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Scared of Biking in Traffic? These Cities Are Making It Safe

To get people on bikes in big numbers, cities are finding that it's essential to separate bike lanes from traffic.

This article originally appeared at On the Commons.

Cyclists in Vancouver.

Cyclists use a protected bike lane in Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo by Paul Krueger / Flickr.

You can see big changes happening across America as communities from Fairbanks, Alaska, to St. Petersburg, Fla., transform their streets into appealing places for people, not just for cars and trucks.

Dutch bike ridership has doubled since the 1980s, when protected bike lanes began to be built in large numbers.

“Over the past five years we’re seeing an infrastructure revolution, a rethinking of our streets to accommodate more users [through] busways, public plazas, space for pedestrians, and, of course, bike lanes,” says David Vega-Barachowitz of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “More protected bike lanes is one of the most important parts of this.”

Protected bike lanes separate people on bikes from rushing traffic with concrete curbs, plastic bollards or other means—and sometimes offer additional safety measures such as special traffic lights and painted crossings at intersections.

Protected bike lanes help riders feel less exposed to danger, and are also appreciated by drivers and pedestrians, who know where to expect bicycles. Streets work better when everyone has a clearly defined space.

The continuing evolution of bicycling

Protected bike lanes are standard practice in the Netherlands, where 27 percent of all trips are made on bicycles. That’s because more women, kids, and seniors feel comfortable biking on the streets—along with out-of-shape, inexperienced riders. Dutch bike ridership has doubled since the 1980s, when protected bike lanes began to be built in large numbers.

Chicago aims to catch up with New York and has recently opened 23 miles of protected lanes.

American cities and towns, by contrast, paint bike lanes on the street, often squeezed between parked cars and busy traffic. With just a white line dividing bicyclists from vehicles, it’s no surprise that only a small percentage of Americans currently bike for transportation.

“Conventional bike lanes have not worked well to get new people on bikes—they mostly serve those already biking,” says Martha Roskowski, vice president of local innovation for PeopleForBikes. “It’s time to evolve the bike lane.”

Nearly two-thirds of Americans would bicycle more if they felt safer on the streets, reports the Federal Highway Administration. Protected bike lanes, along with public bike share systems, are two of the best ways to get more people out on bikes, according to a growing chorus of transportation leaders.

Protected lanes have recently popped up in more than 30 communities across the U.S. from Munhall, Pa., to Temple City, Calif., with many additional projects set to open later this year.

Bicycling goes mainstream

Montreal is North America’s pioneer in protected lanes. Inspired by Dutch, Danish, and German examples, the city established a network of protected lanes that now covers more than 30 miles. The idea began to stir Americans’ imaginations in 2007, when New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan launched plans to tame the city’s mean streets.

New York has since built 43 miles of protected lanes, with measurable results in safer streets and rising bike ridership.

“A lot of people just won’t venture out on busy roads without a greater level of protection from traffic.”

New York’s first protected lanes provoked fierce opposition from a few people, but Paul White of the local bike and pedestrian advocacy group Transportation Alternative says the public debate has now shifted. These days, people are asking, “How come that neighborhood has safe streets and we don’t? Don’t my kids matter as much as theirs?

Chicago aims to catch up with New York and has recently opened 23 miles of protected lanes. San Francisco has built 12 miles so far.

“Wherever we can, we try to put in protected bike lanes,” says Seleta Reynolds, former section leader of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. She oversaw installation of many of San Francisco’s protected bike lanes and was recently tapped by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to head the city’s department of transportation.

Other leaders in the field are Austin, Texas, with nine miles and Washington, D.C., with seven miles, including a highly visible route down Pennsylvania Avenue leading to the U.S. Capitol, which has tripled the number of people riding bikes on the street. More protected bike lanes are planned or under construction in all of these cities.

This year more than 100 cities submitted proposals to PeopleForBikes to be part of the Green Lane Project, a competitive fellowship which offers cities financial, strategic, and technical assistance valued at $250,000 per city to build or expand protected bike networks during a two-year period. Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle were selected in March to be the second round of Green Lane Project cities.

Newly released research on protected bike lanes in five of the cities from the first round of the project (Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, D.C., and Portland) shows why so many communities are eager to follow their lead. The federal study, which was funded by the federal Department of Transportation, found an increase in ridership of 21 to 142 percent on streets featuring protected lanes in the first year, with an average increase of 75 percent.

Meanwhile, evaluation of protected bike lanes by the city of New York found that traffic injuries declined for all road users (not just bicyclists) by an average of 40 percent.

Beyond the white stripe

What about the conventional bike lanes painted on the pavement—that simple white stripe we’ve grown used to?

“They are the camel’s nose in the tent for growing bike use,” says Randy Neufeld, director of the SRAM Cycling Fund, because they legitimize bicycling as transportation in the eyes of prospective riders and remind motorists to share the road.

“Conventional bike lanes can work very well on a two-lane street with light traffic and slow speeds,” notes Roskowski. “But they are not enough for busy streets and fast traffic, which need an extra degree of separation between bicycles and motor vehicles.”

That’s the logic embraced by Dutch traffic engineers, which has doubled the number of bicyclists in the Netherlands. According to the Dutch Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic, physical separation of bicyclists from motor vehicles is recommended for any urban street with more than two lanes or where the speed limit exceeds 50 kilometers per hour (31 mph).

One problem with conventional bike lanes is that they raise expectations beyond what they can deliver. “Cities all over the country painted stripes on busy streets, and when these lanes attract only a modest increase in bicyclists, city officials conclude there is only limited interest in bicycling,” notes PeopleForBikes president Tim Blumenthal.

“A lot of people just won’t venture out on busy roads without a greater level of protection from traffic,” Blumenthal added. “That’s where protected bike lanes come in.”


Jay WalljasperJay Walljasper wrote this article for On the Commons, where it originally appeared. Jay is a senior fellow and editor of OntheCommons.org and a contributing editor to YES! Magazine.

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