Albany city officials have recently implemented on Madison Avenue bike lanes in both directions from Allen Street to Delaware and Lark Streets. The 10-block expanse opens a significant corridor connecting downtown and uptown locations to (hopefully) safer bicycle travel.
Bicycling enthusiasts living in an urban area—especially those who commute a significant distance to work or school on their bikes—typically piece together the safest possible routes, utilizing bike paths, parks, college campuses, bike-friendly streets, etc. This new 10-block stretch of Madison (which includes the College of Saint Rose, and is a gateway to the uptown campus of UAlbany) can now plug right in to such commutes.
As welcome as the bike lanes on Madison Avenue are, the changes to this particular street are about much more. In fact, the width of Madison from Allen to Lark proved to be a perfect fit for a redesign that is as much about calming auto traffic as anything else (and therefore a benefit to all users, including pedestrians).
Previously, the configuration for almost that entire stretch was two lanes of auto traffic in both directions, with a parking lane on each side. Longtime residents and other users of this corridor have described a “speedway” effect, with cars often traveling too fast, jockeying for lane position, etc. At the same time, the traffic often seemed uncomfortably close to the parking lanes, and bicyclists who used the road either had to hug the “door zone” alongside the parked cars or ride in the driving lane; often to the irritation of competing motorists.
With the new configuration, there is now a parking lane on each side along the curb, then a clearly marked bike lane, and a single lane of traffic in each direction. Four auto lanes have been trimmed to three (which provided the space for the bike lanes), with the center lane for turning only. Anecdotally, it appears to be working, with cars proceeding single file, observing the lane restrictions, and—without the option to change lanes and zoom around slower cars—driving at reasonable speeds. And bicyclists appear to be discovering and using the bike lanes.
Albany resident Leah Golby, president of the New York Bicycling Coalition, applauds the changes. “I’ll actually ride my bike on Madison [now],” she says, “whereas under the old four-lane configuration, I avoided Madison when traveling on a bike.”
While there have been North American studies touting the safety benefits of “protected” bike lanes (ones that are physically separated from driving lanes by a curb or other barrier), studies on the safety of unprotected lanes versus no lanes are hard to come by (and European transportation studies may not translate well to the United States because of significant differences in cultural behavior). However, research does suggest that having defined bike lanes improves safety, because both drivers and bicyclists know where they are supposed to ride.
Where some bicyclists previously rode haphazardly (riding in the wrong direction, using sidewalks and darting in and out of traffic), the lanes give them structure; and encourage them to pay more attention to traffic signals. The lanes also encourage to motorists to be more aware of bicyclists sharing the road.
No one, especially bicyclists, should be lulled by the presence of lanes into thinking they are now perfectly safe. The lanes on Madison Avenue are not protected—they run right along rows of parked cars—which means bicyclists must be ever-vigilant of the possibility of a door opening in their path. (Golby encourages using the far-left side of the bike lane for this reason.) And intersections are always potentially hazardous; right turns by motorists, especially, are a concern, with or without bike lanes. It remains to be seen whether the presence of the lanes will remind drivers to be conscious of the possibility that a cyclist will be approaching the intersection just as they’re going into a right turn, or even whether they will just cut into the bike lane before they turn.
“In most scenarios,” says Golby, “the best way to make intersections safest is public education: for all road users to remember that they are entering a potential conflict area and to be alert and conscientious.”