Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been particularly explicit about his intentions to use bike infrastructure to help attract new tech talent and investment. When Emanuel was campaigning for the mayor’s seat in 2011, a key part of his platform was a promise to install 100 miles (160 kilometers) of protected bike lanes during his first term.
“They’re an integral part of my economic development strategy,” Emanuel told USA Today. “It’s no coincidence that the first protected bike lanes were on Kinzie Street, and that’s exactly where Google-Motorola Mobility is putting their headquarters with 2,800 jobs.”
Emanuel has continued to aggressively pursue bike infrastructure in his first term. In December, at a press conference marking the opening of the Dearborn Street protected bike lane, Emanuel boasted that he was going to use bike infrastructure to attract tech talent and businesses from the city of Seattle. “I expect not only to take all of their bikers but I also want all the jobs that come with this,” Emanuel said.
The Mayor of Seattle, Mike McGinn, meanwhile retorted, “We’re going to keep them here,” saying he would use the 7th Avenue separated cycle track to do so.
Another – perhaps more obvious – justification for protected bikeways is safety. And a handful of studies have confirmed that these facilities do a lot to help shield cyclists from injury and worse.
A 2010 examination of six Montreal cycle tracks found that, compared to similar streets, protected bike infrastructure reduced injury rates by 28 percent. A follow-up study, examining street conditions and collisions in Montreal and Toronto uncovered even more dramatic results, showing that protected bikeways had one-ninth the risk of the most dangerous category of street studied: roads with parked cars that lacked bike infrastructure. Regular, unprotected bike lanes, by contrast, had half the risk, the study found.
A History of Protected Bike Lane Opposition
There has been some controversy about the safety implications of protected bikeways. Indeed, questions about safety have been one of the biggest obstacles to protected bike infrastructure, over the last four decades and continuing today. And protected bike lanes – even regular bike lanes – have their opponents, even within the cycling community.
While Denmark and the Netherlands were building their first cycle tracks in the 1970s, America – beset by the oil crisis – was enjoying a similar renaissance in cycling. But cycling advocacy took a much different tack in the United States than it did in parts of Northern Europe, and one man – a California engineer named John Forester – deserves more credit for that than anyone.
In the 1970s, Forester began the “vehicular cycling movement.” Rather than separate cyclists from cars with painted bike lanes or paths, Forester taught that it was best to educate cyclists about the rules of the road and to behave as if they were “driving their bike.” The central premise of this philosophy was that “cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” Separate infrastructure for cyclists was fundamentally incompatible with this philosophy, and vehicular cycling advocates opposed – and continue to oppose – those types of improvements.
Around the time that Forester was beginning his advocacy in California, a study was released by Santa Barbara researcher Kenneth Cross, finding that “overtaking” collisions – where a driver collides with a cyclist from behind – were quite rare. This study was seen as significant because this is the type of collision that on-street cycleways were being sold as most likely to prevent. Instead, the majority of collisions, Cross found, occurred at intersections. In a follow-up study, Cross said bike facilities might still be justified on safety grounds – and more recent studies examining the issue continue to find fault with some of the foundational studies of the vehicular cycling movement.
Despite questions about North American studies of protected bike lanes, for decades, Forester’s ideas were tremendously influential in the United States. For a time Effective Cycling – Forester’s manifesto – was the official educational training offered by the League of American Wheelmen – now the League of American Bicyclists. More importantly, many of Forester’s ideas were adopted and codified by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) in its “Green Book,” often referred to as the “bible” of traffic engineering.
Meanwhile, for the last three decades, small but vocal groups of vehicular cyclists effectively quashed bike infrastructure projects in cities like Boston, Dallas, and Cleveland.
“For the longest time, the bicycle movement had been led and dominated by people who thought that bikes had to be on the road, in the travel lane and didn’t need any or want any special help or any separated space,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. The league now supports protected cycling infrastructure.