8 Ball In The Wind

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Lane Sharing; An Effective and Inexpensive Congestion Relief Option

The Interstate 5 corridor is a virtual parking lot.  The commute time for the 29 mile journey from Seattle to Everett is over an hour or more.  Washington State wants to spend over $50 Billion, primarily on improved light rail, with some transit improvements in the greater King/Snohomish County Metroplex.  Billions spent on expensive infrastructure plans such as; additional lanes on the freeways that give public transit priority over privately owned vehicles, and toll-lanes that remain empty during the heaviest traffic congestion,  It is a fact of life in Washington State.  The public does their share to help ease "the slog", by car or van pooling, switching to more fuel economical, hybrid or electric cars.  All the while, the State continues its inexorable march towards transforming all the limited access roadways (freeways) into toll only, with a priority given to public transit over privately owned vehicles.  

Billions of dollars pumped into creating less and less flexible infrastructure.  While either disregarding, or actively being antagonistic towards other options that have the added benefits of creating more flexibility of infrastructure without the expense of billions of dollars that benefit primarily the Metroplex.  Attempting to reach politically set goals; that again, are aimed to please the inhabitants of the Metroplex while ignoring the infrastructure deficiencies of the rest of the State.  Such as calling for 20% of the State's motor pool to be electric vehicles, while there remains limited charging stations across the State outside of the Metroplex.

One option that has been suggested, and one that is used around the world with success, has also met with opposition from the State.  This option is lane sharing.  Or lane splitting as it is called in California.  The State opposed it as "dangerous", "unsafe" and because car drivers "wouldn't be used" to it.

Strangely, this was actually looked at by the Federal Government as part of a modality shift to aid in easing congestion nationwide, lower emissions of greenhouse gasses, and reduce fuel consumption.  Changing from using petroleum fueled automobiles to motorcycles, hybrid, and fully electric cars.  Could it be that since this concept wouldn't need additional infrastructure, and would cost a negligible amount in comparison to the $50 plus billion Sound Transit plan, that it carries little with it to benefit law makers in the legislative transportation committees?  After all, the majority of those committee members live in the Metroplex, and perhaps an inexpensive option without the obvious, visible monuments to their efforts holds little appeal.  With lane sharing, there would be no need for permanent stations, modern new rail bridges, or any visible structure to show.  

However, what lane sharing does not present in the way of expensive new infrastructure to admire, it makes up for in flexibility, low cost, and safety.  It may require a paradigm shift in the mentality of those in the legislature to understand the true benefits to be had by legalizing lane sharing.  This isn't about motorcyclists being able to "cut ahead in line".  Lane sharing is about easing the congestion and shorten the overall length of the time the roadways are congested.  

Similar to one proposed idea by WADOT to ease congestion on the Interstate 5 through Seattle by narrowing the lanes by enough to create on additional lane for traffic.  Lane sharing in effect adds additional lanes for motorcycles by allowing them to travel in the space between lanes under certain circumstances.  This allows more vehicles to fill the same roadway segment, and thus shortening the overall time of congestion.

The circumstances under which lane sharing would be allowed, are rather simple.  When traffic flow is stopped, or moving at 25 mph or less, motorcycles are allowed to pass between the lanes of traffic.  But only at a speed differential of no more than 10 miles an hour.  

Decades of experience in California, where the practice is called 'lane splitting" has shown that following these guidelines, lane sharing is safe.  In the words of the California Highway Patrol, it is a "safe and prudent" practice.  Studies performed in California, and around the world provide support for that statement.  A 2015 study done by the Safe Transportation Research & Education Center, at the University of California Berkeley confirmed earlier studies that showed; lane splitting motorcyclists who followed the stated guidelines had lower risk of crashes, lower risk and severity of head, torso, and fatal injuries than other motorcyclists.  The lower injury levels could in part be due to the fact that collisions between motorcyclists and vehicles tended to have less direct impact force, and more oblique force.  This allows the motorcyclists in most cases to remain upright and on the vehicle.  Which is a much safer scenario than being rear ended by a vehicle while sitting stopped in traffic.  Surprisingly, studies show that the risk for injuries for lane splitting motorcyclists remains significantly lower until speeds reach approximately 50 mph.

The bill being introduced in the Washington State legislature has these guidelines built into it.  Therefore, a motorcyclist exceeding the 10 mph speed differential, or performing the technique when traffic is flowing faster than 25 mph will be in violation.

Of course there is a degree of common sense involved.  It should go without saying that it isn't advisable to try to lane share between to large vehicles such as trucks or busses, or in any situation where space is restricted.  Sadly there will always be some motor vehicle operators who seem to leave their common sense at home.  However, when following these guidelines for proper lane sharing, the risk of injury is significantly reduced for motorcyclists.

Opposition to lane sharing in Washington State seems to come most from misconceptions and misunderstanding.  Or from the fear that other motor vehicle operators "aren't used to" the idea, and "will be angry" at the legislators who support the practice.  The fear being that those "angry" motor vehicle operators will vote against the legislators who supported the practice.  The misconceptions and misunderstandings seem to be most about motorcyclists "flying" passed slow moving traffic at near, or above normal freeway speeds.  Those that may do this, would be in violation of the language of the current bill, and liable to experience the wrath of law enforcement for a range of possible violations.  Ranging from simple speeding all the way to reckless, or negligent driving.  Only time, and experience will allow other highway users to become "used to" motorcycles lane sharing.  Just as with any change in traffic practices and laws.

A very good visual explanation of how lane sharing can be of benefit in Washington State is given in this 10 minute video clip demonstrating lane sharing in California:

Even when faced by automobile occupants leaving their doors open, getting in and out of their vehicles, and crossing lanes on foot in the stationary traffic, this motorcyclists is able to safely move through the stopped vehicles and proceed on his way.  "Revving" his motor to prevent it from "loading up" with fuel, and also as a warning to alert others that he is approaching.  

The legislation would allow lane sharing on 13 specific segments of freeway across the state; the Vancouver area, Tri-Cities, Spokane,  and even the greater Puget Sound Metroplex from Olympia to Arlington.  This would be used to gather data to demonstrate the effectiveness and safety of the practice over a period ending in 2023.  Imagine the traffic congestion reductions for all freeway users when motorcycles are no longer required to inhabit the space that could be filled with a much larger vehicle.  As the motorcycles fill the space between lanes and aid in shortening the overall time of "rush hour" traffic congestion, getting everyone a much needed break in time spent sitting in the "slog"  they experience today.

It is a practice utilized around the world, and should be done here as well.  An inexpensive option to ease traffic congestion that doesn't carry with it a price tag of Billions of dollars.  One that is safe for motorcyclists, and eases the burden on our already overcrowded infrastructure.  A practice that once proven, could be easily adopted statewide.  Helping all the highway users in the State shorten their commute.

Catch you on the road sometime...

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