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Open Streets

Dave Alpert has an effective rebuttal to commentators whose view of urban bicycling is dominated by the fact that cyclists sometimes violate the rules of the road. As he points out this is true for all modes of transportation, but nobody ever calls for getting all cars off our streets on the grounds that motorists frequently encroach into sidewalks or drive in the bus lane on 7th Street.

That said, I continue to think that the main culprit for the endless fighting over this point is actually an excess of rules. Here’s a photo of a street in Geneva that, like many streets in Geneva, just kind of sits there without a lot of lane striping and signs and rules. That’s not to say that it’s a locus of lawless anarchy — the main point, obviously, is just that you’re not supposed to run over anyone with your car or slam into them with your bike. And guess what? Nobody does. Just like in a park or a public plaza you don’t need to cordon the pedestrians off from one another with different yellow and white lines and yield signs and so forth. Human beings are actually perfectly capable of negotiating the “am I about to collide with someone?” issue without relying on explicit signage.

What those road markings are good for is creating a situation in which automobiles can go fast. Obviously, there’s a time and a place for that. Grade-separated highways exist in order to facilitate the fast driving of automobiles. A wide boulevard in a city can serve a similar purpose in a way that’s appropriate to an urban context. Here you’re going to need striped lanes, a median to separate the different directions of traffic, lights to indicate when to stop and when to go, etc. And the best way to accommodate cyclists in that context would be with separated bike lanes. But a typical side street in a residential area isn’t an appropriate venue for just trying to make cars go as fast as possible. These kind of streets would be more functional — and safer — as uncontrolled open streets shared between modes and with people expected to conduct themselves in a decent manner.

On a related note, check out this video:

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