It’s amazing the world of difference that a few stripes of paint can make. Thirty years ago, the notion that various municipal public works departments would overtly reserve portions of our roads as exclusive lanes for bicycles was essentially an extravagance—a weird provision relegated to a few choice roads in college towns, which were the only places were people (students) used bikes in large numbers for utilitarian purposes (basic getting around, rather than recreation). As recently as 2009, the alpha city of Boston—a city replete with college students (probably more than any other in the country)—had not a single dedicated, striped bike lane. I know firsthand: I was there, and local media sources covered it with no small amount of embarrassment. Now, in the 2020s, virtually every major city has dozens or even hundreds of miles of striped bike lanes. So do the suburbs. And in some parts of the country, so do the rural roads.
All things considered, it’s not a huge surprise that so many places have embraced bike lanes: they’re a relatively simple investment that, more often than not, simply capitalize on the excessive width of the average cartway. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) recommends lanes of 10 feet in width and that they generally need not be greater than 11 feet. And historic Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) provisions substantiate this assertion, though most vehicular lanes built prior to the 1990s were significantly wider than necessary, creating luxurious cartway conditions that incentivize motorists to drive at potentially dangerous speeds. Therefore, the bike lane craze trimmed some of this excess, converting (as an example) a bidirectional, 28-foot road into two lanes of 11 feet each, with three-foot bike lanes in either direction, near the shoulder. And all it took was a bunch of white paint, simultaneous with a resurfacing (which typically needed to happen anyway). No significant re-engineering necessary.
Striping can achieve similar effects in managing motorists as they maneuver across other paved surfaces—most notably, parking lots. Striping controls the width and length of parking bays, dictating how much space exists between cars and, if sufficiently wide, reducing the likelihood that the door of one car will bang into the neighboring car when a passenger opens it. As is usually the case, it’s not rocket science. But stripes can also guide behavior in a way that subtly but significantly affects safety, as manifested in those instances where the striping is ambiguous at best, or outright negligent. Take this anonymous underground parking garage as an example, which, for purposes of clarity, I’ll call Garage #1:
It’s a large, two-level garage built underneath a plaza that supports a number of owner-occupied office buildings that function largely as townhomes, each with its separate entrance from the plaza, though the garage commingles all the employees from the various owner occupied office buildings. And the red double doors are the fire exit from the garage.
It doesn’t seem too complicated. But look at those stripes: a dedicated space, assigned with a number, backs right up onto those doors. Meanwhile, the restricted pathway with the slashes doesn’t line up with the doors one bit, predominantly because it’s the additional reserved clearance for wheelchairs. It serves a handicapped parking space.
This seems like a textbook example of poor planning—or, to be more precise, poor striping. After all, without visual evidence of a restriction, nothing exists to dissuade the motorist who parks in this space from pulling right up to the wall, thereby preventing ample clearance for wheelchairs between the bumper of the car and the door. The emergency exit becomes useless for people who need that clearance. (And it might be too tight of a squeeze even for a person without a wheelchair.) I understand that the likelihood of workers needing this fire door is quite slim; after all, each of the offices themselves (where people spend far more time) have a main entrance and a stairway that leads to an immediate exit onto the open-air plaza. And yes, the fire doors swing open to the outdoors, as they should. But the point is for fire exits to remain unimpeded; all it takes is one blunder in the event of a disaster and the odds of jeopardizing lives increases exponentially.
It all seems so simple: why not re-stripe the parking spaces so that the restricted clearance path aligns with those doors? It probably has something to do with the challenging physicality of underground parking, in which the structural weight of the offices above requires an inordinately large number of support pillars, hindering maneuverability. Here’s what a typical underground garage looks like when supporting a multi-story office structure.
It’s another garage in the same city, so I’ll call it Garage #2. And it shares the obstacle faced by almost all large, multi-level parking garages, but especially those that lie under a massive building and must orient these spaces amidst all of the necessary structural support. The fundamental laws of physics stipulate that the locations of support pillars will supersede that of pavement stripes, so the best one can hope is that configuration of all those parking bays is reasonably logical and easy for cars to maneuver.
Adding to the complication are the infrastructural needs in a habitable building like offices.
In the photo above, the pillar in the foreground has a pipe running alongside it: water, wastewater, and all the effluent associated with a commercial building that has restrooms, probably kitchenettes, maybe a shower, as well as commercial drains. A standalone parking garage may have, at most, a single restroom for security or management, but nothing more. If the garage is underneath an office complex, it has to accommodate all the mechanics, conduit, and plumbing that serve the environment above. And it again means the white stripes (or yellow) are somewhat at the mercy of stuff that is fundamentally more important.
Garage #2 suffers as a result. This photo below proves it.
The spaces are labeled “COMPACT”, serving the average small sedan, coupe (do people under the age of 30 even know this word?), or other vehicles with a chassis befitting spaces of this size. It’s hard to imagine today, but as recently as the early 1990s, sedans comprised the overwhelming majority of vehicles on the road, small sports cars (souped-up engines but a tiny chassis) were much more common, and SUVs were a gas-guzzling indulgence. Minivans might have been more common, but people didn’t usually commute with them to the office. Garage #2 consists of 90% parking for compact cars, with the remaining 10% (all in the perimeter against the walls) serving handicapped and larger vehicles. The office building stacked above Garage #2 almost definitely went under construction in the 1980s, when compact cars were the status quo. In 2020, the demand for large parking bays vastly exceeds the supply, and this is the result: SUVs parking uncomfortably in spaces sized for compact cars.
The likelihood of doors slamming into neighbors is much greater, the ability to maneuver these vehicles easily around all those pillars (and water/wastewater pipes) suffers, and, if the permitting of the spaces is lax, motorists are likely to feel impelled to cheat by straddling the stripes rather than parking within them. But what other option exists?
The only solution I can think of us to amplify the physical restrictions through something more substantive than stripes. And this is where the cryptic title to my blog article comes in. Instead of stripes we get bollards (or drums, or drumsticks). If Garage #1 had a bollard, bumper block, or some raised impediment, the design could guarantee enough clearance for a safe emergency egress. Thankfully, the other major fire door in Garage #1 is free from obstructions or bad striping design.
I think that, even if a Hummer were to park in space 1-30, a wheelchair could still access the red door nearby. (Presuming a Hummer could fit in this space. And thankfully we don’t see too many Hummers these days.)
Returning to the world of roadside bicycling, the last decade has ushered in a similar sea change in advocacy, where white stripes just aren’t sufficient. Pavement stripes are advisory. And while there can be legal repercussions for violations—e.g., parking/driving in bike lanes, or straddling multiple parking spaces—this requires an enforcement mechanism to punish the offenders. But without good, three-dimensional impediments, plenty of motorists will deviate from the straight and narrow.
In these instances when the white stripes aren’t good enough, it’s time to roll out the big drums (bollards) or at least the skinny stanchions (the “drumsticks”). It’s a significantly greater cost, but at least with physical barriers, the offending motorists have a disincentive for straying from their lane’s stripes: they face damage to their car’s tires or body. This added safeguard has prompted increased advocacy for protected bike lanes, bumper blocks on parking spaces, or other methods of creating sharp changes in grade that essentially funnel the motorist and preclude deviant behavior. It’s a significantly greater cost than white paint stripes, but hey—it may be what it takes to bring Jack and Meg White back together again.