Braving downtown bike lanes
Tuesday, October 15, 2013 7:00 AM
The rap on editors is that we sit around the office and think we know everything.
So when I started working on a story about how drivers and cyclists were to adapt to the 4-plus miles of new bike lanes in downtown Des Moines, I thought it might be a good idea to actually try them out by bike.
Full disclosure: I’m a recreational cyclist who pretty much sticks to the trails. I’m not all that comfortable riding on busy city streets. When Carl Voss, a former colleague and a guy who has been riding his bike on Des Moines streets for 30 years or more, tells me he’s lucky that he’s never had an accident in traffic, I wonder about the odds of that.
Still, I like the idea of living in a bike-friendly city, so I’m willing to give these new bike lanes a try.
I faced my first conundrum less than a block from the Business Record’s office in the old train depot. The intersection just east of the Polk County Courthouse that leads into an eastbound one-way Court Avenue is confusing in a car, let alone by bike.
Headed north on Fifth Avenue, I’m riding in the bike lane on the right side of the street, when suddenly the bike lane veers into the left-turn lane at Cherry Street. I don’t want to turn left or west, I want to go north, but my right-hand bike lane has disappeared!
In the block ahead, I see that a bike lane now goes up the center of the street, curving east onto Court Avenue. But I don’t want to go east either!
Uncertain what to do, I steer my bike up onto the sidewalk to my right, continue north on the sidewalk, crossing Court Avenue in the crosswalk.
Wrong! I find out later.
During an interview with city traffic engineer Mike Ring, he tells me I should have merged into the bike/left-turn lane, then ridden north through the Cherry Street intersection and followed the left-side bike lane around the bend. At the entrance to Court, I should have stopped, or slowed, checking for traffic coming eastbound off Mulberry Street and westbound off Court Avenue. When traffic was clear, I could have turned north onto Fifth Avenue.
And riding on the sidewalk downtown is discouraged, if not downright illegal. Oops!
A small consolation for my big fail is that this may be the trickiest spot in the downtown bike lanes to figure out. A few days later, I try again.
I get to the entrance of Court Avenue and signal to the driver of a westbound car that is stopped at the stop sign and facing me. I motion that I’m turning left in front of him. He looks a little confused, but it’s all good and he waits for me to cross.
I decide to test my mettle by riding the “sharrow,” or shared bike lane, on Locust Street and the bike lane on Grand Avenue, which switches from the right side of Grand Avenue to the left.
As I head north on Fifth Avenue, I’m in a contra-flow lane, which means I’m in a bike lane, riding into oncoming, one-way traffic. I stop at the light at Walnut Street and wonder how oncoming cars turning east onto Walnut Street know I want to ride straight? Do the drivers even, in fact, see me? They are not expecting any northbound traffic here.
Walnut crossed without accident, I reach Locust Street, turning east onto the shared bike lane. It’s the middle of the afternoon and there’s not much traffic, but I have to resist the urge to ride too fast to match the speed of the cars. I ride in the middle of the lane, as bicycling experts advise, and I find myself checking my rearview mirror often.
By the time I get to the East Village, I notice that the shared bike lane has disappeared at East Fourth Street. Why didn’t the city just paint sharrow icons all the way through the East Village, I wonder. Although there’s not much traffic, I’m more nervous riding in the street without any sort of bike lane. Would I be doing this in rush-hour traffic? Probably not.
Heading back west on Grand Avenue, the conventional bike lane feels much more secure to me. My next challenge is the lane change at Third Street. Mike Ring had given me a heads up about the lane switcheroo at Third Street and Grand Avenue, and I’m curious about how easy it will be to navigate.
Third Street is where several DART buses enter Grand Avenue and pick up riders at stops all along Grand. For that reason, traffic engineers decided it would be safer to route bicyclists to a left-side bike lane along this thoroughfare.
“The left-hand bike lane has its own difficulties,” Ring told me. “Neither option was perfect. It was just felt that the left-hand bike lane is a little safer with the buses.”
At Third Street, the bike lane steers you right to a traffic signal button that will stop all four lanes of traffic when pushed. An icon painted on the street directs bicyclists diagonally across the intersection to the bike lane on the other side of the four-lane street. Once it seems that all car traffic is stopped, I head out diagonally across the intersection. Motorists at the intersection appear baffled by my behavior. I wonder, should have ridden in the crosswalks?
I have to admit that after two ventures out on the bike lanes, I’m feeling more comfortable. Eventually, downtown drivers and cyclists will get the hang of this new system. Hopefully that will come without accidents. I may even find myself using the bike lanes more. But not without reflective clothing, flashing headlamps and tail lights, and prayer.