The problem with Baxter Street

The recent repaving of Baxter Street has become another example of a missed opportunity in Athens-Clarke County.

That’s because the American Association for Transportation Officials set 5 feet as the minimum width for an urban bike lane — the minimum space needed to create predictable, safe traffic for both rider and driver.

A 5-foot lane gives cyclists enough space to ride away from the curb to avoid unexpected obstacles (like sticks, glass, gravel, and other hazards) while staying in the bike lane.  The narrower the bike lane, the more likely the cyclist will have to move into the motor vehicle lane to avoid debris – and there’s almost always debris.

A 5-foot bike lane also improves traffic for motorists. In Georgia, state law requires that drivers maintain 3-foot safe distance when passing a cyclist. A 5-foot bike lane builds that 3-foot buffer into the street design. With bike lanes of 4 feet or less, drivers may need to leave their travel lane in order to safely and legally pass.

Note: Athens has adopted a 4-foot standard for urban bike lanes.

But then you occasionally have a road project resulting in the worst-case scenario: Bike lanes of inconsistent width. This is compounded on high-traffic roads — and our very own Baxter Street is an example of this perfect storm. Here, lanes on Baxter range from 2 feet to 4 feet, with frequent obstacles created by debris and existing storm drains.

Inconsistent bike lanes create unnecessarily dangerous situations for all users, which cyclists learn to avoid by not using the lane, or worse, by avoiding the street entirely. The average motorist may not understand the dangers associated with the substandard bike lane, adding frustration to the compromise necessary for roadways intended to serve all users.