Opinion - Stop parking in bike lanes, Atlanta

I don't park my bike in the middle of Edgewoood Avenue. So why do you block our lane?

Hey, you. Yes, you — the one with your car parked under the "no stopping, standing, or parking in the bike lane" sign. Why are you parked there?

As bicyclists pedal on Atlanta's streets in bike lanes to get to work, school, or to hang out with friends, they are encountering an immovable obstacle: cars. This behavior is inconsiderate and potentially dangerous. It's also stifling the growth of bicycling in the city.

When you ask a motorist why they're parking in a bike lane — imagine if I popped my kickstand in the middle of Ponce de Leon Avenue — their responses tend to fall into a few categories: "But I'm just stopping for a minute;" "I'm unloading!"; and "Oh, I am SO SORRY. I'll just be a minute." Or they give a blank stare.

But their decision has consequences. When a bicyclist pedals in a bike lane and encounters a parked car blocking his or her way, they have to slow down, look over their shoulder, and wait for other cars to pass so they can go around the parked vehicle. They're then forced to swerve into the travel lane and mix with automobile traffic. Imagine making that maneuver while riding a bicycle with kids.

Longtime Atlantans are used to front-door parking. It's hard to give that up. It's part of what I love about biking places. I never have to circle the block trolling for a space, or get dizzy navigating parking decks. But as the city bounces back after decades of decline, fewer people will be able to nab those limited spaces right out front.

There aren't enough bikeways in Atlanta yet (although we're making progress) so it's especially galling to see our few dedicated spaces for bicycles being used as "pop-up" parking. Lots of people in Atlanta right now are trying to build the kind of city where anyone can travel without the use of a motor vehicle. Bike lanes, like sidewalks, set aside space to make it safer and easier to bike places. Every time someone parks in a bike lane (or on a sidewalk!), it threatens that progress.

It's not for a lack of actual parking spaces. On many of the streets that are home to the worst offenders, there is on-street parking. It's just on the other side of the street.

Some Atlantans are so fed up they started a Facebook page dedicated to sharing photos of people — even Atlanta police — who are parked illegally in bike lanes. Certain streets appear on this page more than others. We hear the most complaints about scofflaws on Jackson, 5th, and 17th streets and Ponce de Leon and Edgewood avenues. Fifth Street on Tech Square used to be on that list, but Georgia Tech planners have made some helpful changes to keep cars out of the bike lane. Atlantic Station has experimented with adding bollards to protect segments of bike lanes, with some success.

Better enforcement can help — hey, a problem PARKAtlanta can help solve — but it won't do away with the issue completely.

Taking away the opportunity to park in bike lanes in the first place, however, would make a difference. Traditional bike lanes are just paint on a road. But adding a physical barrier, such as a curb or bollards, not only make it nearly impossible to park in the lane but also make bicycling safer.

Having a network of bikeways can make the estimated 60 percent of Atlantans who are interested in biking, but have concerns about the potential risk, feel safe enough to give it a go. And we're working on that network. Protected bike lanes, also known as cycle tracks or green lanes, are an especially important component because they make biking possible for this segment of the population. This year Atlanta was selected as a Green Lane project city, with the goal of encouraging the city to invest in more protected bikeways. But they have to be connected, and continuous. People need to be able to count on the facility.

Parking in bike lanes stunts the growth of bicycling in Atlanta. We can keep trying to change the human psychology of 4.5 million metro Atlanta residents and play guessing games as to why people keep parking in bike lanes. Or we could build protected bikeways — ones that serve their intended purpose by being built in a way that prevents them from being hijacked by cars.

Parking in bike lanes renders the point of the bike lane moot. People start to ask, why have bike lanes in the first place if they're not going to be respected? Experienced, confident cyclists say things like "Bike lanes just fill up with road dirt and glass anyway. People should just get over their fear and become confident cyclists like me."

That's just wishful thinking. If we're ever going to be a city where biking becomes mainstream, not swimming upstream, we must have a network of bike facilities that make cycling safe, comfortable, and respected. A smattering of bike lanes with cars parked in them won't do it.

Rebecca Serna is the executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition.