Guest post: Just how much space is enough for cyclists and bike lanes; no jail in SaMo road rage case

The other day, I got an interesting offer from one of my favorite bloggers who had written a detailed examination on how much space a cyclist needs to safely operate a bicycle, as opposed to how little we usually get.

But after writing it, he realized it wasn’t right for his audience. And wondered if my readers would be interested, though he preferred to be anonymous. 

Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.

You can thank me later.


Operable Width?

Looking through the Technical Design Handbook for the Los Angeles Bicycle Plan, I was reminded of something I’ve been thinking about lately – operable width. What is operable width? In the context of the bike plan it refers to the amount of space a cyclist needs to safely operate a bicycle.

In the first section of the Handbook, “design needs of bicyclists” is discussed. On page 7 it is determined that cyclists need a minimum 4-feet operating space with a preference for 5 feet. Similarly in the section discussing design for bike lanes, a 5-foot minimum is established for the bike lane width.

In Los Angeles our bike lanes typically are 5 feet wide but they do not allow for a minimum of 4 feet operating width. Why? Because most of Los Angeles’ bike lanes are adjacent to car parking. Bicycle safety literature issued by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation explicitly warns about the “door-zone,” space within the bike lane which may suddenly be interrupted by motorists opening their car door to exit their vehicle. The door zone reduces the safe operable width of bike lanes to 2 or 3 feet.

The door zone is acknowledged in this blog post at the LADOT Bike Blog, suggesting that cyclists position themselves at least 11 feet from the curb to avoid conflict with opening car doors. Anyone who has cycled in Los Angeles long enough eventually learns the potential danger posed by cycling too close to parked cars while in the bike lane. It is for this reason why cyclists often only operate in the left half of a bike lane.

A visualization of dangers typical bike lanes pose to cyclists in LA. This bike lane, like most bike lanes in LA, does not achieve the desired minimum operable width. Image credit: Gary Kavanagh

Unless parking is prohibited, cyclists never get the minimum operating width recommended by the Technical Design Handbook. What is puzzling is that despite the Department of Transportation’s awareness of the dangers of cycling to close to parked cars, it appears efforts are not consistently made avoid this danger.

Take for example this proposed bike lane on Winnetka Avenue.

Image credit: LADOT Bike Blog

A 6-foot bike lane is placed next to a 7-foot parking lane. If taking the LADOT’s recommendation of placing oneself 11 feet from the curb, the effective width of the bike lane becomes 3 feet, one foot below the desired minimum operating width. If the bike lane were 7 feet, then cyclists could have their minimum operating width of 4 feet. But where would this space come from? The California Highway Design Manual seems to offer a solution

The minimum [motor vehicle] lane width standard is 12 feet. There are situations where it may be desirable to reduce the width of the traffic lanes in order to add or widen bicycle lane or shoulders.

The Manual goes on to say

When vehicle parking is permitted adjacent to a bicycle lane or on a shoulder where bicycling is not prohibited, reducing the width of the adjacent traffic lane may allow for wider bicycle lanes or shoulders, to provide greater clearance between bicyclists and the driver-side doors when opened.

If safety was the number one priority, it would seem the Department of Transportation would propose 10 foot wide motor vehicle lanes. This would allow the creation of 8-foot wide bike lanes with 5 feet of operating space outside the door zone (as defined by the LADOT) or a 5-foot bike lane placed entirely outside of the door zone.


A couple other quick notes.

Despite earlier reports that road-raging Santa Monica driver Jeffrey Ray Adams wouldn’t face felony charges for assaulting a cyclist last summer, two felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon were eventually filed.

According to a comment left on one of those earlier stories yesterday, the case has concluded with no jail time for the driver.

Jeffrey Ray Adams pled no contest on May 29th, 2012 to a violation of Penal Code Section 245 (a) (1) Assault with A Deadly Weapon [his car]. He was placed on three years of formal, felony probation and must complete 20 days of labor as well as an anger management program. Restitution was ordered (as required by law) in an amount unknown at this point.

I think we all — or must of us, anyway — would have preferred some jail time. However, we’ve already seen that people sentenced to short terms in county jail usually stay just long enough to change into their prison uniform before they’re back out on the streets.

And undoubtedly, it was the lack of jail time that induced Adams to accept a plea.


It was announced at yesterday’s LAPD Bike Task Force meeting that the shooting death of a 19-year old Koreatown cyclist last weekend was definitely gang related.

That doesn’t make his death any less tragic, or any less of a waste.

But it should reduce fears of murderous road-raging motorists attacking innocent riders. It’s just business as usual on the streets of L.A.


Finally, an arrest warrant has been issued for a San Bernardino County man for attacking a cyclist last July.

According to the Mountain News/Crestline Courier News, 20-year old  Steven Wayne Barnett is wanted for allegedly grabbing a cyclist through the passenger window of a passing car, then throwing the rider to the ground. The unidentified victim suffered a broken wrist, as well as scrapes and bruises, and his bike was destroyed.

The rider and a passing motorist were able catch enough of the license plate to identify the car, which belonged to a friend of Barnett’s.

He is wanted on a charge of assault with serious injury, with a $100,000 bond.


  1. What Santa Monica is calling “buffered” bike lanes are 7 ft., with 3 ft. as marked buffer and 4 ft. marked as the operable space. So far it seems to me to be a pretty good compromise that fits in tighter streets than 8-10 ft. bike lane space would. One of the problem when buffers that are only striped get too wide, closer to Spring St. in LA (although buffer on other side there) or like some I saw in PDX, is that when traffic backs up at all, people drive through because there is nothing physically obstructing that. With a 7 ft. bike lane it is very uncomfortably narrow for a car to fit through, especially with the regular travel lane tightened to 11 to 10 ft. as is the case in the new striping going down on Montana Ave.

  2. Eric W says:

    Ted, I always enjoy your blog:

    I’d like to note that Mr. Ray above plead guilty to a felony. Pointed out by AT of bikeside elsewhere, that means he’ll as a convicted felon find himself restricted a bit. No gun ownership, and if he applies to live in my apt building, no way he’ll be approved, and a lot of other things. A felony conviction is more than the usual wrist slap, though I would have like to see his driving license suspended. Certainly won’t want to meet him while cycling in Santa Monica, where I live.

    Excellent guest article. Bike lanes are usually inadequate with an illusion of cyclist safety. Much of the time you’re better off riding in the traffic lane. The width of a proper bike lane brings to mind the next issue: which streets should get bike lanes? There isn’t room to add realistic sized lanes everywhere. Do we continue to follow the “low hanging fruit ” policy of placing them wherever there is room, without removing car parking? For greater safety, I’d like to see them places where the road design puts cyclists into conflict with cars. Those places where it suddenly becomes too narrow and you have to take the lane. For comfort, I’d like to see them places in places I like to shop, where there’s coffee.

    And there’s quite a few places I don’t believe lanes are needed. Quiet back streets, for instance. What does anyone else think? Where does LA need to give priority for it’s 40 miles of new lanes per year?

    • bikinginla says:

      I agree on the lack of need for bike lanes on quiet streets, and I would add sharrows to that list, as well. The Hermosa Avenue sharrows in Hermosa Beach are an example of sharrows done just right, on a street where they make a real difference for riders. On the other hand, the sharrows on Westholme in my own neighborhood seem to serve no real purpose at all, and make no difference in where or how I ride my bike, or in how drivers operate around me.

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  4. A way to provide more increased subjective bicycling safety when riding next to moving vehicles and parked cars is to put a buffer on both sides of a unprotected bike lane, as is shown on page 5 of this city of Chicago report on-street bicycle installations made in 2011:

    I have found that drivers will sometimes temporarily park in the five foot wide, eastern travel direction, bike lane on Chandler Blvd in the San Fernando Valley, where on-street parking spaces at night can be somewhat difficult to find due to a high density of apartment buildings,

    There is no perfect solution to prevent people from driving in or parking on unprofected bike lanes. People thinking about riding a bike instinctively know this and many of them, including very skilled and experienced riders, will avoid riding in the streets, even with buffered bike lanes, due to these concerns.

    Why is it that it is acceptable to expect a person to ride a bicycle in between two stripes that are five feet across on a busy street with fast moving vehicles and yet we would it is unacceptable to expect a pedestrian to do this?

    I would also like to know why it is that pedestrians get painted crosswalks and walk signals at busy intersections, while people on bicycles are expected to fend for themselves at intersections ithat have large fast moving traffic that can maim or kill them. At least sidealks now have ramps at crosswalk due to needing better access for wheelchairs;, which has also made it easier for a person to ride a bike on the sidewalk and avoid having to ride in the street.

    Unprotected bike lanes on busy streets that have fast moving vehicles will not attract as many older people, women, or middle school aged children or younger to ride there compared to a protected cycle track or bike path. You can see this happening if you compare the amount and types of bike riders than are traveling in the several miles long bike lanes on Reseda Blvd or Chandler Blvd compared to the bike path next to the Orange Line. There could easily be a two and a half greater amount of bike riders on the part of the Orange Line bike path that is close to either the Chandler Blvd or Reseda Blvd bike lanes.

    Bike lanes in the San Fernando Valley are attracting few bike riders and many that I do see tend to be riding on the sidewalk. The type of sidewalk riders vary from immigrants, to school aged children and adults simply going out for a recreational ride.

    There are also some bike riders that prefer riding in the street over having to move at a much slower average speed on the Orange Line bike path. Even when funds and space are abundent to produce an attractive bike path next to a busy street that runs parallel; in Los Angeles these paths still tend to be designed more towards recreational riders , with design elements that are greared for pedestrians and not for as fast a pace as can be made cycling on a parallel street.

    The upcoming Orange Line bike path extension has some design improvements compared to the original part that was built in 2005, which leads me to believe there is some amount of next generation evolution that we must go through before getting a subjectively comfortable bikeway design. These include wider ramps that appear to have a less steep and therefore smoother transition through the crosswalks. Ramps that are more lined up with the bike path and not diagnally cut as many are on the original path.

    You might ask yourself why it is that there could not be a better design from the beginning, such as the Netherlands has. Perhaps its like trying to breed a wolf into a domesticated animal that looks and behaves more like a cockerspaniel. You go through small changes through each successive generation, even knowing from the beginning what it will probably look and behave like at the end. Major changes for transportation engineers must seem very uncomfortable to them, much like a Frankenstein way of creating the physical traits you want. They seem to fear that they might create a monster that will kill and injury people.

    There is still elements that remind you that the engineers where not going out of their way to make sure that the highest degree of ease of use for bicycling was created when designing the Orange Line bike path. Such as having to push pedestrian walk signal buttons that are beyond arms length from the ramp that you use to access the crosswalk. Having to wait for a walk signal to indicate that vehicles have a do not turn light at the intersection is another indication. A better way to cross would be to have a bike only green light signal that gives a count down to let cyclists know how long that have to wait before they get a green light signal so that they do not get impatient and cross when the traffic light indicates red.

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