(Why I hate) Bicycling in downtown Lincoln

Car Driving in 14th St bike lane, from Google Maps

(Above, a picture of a car in the 14th St. bike lane in Lincoln, NE. It’s not even turning, just driving there.)

I broke the law yesterday.

I’m usually such a good citizen. But I admit it. And I knew I was doing it, even.

I rode my bike on the sidewalk. For two blocks. Actually, I did it twice- once after work, and once on my evening ride. Both times I was not near pedestrians, but still: NOT ALLOWED.

I’ve been told how a bike should be in the street, following the (car) rules of the road. That’s the law. I have never understood this. I, on my bike, am not a car. I don’t go as fast (I usually go around 10-12mph though I can sprint short distances at 18), I am not as big, I am not as visible, even with my giant “power rangers yellow” helmet, as a friend called it.

If a bicycle is supposed to follow the same rules as cars on the road, if they essentially are the same thing, why can they ride on recreational paths along with pedestrians?  Why do the bike police rarely ride in the street, instead riding on the sidewalk? Why are the bike racks on the side walk? (I realize it’s the only place to put them, but it sends a mixed message) (PS, need more bike racks, too)

I know there are bicyclists that can pretty much keep up with the flow of 25 mph traffic – and for them, acting like a car might make more sense. But I can’t. And honesly, I don’t want to go faster. I want to ride slow and look around at the world around me. It’s my favorite part about riding my bike.

Sometimes following the laws feels dangerous. Take this scenario:

Three lanes, one way street (N between 11th and 9th). Left lane is left turn only, right lane is right turn only, and middle lane is right turn or go straight. I want to go straight. Do I ride in the middle of the middle lane, slowing the traffic behind me to 12mph? The left hand side? (then cars try to squeeze past me and people making wide left turns come close to me) Add to this: cars coming out of a parking garage crossing all lanes of traffic and busses on the right that need to make their way across to the left.

What I have been doing is cutting across the street and taking a sidewalk – always with plenty of room for me to get around pedestrians – and crossing the street when pedestrians cross. Not dismounting my bike, but only going slightly faster than those crossing the street. Or, I’ll take a different sidewalk which is always empty (it’s in front of a church) and take the sidewalk down a couple more blocks. Neither of these solutions have felt especially good either, but better than the in the street option.

Other options – ride down the busy O street (no way) or cut back 4 blocks, ride my bike on the sidewalk on campus (this is legal/allowed, as far as I can tell) and go to 8th street, take the “bike lane” (problems with that are below, also, won’t work if I want to go to shops on 8th/9th and N), or cross the street, ride down an alley, and then take another street down.

To tell the truth, none of them feel great. The simplest, most direct route – riding in the middle lane – feels scary to me during rush hour, when people are at their most impatient. I myself wouldn’t want to be behind a bicyclist going so slow, either. I’ve only taken the route a handful of times, and most times I have been honked at, or flipped off, and even when not, I generally feel like an inconvenience. It certainly takes the fun out of riding my bike home.

I’m not sure of the solution. I think that riding on the sidewalk can be OK sometimes, but I realize it’s hard to legislate a common sense approach. When riding on the sidewalk, a cyclist should: yield to pedestrians, go very slow, and look both ways at driveways, as if crossing a street with a yield sign. I do these things when riding on a sidewalk, and I also try to make my trip on the sidewalk as short as possible – a way of avoiding heavily congested streets. If there are a lot of pedestrians, I’ll walk my bike. The cyclists who don’t follow common sense – who ride fast on the sidewalk and expect the pedestrians to get out of their way, are asshats, and are the reason no one is allowed to ride on sidewalks. (also, anyone who argues that “sideWALKS are for WALKing” has obviously never parked in a driveway.)

I do think Lincoln should give a lot more thought to how cyclists can get in and out of downtown safely. The bike lanes are a joke – the one on 14th requires cars to cross it at least twice just to go straight, and the 11th street one dumps you in the middle of a two way street at the end – which is OK when it’s not busy, but during rush hour it’s nerve wracking. (I took this route today. After ending up in the middle of the street, a car went slowly behind me instead of passing on the right, while I was waiting for them to pass so I could get to the right. They waved me on, and I went, but another car was about ready to jump around them on the right by then. No one honked at me, though- +1!) Designing some easy way to get from downtown to 8th street, which is a designated on street bike route, would also help. Changing the existing 11th and 14th street bike lanes so they are not in the middle of the street would be a HUGE help. Sure, some of the solutions might cost money, but it would result in a safer way to get to and from work/school that’s not by car.

I have been told I should be more agressive. That I should flip off drivers when I’m in the right. That I shouldn’t be afraid (because I can just turn that right off).  But you know what? I don’t want my commute home to be an exercise in anger, frustration and fear. If I wanted that, I’d drive. The rest of the ride home is peaceful and fun, it’s only the two blocks on N street between 11th and 9th that are a problem. I would guess that there are other riders who just don’t ride downtown to work because frankly, it sucks if you’re not a fast, experienced rider. All the people who have told me it doesn’t suck (so far)? Fast, experienced riders.

I was in an argument with someone the other day about bicyclists – she was frustrated that recreational cyclists rode on country roads. She doesn’t think they should be allowed to ride there at all; they go too slow; there’s supposed to be minimum speeds. I can understand her frustration, just as I can understand the frustration of people stuck behind me when I am going 10 mph in the middle of rush hour. But banning cyclists everywhere isn’t the solution.

We’re actually in a pretty good time and place to address this in Lincoln – cycling seems like it is on the rise and we’re already working on traffic improvement projects due to the Arena. Let’s keep cycling in mind and stop just lumping them in with cars when everything’s already designed. That might work for some, but it doesn’t for others and I’d rather live in a city where everyone feels safe to ride.

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4 Responses to (Why I hate) Bicycling in downtown Lincoln

  1. PJ says:

    I’m in total agreement Karin. Cyclists needs should be part of the “Comprehensive Plan” for the city, just like for cars and pedestrians. While Lincoln actually has some amazing biking/hiking trails for a city of its size, the way it deals with cycling downtown is short sighted, and, honestly, dangerous for anyone on a bike.

  2. This is a fascinating dilemma because you ride in a manor that most cycling advocates don’t. But essentially what it comes down to is that even if you’re traveling at 12mph, you’re allowed the full lane and it’s the selfish actions of the motorists (yelling, harassing) that are causing you to break the laws. So there needs to be more education for bicycle awareness and bikes as a natural road user. Instead of asking, “Why can’t I ride on the sidewalk?” we should be asking, “Why are these assholes forcing me to consider the sidewalk?”

    I can’t believe with all the One Way and 4-6 lane roads in Lincoln that they couldn’t remove one lane and dedicate it to safe bicycle travel. Motorists will cry foul and complain about traffic jams and traffic flow and will refuse to understand that more bikes on the road means fewer cars on the road, which balances out the traffic flow. Lincoln could have some glorious on street bike trails (Can you imagine a buffered bike lane down O Street?) if only people would open their minds a little more.

    You should listen to the newest episode of The Bike Show, which discusses modifications to a popular bridge in London that are coming under fire for being too motorist-friendly and shutting out other road users. Basically they say that if you build accommodations for cars the roads will continue to fill up with cars. If you build accommodations for bikes, the roads will fill up with bikes.

    • karin says:

      I think a bike lane would work pretty well on N street – it could be on the left hand side of the middle lane, the one that goes straight and leads to 8th Street, which is an on street bike route. There would still be the problem of cars and busses having to cut across the lanes, but at least it would be a buffer and an indication that cyclists are there. I would love to sit sometime and see where all the other people that park their bikes at 12th and O go – it’s a community college and so has plenty of cyclists, but I never see others going down N street like we do (then again, I do see plenty of people riding on the sidewalks there). We definitely need some east/west bike lanes. One down O street would be awesome. The thing that really bugs me there is there are 12-14 foot wide sidewalks between 12th and 9th on O (with no driveways!) that are only lightly used by pedestrians, yet cyclists still can’t legally use them.

      I should add that I see cyclists on the sidewalks *all the time* and they are generally way different from the ones riding on the streets – they’re riding cruisers or mountain bikes instead of road bikes, they’re going slow, and they’re not 18-35 year old males. It’s a bit of a generalization, but I’ve seen it a lot, especially on the 12th street sidewalk north of O Street (I loiter there a lot, waiting for a certain someone to get off work).

      I know that if I want to see any of these kinds of changes, I need to get involved in community meetings and such, and I will look for ways to do that. (The fact that they’re always when I am at work is annoying, but hey, I have a lot of vacation days)

  3. Jacob says:

    A friend linked me to this via Facebook.

    I lived in Lincoln for two years, from 2003 to 2005. It sounds like the city has become a little more cyclist-friendly since then, and I’m glad to hear it. However, it also sounds like the city still has a long way to go. Keep pushing and things will get done! The better the conditions for bikers, the more bikers will appear on the roads. The more bikers on the roads, the better conditions for them will become.

    I’m lucky to live in a city (Minneapolis, MN) that has a large population of people who commute via bicycle. We have lots of trails and dedicated bike lanes, with more being added all the time. It would be great if Lincoln could move more and more in that direction. Good luck!