Observation of Louisville's bike lanes reveals confusion, contention among drivers and cyclists
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Contention, confusion and concern are being met by frustration, fear and a fight for space on Louisville roads.
The city is rolling out 40 miles of new bike lanes in two years and, in some places, that means taking away driving lanes and space for cars.
“I think some of the bikers take a little too much advantage of it,” Charles Finley said on Breckinridge Street. Just within the last year, one driving lane on that street has been removed and replaced with a protected bike lane.
“I think some of the bikers take a little too much advantage of it,” Finley added.
The goals of the bike lanes are to slow traffic, reduce crashes and foster a bike friendly community – which city officials say will increase the quality of life and make Louisville more attractive to businesses and prospective residents.
But two wheeled transportation seems far from co-existing peacefully with four wheeled vehicles in Louisville.
Before building bike lanes, the city installed electronic surveyors in certain areas around town to find out how much bike traffic those areas were already seeing – and so they would have a number to compare future measures of the bike lanes to.
We put five people in the same places the city studied to conduct our own survey of the bike lanes, now they’ve been installed.
Here are the locations we looked at:
- Chestnut Street between 6th and 13th
- Muhammad Ali Boulevard between 6th and 13th
- Breckinridge Street between Barret Avenue and 9th Street
- Kentucky Street between Barret Avenue and 8th Street
- Grinstead Drive between Peterson Avenue and Stilz Avenue
We manned those locations with people in the hope of getting more comprehensive results, as the people we put in place were able to explain a little more about what they saw.
Bring on the bikers
In the five zones, our surveyors spotted 753 cyclists in two days. That’s a 600 percent increase from the city’s initial counts.
We didn't just ask our team to count bikes, we asked them to detail interactions so we could get a better handle on how cyclists and drivers are interacting on the road.
“[A cyclist] was on the sidewalk and then it turned and went the wrong way and was riding in the middle of the street,” a surveyor stationed on Chestnut said.
The tallies from our team showed only half the riders used the bike lanes correctly. The counters saw 346 people ride the wrong way on one-way streets; in the middle of the road when bikes lanes were available; or ignored the space altogether and took to the sidewalk.
“I feel a lot safer on the sidewalk because I know I can't get hit that way,” said Victor King, who we found riding his bike on the sidewalk.
Where do I drive?
When we took a look at our survey results, we found drivers seemed to be confused. Our counters captured 335 vehicles illegally in bike lanes.
But the bike lanes also seem inconsistent in both size and location.
Take for instance 8th and Chestnut: the city put in a specific lane for bikers measuring 6 feet wide. However, just one block away -- at 8th and Magazine -- the designated lane is gone and bikes and cars are back to sharing the same space.
On Grinstead Drive, the bike lane runs right along the curb and is just 5 feet wide; but on Breckinridge, the protected bike lane measures 9.5 feet wide.
“We try to maintain a constant facility, but when the street is wide and then narrows -- then our facility has to accommodate that,” Rolf Esinger explained.
Eisinger is Louisville's bike guy. He gets paid $50,000 a year to plan where the city’s new bike lanes should go.
When asked if the changing lane infrastructure created more confusion, Eisinger said lanes have to change to accommodate the road they’re on.
We drove along Breckinridge and Kentucky streets as the bike and pedestrian coordinator followed along on his own bike. As the camera attached to his cycle rattled from the rough ride, you can't help but wonder if the city is painting over the real problem.
Public Works spent $60,000 painting bikes lanes on Breckinridge and Kentucky streets rather than repaving the roads.
A Metro Government transportation study suggests 85 percent of downtown workers drive and only three percent bike.
When asked about the city’s priorities, Eisinger said, “That's a great question and one quick answer is we have quite a bit of utility work downtown and we’re waiting for them to be done to coordinate the repaving throughout the city.”
However, the $300,000 taxpayer investment to expand the bike network has meant an influx of new bikers.
“I think it's really good. I like it a lot,” Cyclist Kelli Smith said. Smith rides 10 miles from St. Matthews to downtown for work.
“I didn't really know the laws until I started biking,” she said. “I didn't know if bikes were allowed on the sidewalk or if bikes are allowed in other lanes and I don't think most people know that.
Lacking Law enforcement
Eisinger admits the city needs to better educate bikers and drivers, but there’s no real enforcement for either in this new network. According to the Jefferson County Clerk’s office, Louisville Metro Police have issued only three cyclist citations in the last two years and there's unclear tracking on vehicle violators.
“It's going to take years,” Mayor Greg Fischer said. “When you go into cities that are a little ahead of us you can see the interaction has matured but it's coming along.”
Mayor Fischer fully supports the bike network and put $400,000 more for bike lanes in his new budget.
But who’s watching?
Follow up traffic counts were to be done on Breckinridge Street every month for the first six months after the switch and bi-annually for the next three years, according to the city’s initial reports.
But in a response to an open records request WDRB was told, “Additional studies exist and are still in draft form and, as such, are exempt from release as preliminary consistent with KRS 61.878 (1)(i) and (j). You may submit a later request for additional records which may be available when no longer in draft form.”
When asked why traffic counts that should have started a year ago were still in draft form, Mayor Fischer said, “We can certainly look into that.”
Despite the concern, Louisville recently improved to silver status on the League of American Bicyclist report -- pulling ahead of cities like Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The group praised Louisville's investment but found the community has a higher rate of bike crashes than peer cities.
“Great cities have a balance between pedestrian activity, bike activity, public transportation and cars as well,” Fischer said.
But great cities don’t work blind and when contention and confusion meet, safety is at risk.
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