Here’s an Inexpensive, Simple Way to Help Prevent Bicycle Dooring Crashes and Save Lives

On streets as narrow as 44 feet, wide buffers next to the parking lanes can help keep cyclists out of the way of car doors. Image: John Greenfield
On streets as narrow as 44 feet, wide buffers next to the parking lanes can help keep cyclists out of the way of car doors. Image: John Greenfield

Update 9/10/18: After feedback from readers (see comments below) and some one-the-road research with a tape measure, I realized that my proposal for anti-dooring bike lanes on a 44-foot-wide road wouldn’t work because riding in a bike lane with your wheels within one foot of the travel lane isn’t particularly safe or pleasant. Apologies for the oversight. I’ve taken another stab at the problem using a 46-foot road width instead. 

For the past quarter-century, I’ve ridden a bike just about every day in Chicago, sharing the road with motorized traffic and cycling past long lines of parked cars. But — knock on wood — it’s been decades since I’ve crashed after striking a car door that a careless motorist suddenly popped open in my path.

A major reason for my good fortune is that long ago I got into the habit of riding with the center of my bike about four feet away from parked cars. It’s now an automatic tendency and I don’t even think about it any more. But when the occasional car occupant thoughtlessly opens their door without looking behind them for bikes, I’m usually out of harm’s way, or at least have enough time to safely steer clear.

Three recent cases in which cyclists were critically injured or killed in the Chicago area after striking open car doors got me thinking about ways to prevent these tragedies. In 2013 Chicago began requiring cabbies to install dooring awareness stickers in their windows reminding passengers to “LOOK” before exiting. And last month legislators in Springfield passed House Bill 5143, which adds the Dutch Reach anti-dooring strategy to Illinois’ Rules of the Road manual.

Well-designed protected bike lanes are an effective way to virtually eliminate dooring crashes. In Chicago, the lanes are typically installed curbside with the parking lane to the left, and the parking and bike lanes separated by a wide striped buffer with flexible posts, and/or concrete curbs.

Chicago's Kinzie Street protected bike lane. Photo: CDOT
Chicago’s Kinzie Street protected bike lane. Photo: CDOT

With this layout, cyclists can’t be struck by doors opened on the driver side, and they’re far enough away from the passenger side that it’s unlikely they would make contact with an open door. And even if they did have to swerve out of the way, they’d be heading towards the curb, rather than into moving traffic.

However, protected bike lanes are relatively expensive compared to non-protected lanes, and they require a significant amount of road width. They can also be politically challenging to install because they usually involve eliminating a few parking spaces near intersections so that turning drivers and cyclists can see each other, and they sometimes require converting mixed-traffic lanes, taking space away from drivers.

On streets where protected bike lanes aren’t an option it’s common for the city of Chicago to install buffered bike lanes, which have a foot or two of dead space striped to the left of the bike lane (to help keep cyclists away from moving cars) and/or to the right (to help keep them out of the way of car doors.) The relatively narrow buffer on the right is somewhat helpful for preventing doorings, but this layout still sends the message that it’s OK for cyclists to ride within two feet of parked cars, which isn’t safe.

A buffered bike lane on Chicago's Madison Street. Photo: John Greenfield
A buffered bike lane on Chicago’s Madison Street. Photo: John Greenfield

Moreover, the city still installs non-buffered bike lanes on some streets that are deemed too narrow to install protected or buffered lanes without removing a car parking lane, which is often politically impossible. The narrowest street width with parking that the Chicago Department of Transportation will install bike lanes on is 44 feet, with seven-foot parking lanes, five-foot bike lanes, and ten-foot travel lanes. Non-buffered lanes are often disparaged as “door-zone lanes” by cyclists who feel they encourage cyclists to ride in harm’s way.

So here’s a strategy for preventing doorings that’s cheaper than protected lanes, takes little or no effort from a political standpoint, and will work on streets as narrow as 44 feet with parking. It could be used at all locations where non-buffered bike lanes currently exist, or where they could be installed in the future, and it would also be the best approach for wider buffered lanes.

The bike lane should be striped so its entire width has cross-hatchings (see the drawing at the top of this post), except for the last two feet on the left, closest to the center of the road. That area would be remain clear, indicating that that’s where you’re supposed to ride, out of the way of opening car doors.

What do you think of this idea, and have you seen it implemented in other cities? (I haven’t.) Let us know in the comments section.

  • Courtney

    I try to ride furthest away from cars in the buffered lanes. It’s pretty scary to see so many drivers ride on the lines of these “lanes”; if a biker had been right next to them they surely would have hit someone.
    I know it’s politically tough but I am all for more physically protected lanes. Enough of this cowing to drivers. Our planet is dying, people are dying prematurely from air pollution and inactivity, and our city is congested with cars while solutions go underutilized. I realize I am preaching to the choir here.

  • Jacob Wilson

    It’s pretty rare in the grand scheme of things (correct me if I’m wrong) for cyclists to be struck from behind by motorists. Sure they honk and buzz you if they feel you’re intruding on “their” lane but aren’t doorings and incidents at intersections far more common?

    Why not take the space now used for door zone bike lanes and just turn them into buffers and then have sharrows to send the message to drivers that they have to share the lane? The ONLY purpose door zone bike lanes serve is to cater to drivers by encouraging cyclists to ride in the hazardous door zone.

    Part of Damen now has this configuration (although the buffer is too small to be effective) and I think it would be much more suitable on other slow moving streets then the “stay the f*** to the right biker” door zone lanes.

    I get that perceived safety is important and bike lanes help with that but I do what John describes riding 4 feet from cars which means you’re on or to the LEFT of the line on pretty much any non protected lane anywhere. I think we can all agree that’s the safest practice and you WILL be doored eventually if you don’t do that.

    So why do we advocate for lanes even if they’re death traps? The new “striped lanes” are a perfect example and only serve motorists.

  • The Dude

    I just don’t know that this does much. By repainting it, you would be removing the hatches which indicate to the driver that the space is a no-go zone for their car. You probably can’t effectively paint a hatched area in space less than 2 feet, hence why it’s there. I don’t think the issue is telling cyclist where to go, but rather giving them maximum comfort and the hatches on both sides provide that to the best ability that paint alone can provide. I know I for one, know that I use the entire space between the white lines and adjust my position accordingly for safety.

  • The Dude

    to this point, that’s why the green painted lanes accomplish your concerns, but still indicate the no-go zone to cars, but sadly it seems that city’s can’t maintain the color on the pavement to make them effective long term.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “What John describes riding 4 feet from cars which means you’re on or to the LEFT of the line on pretty much any non protected lane anywhere.” Nope, the minimum width for conventional bike lanes in Chicago is five feet, which means that if you’re riding with the center of your bike four feet from parked cars, you’ve still got a foot of bike lane to your left of your wheels, as shown in the above drawing.

    In my experience, motorists on Milwaukee tend to do a decent job of staying to the left of the dashed bike lane, which means cyclists can ride further to the left of parked cars. Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation, but it’s better than just having sharrows. https://chi.streetsblog.org/2017/08/30/eyes-on-the-street-a-first-look-at-new-dashed-bike-lanes-on-milwaukee-avenue/ https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/aaa2ff82960e4a9b941ff12857301664149957b5dfca21c11341a70a74bde06d.jpg

    Hopefully in the future bike mode share will continue to increase on Milwaukee so that stripping a parking lane to make room for protected bike lanes won’t seem like such a crazy idea to residents and merchants.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sure, if there’s enough road width, having dead space striped to the left of the bike lane as well as the 3′ buffer to the right is helpful. But if the road width is such that the bike lane can only be 5′, having less than a 3′ buffer on the right send ends the message that it’s OK to ride in the door zone.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Simply having the whole bike lane painted green helps discourage motorists to from driving in the lane, but it doesn’t do anything to educate cyclists about safe lane position.

  • The Dude

    Hmm. So maybe we paint it your way, but make it green instead of clear. Or what about a double white line or double width line on the left with a 3 foot hatch on the right? I just feel like for me to be comfortable in a bike lane, I need something on my left which indicates to a driver that this bike lane is there and not for them. So some sort of line or color or object which is not typically seen on a roadway without bicycle facilities.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sure, those are options if you think they would make it less likely for drivers to impinge on the bike lane.

  • Kevin M

    “the minimum width for conventional bike lanes in Chicago is five feet”

    I don’t know if it’s “conventional” (because of its mid-street placement), but Halsted’s northbound bike lane at (and approaching) Division seems sub-five feet across to me.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    According to Chicago’s Bike Lane Design Guide, the minimum width is 5′. (There’s also a good-looking male model on the left side of the guide’s cover.) https://nacto.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Chicago-Bike-Lane-Design-Guide-2002.pdf

  • I ride a lot on city streets everywhere from Denver to Portland to Pittsburgh. The pictures in this article reflect the reality I’ve seen on the road in these places. Most are usually running well below their carrying capacity. In the two pictures, there’s plenty of room for both motor vehicles and bicycles provided speed limits are reasonable. I understand that sometimes traffic is heavier, but these pictures reflect the norm as I’ve lived it.

    So given that (and because this is what I learned to become an LCI and I absolutely believe it), the best place to ride is in the center of the rightmost traffic lane, not pushed up against a line of parked cars where you’re barely visible. I despise bike lanes for this very reason. Buffers help, but what would help even more is lower speed limits (25 mph is reasonable on that stretch of Madison, or 30 at the most), sharrows in the rightmost lane and education of BOTH motorists and cyclists so that all road users understand how the road is designed to be used. I appreciate the article. Just my two cents…

  • skelter weeks

    I think everyone (author included) is missing the implications of placing cross-hatchings across most of the width of bike lanes. It’ll tell everyone (cyclists & motorists alike) that NO VEHICLE should operate in that space, kind of like handicapped or ambulance-only spaces. It should reduce cars using the bike lane, because it doesn’t look like a traffic lane anymore. And it will keep bike riders out of the door zone. Many people, well over a majority, still don’t understand this. Every day, on one way streets where it’s legal to ride on the left side/safer passenger side of cars, most people still ride on the right/dangerous driver side. The cross-hatchings will help educate people.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It’s funny, I dislike riding on the left side of a street — it just feels weird to me, like driving on the left side of the road in the U.K. And since I never ride in the door zone, so it doesn’t matter which side of a car I ride by.

    That’s one reason I’m not a fan of the Dearborn bike lane north of Kinzie. (The other is that it’s constantly occupied by drivers making left turns, especially at Ontario, which leads to the Kennedy Expressway.)

    And it’s why I was annoyed that the bike lanes on on the new Roscoe/School/Aldine greenway in Lakeview are being striped on the left side of the street — that’s not where I want to ride. But it’s likely that was done because — as you astutely pointed out — people who ride in the door zone are less likely to have a door opened on them if they pass by the passenger side.

  • Jacob Wilson

    All the riders in that picture are in what I would consider the door zone. Perhaps I have a poor sense of space.

    4 feet from a car allowing a modest 8 inches for your handle bars (more for any flat bars) means your tire is four inches inside the white line so I guess if you want to be pedantic you CAN use the lane but I think you get my point which is most of the lane SHOULD be dead space and should be marked as such.

    Obviously we all know the only truly safe solution for Milwaukee involves removing parking so that is a tough case I agree and maybe the striped lines do more good by keeping motorists to the center.

  • outerloop

    Does this leave 3′ for motorists passing bikes?

  • planetshwoop

    I think it’s at least worth experimenting with. We could use additional ideas.

    I think this would help with another pet peeve of mine. When one bikes in the center of bike lanes, in the winter esp., it is where all the road rubble settles. So the “place” one is instructed to ride is filled with glass, bits of rock, and every sort of road debris.

    My only suggestion would be to paint a **double line**, if possible. I don’t know if that follows ASHTO guidelines, etc. etc. but it feels to me that drivers are much less comfortable crossing a double-line than a single line.

  • rohmen

    To avoid doors, I already ride pretty close to the car lane side of the bike lane, so I could definitely live with this sort of design (and agree it would help prevent doorings).

    That said, as I think others have noted, some cars and trucks would be unable to keep a 3 foot distance from a cyclist under this rule I think (aren’t most SUVs wider than 7 feet when mirrors are factored in?).

    Personally, I’d rather have someone pass me closer than the 3 foot rule rather than risk being doored (which is a decision I’ve already made in traditional bike lanes the way they’re designed now), but there’s a lot of people that I think ride to the parked car side of the bike lane because subjectively they think it’s safer, and this sort of design is going to feel unsafe to a lot of cyclists as a result .

  • rohmen

    I don’t think it can if the travel lane is only 10′. Most SUVs are around 6 to 6.5′ from what I’ve seen, and that’s not including mirrors, which means there’s no way they could keep a 3′ gap when passing a cyclist in a bike lane like this unfortunately.

  • BC

    Vehicular cyclists Concern Trolling.

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