Bismarck’s bicycle paths were a good idea, poorly executed.
First of all, city leaders deserve some credit for encouraging alternative forms of transportation. We all know bicycling promotes good health and reduces consumption of fossil fuels. And it’s about time Bismarck followed the trend of most other major cities across the U.S.
But that’s where the compliments end.
A thorough inspection of Bismarck’s bike path makes it appear as though somebody randomly selected a route, bought some spray paint, hoisted a few nondescript signs and called it good. It would be ridiculous if it wasn’t so dangerous.
It’s easy to see the hazardous areas when riding a bike on the network of paths that run east-west along Divide and Rosser avenues and north-south along 26th and 16th streets. The danger is less noticeable when driving a motor vehicle, although some problem areas are difficult to overlook no matter what form of transportation you choose.
The bike lanes – indicated by two solid stripes on the right-hand side of the streets – have blurred the lines regarding right of ways at intersections. The share-the-road sections of the paths – marked by goofy stick-drawings of a bicyclist and some arrows – give bicyclists a false impression that it’s safe to compete with cars and trucks for limited space on narrow streets.
The argument between bicyclists and motorists has devolved into a dispute about who should yield when there’s confusion over right of way, but that discussion is impractical. It’s not a matter of who has the right of way; instead, it’s a matter of who thinks they have the right of way.
And that brings us to the biggest problem: lack of clarity.
The whole bicycle-path concept relies on staying alert, using common sense and “sharing the road” – three things Bismarck drivers disregard habitually.
In fact, the only way to avoid traffic accidents these days is to assume the rest of the drivers aren’t going to stop at red lights or yield to oncoming traffic. Basic courtesy and sharing were sideswiped into the ditch long ago. And if you think common sense is prevailing on Bismarck’s roadways, you obviously haven’t navigated the intersection of State Street and Century Avenue in quite a while.
Not everyone is a bad driver. But enough of us are, even when the rules of the road are explicitly clear. And that means problems are likely to occur when motorists and bicyclists are given vague instructions.
Bike lanes start and end at every intersection along the route, creating uncertainty whether motorists or bicyclists have the right of way at intersections where it’s possible for motor vehicles to turn right.
For instance, who is required to yield if a bicyclist is going straight through an intersection and a motor vehicle is crossing into the bike lane to turn right? There’s no signage to clarify. The bike lane just ends.
The right-of-way problem seems even more dangerous at busy intersections where there is a right-turn lane for motor vehicles. At those spots, the bike lane ends abruptly and the right-turn lane crosses over in front of it. It’s almost like an open invitation for accidents at the intersections of Washington Street and Divide, 19th Street and Divide, 26th Street and Divide, Seventh Street and Rosser, etc.
Then, there are those share-the-road symbols. Beyond the general assumption that motorists must share the road with bicyclists, it’s unclear whether bikes are supposed to be ridden along the side of the road or in middle of the lanes like motor vehicles. State law says bicyclists have the same privileges to use the road as motorists. But the signs along the road show bicyclists riding on the right of the main path for vehicles.
The other obvious problem is that the roads are too narrow in some spots to accommodate bicyclists and motorists riding side-by-side. Vehicles parked along the street in those areas make the situation even more dangerous.
The whole thing is very confusing. And if adults are befuddled, how can we expect young children on bikes to make good decisions?
The upside is that the bicycle route is only a pilot program intended to determine what works and what doesn’t. The city will complete its study later this year, and then evaluate whether to expand the bicycle route to other roadways.
Let’s hope the city learns a few things and does a better job on the next phase. We need signs at intersections that direct motorists and bicyclists on proper procedure. We need a more comprehensive public education effort. We need clear answers and decisive instructions to help us, as motorists and bicyclists, stay safe.
Until then, drive cautiously. And bike at your own risk.
-Matt Bunk is publisher of the Great Plains Examiner.