COLUMN: 3 things Greater Cincinnati cyclists need beyond 3-foot law

Posted at 7:17 AM, Mar 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-21 19:12:57-04

Pat LaFleur is a bicycle-commuter living in Covington, Kentucky. He reports on transportation issues for WCPO.

Finally. It finally happened.

Cyclists across the Tri-State reached a milestone today when a bill approved last year by Ohio legislators took effect. It requires motorists across the state to pass with at least a 3-foot cushion when overtaking cyclists on the road.

The law makes Ohio the 29th state to enact distance-specific legislation and the 40th to have some sort of safe-passing law on the books. Kentucky gave it the old college try last year, but that bill got held up in their State House Transportation Committee after gaining approval in the state senate. 

It's a milestone worth every minute and mile ridden in celebration it has already -- and will continue -- to inspire. Especially as bicycling season rolls out in the coming weeks and with Bike Month little more than a month away.

First I'll say most drivers I encounter already abide by this rule. Some have told me that's because they fear a collision, some because they don't know how to predict a bicycle's movements the same way they can with other cars (another problem for another column).

But as a bike commuter myself, who rides on the road with automobiles every day, I can attest to how utterly terrifying it is when a driver does pass too closely. This is true on both country roads where drivers tend to go at higher speeds as well as on slower city streets.

It's especially heart-pumping when a motorist intentionally "buzzes" a rider -- that is, intentionally passes too close. Yes, this particularly dangerous form of intimidation does happen and probably more frequently than most think.

The truth is, close calls like that are a leading deterrent for people curious about adding a bicycle to their daily lives or commutes.

All that said, while we celebrate this progress, we should be careful not to look at this law's passage as a finish line. It must be a starting gate.

In that spirit, here are three things the Tri-State's bicycle community should work to make reality, now that the 3-foot law is here:

1. From 'Share the Road' to 'May Use Full Lane'

For years, cyclists' mantra has been "share the road." But, in recent years, that's begun to change.

The idea behind the "share the road" mentality was to illustrate the oft-forgotten reality that bicycles aren't just road-legal vehicles: They're required by law -- with very little exception -- to utilize the roadway.

The problem with "share the road," though, is that it portrays a mixed message. On one hand, it could convey to motorists that they will see cyclists on the road, and that's where they mutually belong. On the other hand, it can also convey to motorists that bicycles should get out of their way. Most commonly, "getting out of the way" would mean either moving to the shoulder -- often littered with dangerous debris -- or moving to the sidewalk -- always against the law.

"Bicycle May Use Full Lane," however, conveys a direct and clear message that bicycles should be treated like any other road-legal vehicle. In the sense that, when passing, drivers should treat bicycles like they would another automobile.

A 2015 study out of North Carolina State University found that "Bicycle May Use Full Lane" signs were more effective than "Share the Road" signs at reminding drivers that bicyclists belong on the road.

“Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signage was the most consistently comprehended device for communicating the message that bicyclists may occupy the travel lane and also increased perceptions of safety. “Share the Road” signage did not increase comprehension or perceptions of safety.

- "'Bicycles May Use Full Lane' Signage Communicates U.S. Roadway Rules and Increases Perception of Safety," George Hess, M. Nils Peterson, Aug. 2015

Speaking of safety, popular roadway designs make it so that, contrary to popular belief, riding in the center of a travel lane can actually prevent common bicycle collisions.

When it comes to city riding, "taking the lane," as cyclists say, prevents the possibility of being "doored" -- that is, crashing into an on-street parked car's door that opens after it's too late to swerve and evade collision. (Sidenote: being doored is one of the most painful bicycle injuries there is, both for rider and bicycle.) Riding in the middle of the right-hand lane takes cyclists out of the "door zone." It also protects the motorist who is getting ready to step out into the roadway.

Here's a 360-degree, first-person view of what cyclists see when being overtaken on the road (viewable in Chrome and in the WCPO app):

There's also an argument to be made that hugging the right side of a travel lane can give a driver the impression that they don't need to change lanes to overtake the cyclist safely. Even in travel lanes that would be wide enough to accommodate 3 feet between a cyclist and another vehicle, this would put that vehicle dangerously close to the line on the left, especially when the next lane over is oncoming traffic.

"I tend to take the full lane while riding in traffic, especially in a 4-lane road such as Spring Grove, or Liberty Street," said avid cyclist and owner of SPUN Bicycles, Judi LoPresti. "Cars tend to use the other lane to pass me, which makes it safer for me on my bicycle."

It is also important to note here, in the case of two-way, two-lane roads, that both Ohio and Kentucky law allow for vehicles to cross double-yellow divider lanes in order to safely pass slower vehicles, such as bicycles, farm equipment and horse-drawn vehicles.

2. Protected Bike Lanes

It's hard to utter these three words without igniting controversy, at least in the Tri-State. Cincinnati's singular protected bike lane -- which extends 2.1 miles from Downtown at Elm Street and Central Parkway to Marshall Avenue in Cincinnati's CUF neighborhood -- has been the topic of back-and-forth debate since it was designated in 2014

But that doesn't change the fact that they are: So. Important.

COLUMN: Why controversy over protected bike lanes is a good thing

While they share the same goal -- create a safe distance between automobiles and bicycles while still allowing bikes on the road -- there's a sort of conflict between 3-foot legislation and protected bike lanes. Three-foot legislation attempts to establish bicycles as the road-legal vehicles they are. Protected bike lanes, however, literally separate the two modes of transportation.

The reality is, not all city streets can accommodate protected bike lanes, due to their width, traffic volume or other factors. That's why having protected bike lanes cannot be an argument against a 3-foot law or vice versa.

But here's another reality about bicycle commuting: Beginner cyclists, especially when it comes to using the roadway, always feel more safe when riding in a protected bike lane than when integrated with auto traffic.

A Portland State University study from 2012 found this to be the case. Portland, one of the country's most bike-friendly cities, found that 60 percent of respondents were "interested but concerned" in bike commuting, citing fear of riding with cars as the chief element of their concern.

3. Municipal support is key

There might not be a better example of the importance of support from city leaders for bicycle infrastructure projects than Cincinnati.

When it comes to building up on-street bicycle infrastructure, especially in urban areas, many of those projects must be championed and approved by municipal lawmakers. That's because most on-street urban bike projects require, in part, city funding, especially as state and federal money for such projects continues to diminish.

Second only to the streetcar sits the Central Parkway protected bike lane as one of the city's most politically charged transportation and infrastructure debates in recent memory. Councilman Chris Smitherman even called for its partial decommissioning -- hardly a year after its opening -- citing what he said was an increase in traffic crashes along the route. He said the increase was spurred by confusion about the new parking restrictions caused by the lanes' installation.

A subsequent report from the city's Department of Transportation and Engineering found that crashes along the route, in fact, had not increased by any statistically significant measure. As a result of that study, the DOTE recommended the bike lanes stay, but that report was, curiously, quickly recalled.

The study found that "the number of crashes on Central Parkway is comparable to the number of crashes on similar streets" without protected bike lanes.

Mayor John Cranley has shown mixed support for bike projects, to the partial detriment of city bike commuters. When considering items included in the fiscal year 2016 budget, he vetoed one budget item allocating $150,000 to bolster and maintain Cincinnati's network of bike lanes -- that's just bike lanes, not even protected bike lanes, specifically.

At the same time, Cranley has been a big supporter of off-street bike trail projects, most notably the Wasson Way project, as well as pledging and delivering $1 million from the city budget for Cincinnati's flourishing bike share system, Red Bike.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).