“It is no longer just reserved for the Portlands and the Boulders of the world,” Roskowski said. “Tulsa, and Omaha, and Tucson – a lot of these cities that would not come to mind as places that are really progressive are talking about these things.”
The separation of protected bike lanes is often achieved by a row of plastic bollards. As planners look for more permanent options, more formidable obstacles like landscaping planters or curbs are being used. About half of protected bike lanes, elegantly enough, simply take advantage of row of parked cars between moving traffic and cyclists to establish a buffer – as in Park Slope.
But as flimsy – or robust – as that separation can be, those barriers have a powerful psychological impact on transportation decisions. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Austin have found that protected bike lanes help address a key barrier for Americans: most of them just don’t feel safe riding in heavy traffic.
Benefits of Protected Bike Lanes are Ever Increasing
On a quieter neighborhood street, a protected bike lane might not be necessary, said Gabe Klein, Chicago’s chief transportation official and a prolific builder of protected bikeways. But on major corridors with lots of traffic, they are a game-changer.
“The protected bike lane can make a huge difference, in particular for the average person who maybe doesn’t ride every day,” Klein said. “It will make them feel like ‘I can get on a bike too,’ or ‘I wouldn’t mind if my child rode a bike to school.’”
Washington, DC, saw a 200 percent increase in cycling along Pennsylvania Avenue after it installed a center- running protected bike lane there in 2010, according to a study by District Department of Transportation DC. Chicago’s Kinzie Street protected bike lane boosted cycling along the corridor 55 percent after its installation last year.
Those increases are all the more remarkable given the historical context. For decades, in the United States, the cycling rate has held stubbornly around 1 percent – despite the fact that almost 50 percent of trips Americans make by any mode are three miles or less.“The number one reason people don’t ride is that they don’t feel safe,” said Roskowski. “When we put in the protected lanes, people feel safe.”
An important study by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBT) looked at the public’s attitude toward cycling. Researchers found there are four types of cyclists. The first type – “strong and fearless” – is the daredevil who is comfortable riding with motorized traffic on the busiest roads, no special protection needed. This hardy group, however, represents only about 1 percent of the total population of potential cyclists, the study found.
Meanwhile, about 7 percent of the total population, researchers found, are “enthused and confident.” These are the folks who have been attracted to cycling in Portland by the improvements the city has made. The study found that an additional 60 percent of the population is “interested and concerned,” – so, potentially winnable – followed by a unmovable 33 percent, classified by PBT as “no way no how.”
“The system we have built today has gotten us a 1 percent bike mode share,” said Roskowski. “We think we can do better.”
Increasing the number of cyclists on the roads has been an important motivating factor for cities like New York, Portland, and Chicago. Boosting cycling rates reduces traffic, improves air quality, and public health, while also extending the life of traffic infrastructure.
Additionally, increasing the number of cyclists can, in itself, help reinforce the well-being of the cycling community. Numerous studies have documented the “safety in numbers effect,” wherein increases in overall cycling rates across cities produces a decline in overall injury rates. Between 1993 and 2011, for example, the cycling rate of Minneapolis, MN, almost tripled, but collisions held steady.
But another critical selling point for the political officials championing protected bike lanes is economic. Studies have shown that high-quality bike infrastructure can boost local commerce along the cycling routes, often dramatically. For example, after a protected bike lane was installed on New York City’s Ninth Avenue, NYC DOT recorded a 49 percent increase in retail sales along the corridor. Meanwhile, a Portland study found bike commuters spend 40 percent more at local businesses than their car-driving counterparts.
Even more compelling is the perceived effect on talent attraction and retention. There’s plenty of evidence that highly educated, young workers – who urban economics guru Richard Florida would call the “creative class” – are simply demanding better bicycle infrastructure. Early last year, Transportation Nation announced, “for the tech sector, bikes are the new cars.” The article featured interviews with leading tech companies like Foursquare, which have made locations along important bike corridors a key part of their employee attraction and retention strategy.