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Bike lanes are squeezing motorists to make room for the 1.6 percent

Mark it off-limits, and they will come.

But I don’t see them. And I keep looking, while strung out behind cars confined to a single driving lane because the “new urbanists” said that more bicycle routes will win your city a plaque.

Now, with Mayor Byron Brown unveiling an updated master plan to quadruple Buffalo’s bike lanes, I can’t help but glance over at the adjacent empty road – neatly demarcated with the biking symbol that puts it off-limits to vehicles – and ponder the obvious question: When did efficiency go out of style?

The numbers tell the story, once you cut through the “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Biking advocates point to figures heralding boom times on wheels. But the figures actually call into question how fast we should be eliminating driving lanes to make more space for cyclists.

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For instance, supporters trumpet the fact that the League of American Bicyclists named Buffalo a “bronze” level Bicycle Friendly Community – the lowest of five categories – in 2013, with GObike Buffalo heralding “an impressive 88 percent annual growth and an incredible 260 percent increase since 2000” in the number of bicycling commuters here. What that doesn’t say is that only about 1.6 percent of workers commute by bike, according to the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey. That puts the city’s 360 percent growth in biking commuters since 1990 in perspective.

So while I’m all for minority rights, tell me again why we are squeezing hundreds of thousands of motorists into fewer driving lanes to make more room for the 1.6 percent. Even if you toss in errands and recreational biking, it’s hard to justify the headlong rush to kick drivers to the curb in favor of ghosts on two wheels.

Yet that’s the city’s goal, as the master plan calls for steadily increasing the current 72 lane miles set aside for biking until reaching the national group’s “platinum” level of 300 lane miles by 2025.

Biking advocates aren’t blind. Despite big events such as Sunday’s Slow Roll Buffalo that drew 2,100 riders to the closed-off Scajaquada Expressway – or what used to be an expressway – they recognize the scarcity of riders even as more pavement gets set aside for bikes. GObike Executive Director Justin Booth cites “induced demand,” or the fact that cities were designed for cars. He points to the Fruit Belt conflict between residents and Medical Campus workers who monopolize street parking as an example of the problems caused by an overreliance on vehicles, which he said also results in much of downtown being consumed by parking lots and ramps.

Still, what about all of those empty bike lanes? Booth blames the fact that streets have not been designed to make riders feel safe. While studies show that about 6 percent of cyclists are “fearless” or “confident” enough to ride on almost any street, he said the key to growing ridership is making roads safe enough for the 60 percent deemed “interested but concerned.” That could mean design changes so that cyclists ride between the curb and parked cars or other infrastructure changes to make cycling as safe as possible.

“How do we strike that balance?” Booth says, pointing to a city such as Copenhagen, Denmark, where half the populace commutes by bike and a government website shows bundled-up riders on snowy streets reminiscent of winter in Buffalo.

But if cutting vehicle capacity is the answer, you can’t get there from here.

Booth says a yet-to-be released study will show that traffic volume increased when parts of Delaware Avenue were reconfigured with cycling lanes, fewer driving lanes and a left-turn lane because traffic flow improved.

Still, the rest of us will glance over at all of that empty pavement and find it hard to ignore our own eyes – or the basic laws of engineering that say two motoring lanes are more efficient than one.

The cycling minority risks a backlash if it keeps pushing too far too fast – while bottling up drivers in the process.