What has become clear in recent years is that vehicular cycling – teaching cyclists to behave like car drivers – has at least one very critical shortcoming: it did not do much to increase the number of cyclists on American roadways. While cycling rates exploded in the Netherlands and Denmark – which were experimenting with, and then gradually perfecting, protected cycle tracks – in America, cycling rates have yet to surpass 1 percent. In Denmark, 16 percent of all trips are by bicycle. In the Netherlands, the number is 27 percent nationwide and 57 percent in cities.
While there are many aspects of Danish and Dutch culture and law that helped produce their remarkable cycling rates, it seems clear that the physical infrastructure played an important role, said Roskowski.
“You cannot convince a person who is not comfortable riding on the road to be comfortable riding in the road,” she said. “You cannot market them into it. You really have to change how the streets work.”
Another reason vehicular cycling has fallen out of favor with many top advocates and planners is that it has become clear that the whole philosophy is an obstacle to increasing diversity in the cycling community. There is evidence that women in particular are less likely to get involved in cycling in the absence of dedicated infrastructure. The same sort of concern applies to anyone who isn’t at the height of their physical fitness – children, the elderly, and novices.
One obstacle for advocates in overcoming safety concerns, however, is that there simply haven’t been enough examples of functional protected bike lanes in the United States yet to rigorously study.
“Because these facilities are relatively new in this country, the body of research is relatively small,” Roskowski said. “You have to have them on the ground before you can study the effects of them.”
Installing these facilities takes professional engineering judgment, consideration of the individual context, and it may even take adjustment. Roskowski said that the designers of these facilities have to use care to make sure, in particular, that intersections are carefully engineered.
“The devil is in the details of how you design them,” she said. “Especially two-way [protected bike lanes]: you’re basically inserting a little two-way street in the middle of an intersection, and it gets really complicated. You have to think about how you control the bike traffic, how to control the pedestrian traffic, and how to control the car traffic.”
The first protected bike lanes in the United States were built in the late 1800s, in places like Pasadena, CA, and Ocean Parkway in New York City. What distinguished these early cycle tracks from today’s recreational trails is that they were also separated from pedestrian activity. This early cycle track development, however, occurred during a period before cars were in wide use, when bicycling was enjoying an early renaissance in the United States.
That movement helped spur the “good roads” movement calling for the first paved roads in the United States – lobbied for mainly by a coalition of cyclists and farmers, who wanted to use the roads for agricultural vehicles. Beginning in the 1930s, however, cars took over American roadways. And through a calculated campaign by automotive lobbying groups, cars eventually supplanted almost every other activity that used to take place on American roads.
Between that period and 2007, scant few facilities that would qualify as separated cycleways were built in the United States – mostly in college towns. Boulder, CO, built one in the early 1990s that city officials report is still functioning quite well today.
But until New York City and its visionary transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan began building protected bike lanes in 2007, with the Ninth Avenue cycle track, these facilities were a rare and unorthodox treatment in the United States. However, beginning in 2008, New York City’s example helped set off a new wave of innovation. Portland’s first protected bikeway was built in 2009 on SW Broadway. Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue followed in 2010, as did San Francisco’s Market Street.
Introducing a New North American Design Manual for Bicycle Infrastructure
One major obstacle to innovative bike infrastructure has been inertia on the part of the traffic engineering profession. Many of the high-ranking officials within the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials still subscribe to the vehicular cycling philosophy.
AASHTO does not address protected bike lanes and considers green paint to be an “experimental” street treatment in its “Green Book,” the gospel of traffic engineering. Because of this, traffic engineers in many cities have refused to install protected bike lanes out of concerns about liability.