I have used a bicycle as my primary mode of transportation since I was 13. I raced for several years, know much about bike safety, and have mad bike handling skills. Yet I feel incredibly unsafe on those roads).