Bicycle lanes graced Fahy Bridge in the '70s

Q: In the 1970s, the community group BIKE promoted bicycle lanes and bicycle-safety programs. With the support of city officials, bike lanes were installed on downtown Bethlehem streets. Among BIKE's priorities was the inclusion of bike lanes and other safety improvements on the Fahy Bridge, where, nearly 40 years later, bicyclist Patrick Ytsma sadly lost his life. A June 29, 1973 letter to city and state officials concluded, 'A serious accident involving a bicyclist on this bridge will be directly attributable to poor design and a failure to correct the hazardous conditions … ' In spring 1974, bike lanes with graphic bicycle markings were added on the bridge in both directions. The lanes remained for years, but at some point were removed. They should be restored. The lanes may not totally prevent accidents, but they reduce the frequency, providing a desirable margin of safety.

— Hans M. Wuerth, Upper Saucon Township

A: Bicycle safety and the conflicting interests of motorists and bicyclists continue to turn the key on difficult and contentious issues, Hans, blocking the route to harmony on the highways. We also have some disagreement among bicycling advocates about the relative safety value provided by dedicated bicycle lanes versus cyclists riding in the middle (or near the middle) of the traffic lane.

The Morning Call archives and other news reports from the time verify that separate bicycle lanes were installed on a number of Bethlehem streets, mostly north of the river, but including on the Fahy Bridge, which links the north- and south-side business districts. This provides yet another shade of irony tingeing the Dec. 4 death of Patrick Ytsma, a fervent bike-safety practitioner hit by a car while bicycling across the bridge.

Retired Bethlehem City Planner Michael Topping, who helped steer the bike lanes onto the roadway, remembers the process well. "It was pretty extensive," he said recently, recalling the evaluation of various streets, with considerations including lane width, bike-lane connectivity (one lane had to connect to another) and different destinations.

About four miles' worth of lanes were created, including a major loop from Church to Main to Washington Avenue to New and back to Church. At an opening ceremony on June 22, 1974, then City Council President Paul Marcincin crowed about Bethlehem being the first Pennsylvania city to boast an official bikeway.

Bike lane popularity came off the assembly line of the early-1970s oil crisis, as gasoline prices soared, lines formed at the pumps and Americans got serious about energy conservation (for the first and, pretty much, only time, unfortunately). Bicycles and other low-cost forms of transportation were thought to be an inevitable part of the country's long-term future.

But as the '70s came to the end of the road, the crisis eased, gas prices stabilized, and the bike lanes faded — both literally and figuratively. They weren't so much actively removed, to Topping's recollection, but rather, "I think they just sort of faded away," the victims of new mayors and administrators, budget considerations (bike lanes need to be repainted and otherwise maintained) and changing public priorities. Some motorists resented the bike lanes (and the cyclists) right from the start, but dwindling support from the general public left the lanes by the roadside. Topping surmised that the lanes remained active, if that's the right word, for about five years before wearing away, pretty much without notice.

The lanes were controversial even among bicycle riders and bike-safety advocates at the time, Topping recalled, as many riders insisted that riding within the travel lane was safer. That seems to be the consensus among today's safety experts: The "shared road" concept, in which bicyclists ride in the travel lane and specifically avoid staying to the right, is favored.

"Absolutely," John Schubert of the Pennsylvania Pedalcycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee replied when asked if the "shared road" approach is safer than riding in dedicated bike lanes. Bike lanes "were never my preferred method," Schubert said, adding that a Fahy bike lane would not necessarily have prevented Ytsma's accident, even though Ytsma was struck while properly riding in the lane. Bikers have been hit by cars in bike lanes as well, said Schubert, an accident-reconstruction expert who has worked for the state attorney general's office more than 15 years.

A bicycle rider within the lane captures the attention of motorists more readily than a biker hugging the right-hand shoulder, Schubert said. An off-to-the-side biker is more likely to be discounted in the motorist's mind. When biking on the road, "You want to be seen, so you don't want to be at the edge [of the road], but in the lane," Schubert said. Being conspicuous is being safer.

Tests have shown that motorists tend to give bikers more clearance the farther the bikers are extended to the left, into the lane, Schubert said. Edge-of-road riding can lure motorists into thinking they can squeeze past the bike — a condition bikers need to avoid.

Coalition for Appropriate Transportation Director Steve Schmitt agreed; he considers "bike lane" to be "a misnomer that has a lot of popular appeal" but no safety value. The travel lane is the bicycle lane, he said: "There's no distinction."

PennDOT regional safety specialist Steve Pohowsky also generally favors shared lane, and said he's aware of no proven safety statistics showing that dedicated bike lanes are safer than riding on the road. Pohowsky said bike lanes still are used in specific cases where conflicts between bikes and cars are frequent, including in parts of Philadelphia, Pottstown and State College, and they're also popular in New York City. But Pohowsky's sense is that a consensus of safety experts gives the green light to the shared-road concept.

Some common sense has to prevail from both sides of this sometimes testy road, of course. Generally, a motorist can't be expected to crawl along at 15 mph or so for miles simply because a cyclist decides to flaunt the legal right to use the road. That's just stupid, and extremely dangerous — to the cyclist.

Schmitt said there are times when cyclists should pull off the road temporarily to allow traffic to pass "if it's really piling up behind you," though those instances are rare, he said, and bicyclists can help make them as rare as possible through tactics such as opting for a less-traveled parallel road, when available, over a congested major artery.

It's also true, Schmitt said, that too many clueless bicycle riders continue to break the rules of the road. Bicycles are granted all the privileges of motor vehicles, but also are subject to the responsibilities, notably observing all traffic regulations — including no-brainer stuff like riding with traffic, which is flagrantly ignored in downtown Allentown.

Still, it's my sense that generally, motorists are the ones who need to ease off the gas in this long and winding road of a conflict. You don't have to like that bicycle rider, or even agree that he should be allowed to ride in the middle of the lane. But you do have to abide by the law, or work through the proper channels to change it.

Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to hartzell@mcall.com, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.

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