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Protected bike lanes, “green lanes,” or cycle tracks, as they are sometimes called, are upsetting the transportation status quo in cities across North America.
There was a time when a narrow stripe of asphalt in Park Slope, Brooklyn, was the most hotly contested ribbon of pavement in the United States. Reams of news coverage were devoted to the battle for this solitary disputed traffic lane: the Prospect Park West bike lane.
Fighting for its removal was a wealthy and influential group of nearby property owners, headed by Iris Weinshall, the wife of US Senator Chuck Schumer. Meanwhile, on the defense was the full collective strength of America’s largest urban bike advocacy community, headed by Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group with 100,000 active supporters across the city.
The Prospect Park West bike lane was a small part of about 250 miles (400 kilometers) of bikeways that New York City had added over roughly five years, between 2007 and 2012. But most importantly, this space was part of a special class of premium bike infrastructure: a protected bike lane, separated from car traffic by a row of parked cars. That added protection, coupled with beautiful views of the park, transformed what used to be just another traffic-clogged road into one of the most attractive streets to pedal in the city.
The dispute eventually culminated in a lawsuit for the bike lane’s removal. In the end, however, New York City’s bike community prevailed over the “not-in-my-backyard” crowd. Today, the Prospect Park West bike lane stands as a crown jewel in the growing network of bike infrastructure that has helped establish New York as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the United States.
In retrospect, it seems clear that the anti-bike lane coalition – dismissed as irrational and parochial by cycling advocates – knew how quietly revolutionary that little green stripe of pavement would be. According to the New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT), the bike lane has reduced speeding rates from 74 percent to 20 percent. Meanwhile, since the lane’s installation, crashes and injuries of all kinds have dropped by 63 percent. Travel times for motorists did not increase and neither did congestion (source). Meanwhile, a NYC DOT survey showed more than 70 percent of neighborhood residents supported the improvement.
It’s also clear, looking back, that the cycling advocates in New York City understood they were fighting for something much larger than a bike lane. They knew that New York City was pursuing a big idea, something that, if all went as planned, could inspire cities throughout North America.
Protected bike lanes, “green lanes,” or cycle tracks, as they are sometimes called, like the Prospect Park West bike lane are upsetting the transportation status quo in more and more cities across North America. Similar treatments have transformed Dearborn Street in Chicago, IL; Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC; and Market Street in San Francisco, CA.
In fact, it’s getting to the point where if your city doesn’t have a protected bike lane yet, it’s being left behind. Last year alone, the number of protected bike lanes in the United States nearly doubled from 62 to 102. This year, the number is expected to double again. Protected bike lanes are now in place in 32 cities across the United States, according to Martha Roskowski, director of the Green Lane Project, a nonprofit project of bike advocacy group Bikes Belong. The organization is working with six US cities to install protected bike infrastructure.
The Green Lane Project, which began in 2011, has deliberately helped catalyze another surge in protected bike lanes in cities around the US. The project evolved out of the advocacy organization Bikes Belong, which draws its support from the bike industry. Top cycling industry officials and advocates wanted to establish a program to help individual cities adopt this new bike infrastructure, so that those cities would serve as models for other places around the country.
“What we needed was more projects on the ground so that we could look at them and talk about them and study them,” said Roskowski. “We came up with this concept of [starting] with six cities … an exclusive club.”
The Green Lane Project invited 32 cities to apply for the program, and they were overwhelmed with the response. More than 43 cities applied, including some that asked to apply even though they hadn’t been invited.
Ultimately, the organization settled on six cities it believed had the political support and technical expertise to move quickly to establish protected bike infrastructure: Austin, Portland, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington and Memphis. Those cities are receiving technical support from 2012 to 2014 to build their own “green lanes.” After that, the organization is planning to select six more, as well as forming a looser network of as many as 50 cities that could benefit from some guidance, Roskowski said. You can bet the competition will, once again, be fierce.
“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.
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.
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.
Cycling advocates have long complained that AASHTO’s Green Book is in need of updating. Despite the explosion of innovation that has taken place in the last five or so years in bike planning, AASHTO still refers people to the 2001 edition of its Green Book.
Nevertheless, a second wave of cycle track development began in 2011, after an organization called NACTO – the National Association of City Transportation Officials – released its “Bikeway Design Guide” for cities. NACTO’s design guide offered cities written advice, guidance, illustrations, and best practices for second- generation bike infrastructure – cycle tracks, bike boxes – all the treatments that have been part of the streetscape in many parts of Europe for decades, but were just beginning to be installed in cities around the United States. It was an alternative to the AASHTO guide that limited cities to their old tool kit.
“That was a really pivotal document,” said Roskowski. “Cities wanted to do this and were not finding what they needed in the national guidelines and design standards.”
Gabe Klein, Chicago’s transportation chief and the treasurer of NACTO, says it really opened the door for many more cities to begin their own protected bike lanes.
“Any time you put something down on paper, you’re able to get particularly the engineering profession to sign off on those guidelines,” Klein said. “Instead of everything being an experiment, they [NACTO] are saying these are tried and true treatments for an urban environment.”
More progressive cities have adopted the NACTO guide as their bikeway manual. But more conservative cities in many cases still defer to AASHTO and refuse to install protected bike lanes.
Advocates Find Success in Protected Bike Lane Campaigns
After a sustained campaign, however, advocates in San Diego were able to overcome this type of resistance from old-school traffic engineers. Their actions were motivated by the death of local cyclist Charles Gilbreth, who was killed on Montezuma Road last spring. Following the tragedy, Samantha Ollinger and other members of Bike San Diego began demanding the high-speed road undergo a road diet. Groups of as many as 100 people held “die-ins” at City Hall.
“We said, ‘Somebody died. This is outrageous,’ and we blamed the design of the road because it’s designed like a freeway,” said Ollinger.
Although the city’s mayor was supportive of progressive bike infrastructure, there was some resistance among City Hall employees. The city returned with plans to paint a small portion of the street green and add a few signs that said, “Yield to cyclists.”
But that wasn’t good enough for San Diego activists; they wanted Dutch-style separated cycling infrastructure that would protect cyclists from the fast- moving traffic that killed their friend. “We essentially told the city staff that their recommendations were very inadequate,” Ollinger said.
San Diego’s bike community found a sympathetic audience for their protected bikeway plans in a local community planning board. “There was overwhelming support,” she said. “They were like, ‘Why couldn’t we have that here in San Diego?’”
Cyclists in Denver prevailed in a similar case this spring. Local advocates had campaigned for three years for some kind of bike facility for 15th Street – a widely ridden but dangerous route to downtown. But when the city proposed bike lanes creating a buffer only with paint, the cycling community decided that wasn’t good enough.
More than 600 people signed a petition calling for plastic bollards to separate the bike lane from traffic. Grassroots groups like Denver B Change and BikeDenver hosted a Valentine’s Day event where they collected signatures on a Valentine to the mayor saying, “We Love Protected Bike Lanes.”
“Denver is falling behind when it comes to innovative bicycle facilities,” said John Hayden on the blog Denver Urbanism. “This is important for the economic health of the city as it tries to attract an educated, healthy, sustainability-minded workforce that increasingly demands a walkable, bikeable city.”
In March, city officials announced they would add plastic bollards to the design.
It’s always more difficult for bike advocates when their demands require changes in the physical infrastructure, says the League of American Bicyclists’ Andy Clarke. “Anytime you’re changing the way the street is laid out … it raises all kinds of political and practical challenges with the people whose space you’re messing with,” said Clarke. “That has always been a challenge to overcome – that resistance to change.”
That is especially the case when it comes to parking. The city of Philadelphia removed part of a pilot bike lane through the city’s Chinatown neighborhood last year after pushback from business owners.
“People get hysterical about parking,” said Roskowski. “It’s an odd thing about our culture. It’s much easier to take away a travel lane than it is to take away parking.”
The Future Growth of City Cycling Requires Protected Bike Lanes
Looking ahead, advocates, planners, politicians, and businesses will be paying close attention to how long this level of growth in protected bike lanes can be sustained and what long- term impact it will have on cycling in the United States.
The League of American Bicyclists’ Andy Clarke doesn’t expect American cities to reach Dutch cycling rates in the short term. But he believes that with protected cycling facilities, it’s not unreasonable to expect that US cities could see cycling rates rise as high as 5 percent over the next 10 years. That would be slightly lower than the current cycling mode share of Portland, a city that demonstrates what is possible with the right facilities and encouragement in place.
In the longer term, Clarke said he can imagine cycling levels in the US reaching 10 or even 15 percent, with the help of better legal protections and possibly even congestion pricing.
“In the US we haven’t destroyed our cities so much that the kind of distances that people are willing to ride and can easily ride are beyond us,” he said. “There are already communities like Davis, [California], and Boulder where there are already fairly high levels of cycling.”
“I think it’s going to be really exciting to see. It’s really going be a game-changer for us. It’s a moment that for some of us has been a long time in coming,” Clarke said.
Angie Schmitt is a writer and activist who lives in Cleveland, oh. For the last three years, she has worked as a reporter for the sustainable transportation advocacy organization Streetsblog. She is also the co-founder of rustwire.com, a website that explores urban issues in the industrial Midwest. She holds a master’s degree in urban planning and formerly worked as a newspaper reporter in cities around her home state of Ohio.
This story was originally published in Momentum Mag Aug/ Sept 2013.