The Case for Separated Bike Lanes

It's time to recognize that most people are never going to "stop worrying and learn to love the traffic."

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brooklynspoke.com

The other day, Doug Gordon decided to try a little bike lane experiment. Gordon, author of the Brooklyn Spoke blog, placed red plastic Solo cups (yes, the ones you use when drinking from a keg) along the edge of a painted bike lane that is often blocked by parked livery cars and other drivers.

The conditions were hardly scientific, but these small plastic delineators, stuck to the roadway with duct tape, seemed to be pretty effective in preventing vehicles from entering the bike lane.

[W]hile using red Solo Cups may inspire a few jokes about Brooklyn hipsters and bike lane versions of beer pong, my little experiment did provide at least a modicum of evidence that very basic forms of separation can make big differences when it comes to defining road space for different users.

Gordon was inspired by a one-man effort that aimed to keep Brooklyn cops from parking in a local bike lane with orange plastic posts. Gordon also modeled his Solo-cup markers on the Trashy Bike Lane, put in place by some Toronto bike advocates at an intersection where a pregnant woman named Jenna Morrison was killed last fall by the driver of a truck making a right turn. They, too, saw a real difference in driver behavior, and documented it in photos:

We observed how cars and trucks drove with our “trash” bike lane present. Drivers seemed to stay clear of our faux bike lane when they drove through the intersection, including a large tractor-trailer whose rear wheels stayed clear of our bike lane.

The message? Physical barriers, even small ones, have a greater effect on driver behavior than painted lines.

For many years, there has been a debate among people who ride bikes about whether the technique known as “vehicular cycling” (VC) is the way to go, or whether bicycling advocates should lobby for bike-specific infrastructure to encourage more people to get on two wheels. In a nutshell, the VC group thinks that people should ride as if they were “bicycle drivers,” and that bike lanes – especially the slapdash variety that you find in so many American suburbs – actually put cyclists at increased risk. Other bike advocates say that without bike infrastructure, the overwhelming majority of people will simply never get on a bike. You can find a relatively civil version of the debate at Commute By Bike.

I've read a lot of the online skirmishes between VC advocates and those who instead want to see improved bike lanes and bike paths, and both sides have their points. The vehicular crowd does have a lot of good advice about how to conduct yourself with relation to cars. As someone who has been riding bikes for transportation and recreation since long before bike lanes started showing up, I represent the kind of cyclist who could most easily ride this way. I’m pretty fast, very confident in my bike-handling, and extremely defensive in my riding technique.

But at this point – nearly 40 years after the VC concept was advanced by John Forester in his book Effective Cycling -- I think that it’s time to recognize that most people are never going to "stop worrying and learn to love the traffic," as one VC proponent has learned to do. I’ve heard over and over again from friends, family, and acquaintances that they would never be "brave enough" to ride in traffic the way that I do. And I can hardly blame them.

I also have come to believe that the more physical separation that can be achieved between bikes and cars, the better. I’ve seen all too often how little protection a stripe of paint offers. And I am struck by how quickly support for separated bike facilities, such as you might see in Holland or Denmark, is gaining traction.

I came across an article in YourOttawaRegion.com the other day that indicated just how the movement for separated cycling facilities is spreading and penetrating the thinking of urban officials in North America. Local bike advocates and city planners attended the recent Velo-City conference in Vancouver and reported back:

A main theme that emerged was the need for cities to create a network of separated bicycle lanes, said Jamie Stuckless, an active transportation planner who works with Green Communities Canada in Ottawa.

“The first one that I heard repeated over and over again was the need to create a network of segregated bike lanes that actually get people where they want to go,” Stuckless said.

Stuckless said she was surprised by the number of city officials from around the world who spoke to say that painted bike lanes are a thing of the past and they are no longer investing money in that type of infrastructure.

“I thought, that’s true,” Stuckless said. “That sharrow on the road might help me because I’m already cycling, but it certainly doesn’t get my mom on the road and it doesn’t get my friend and her two-year-old son on the road.”…

 [City] transportation planner Colin Simpson, said he learned that the city needs to reverse its thinking. Ottawa currently sees segregated lanes as a nice extra perk, while things like painted lanes, cycling maps and bike parking are “must-haves.”

In the future, segregated lanes need to become the “must-haves,” while everything else should be “nice to have,” Simpson said.

The city of Sydney, Australia, is an example of how segregated bike lanes can increase the number of people on bikes. After beginning implementation of a new transportation plan that incorporates separated lanes, the city has seen its previously dismal cycling rate increase by 82 percent over two years:

[A]fter a public consultation, the Sydney 2030 blueprint for a greener city was launched, with sustainable transport forming a major part of the initiative. That consultation exercise revealed that the main reasons for not cycling related to fear of traffic and poor facilities, with the solution seen as more cycle lanes, particularly off-road.

As a result, Sydney is working to provide 200km of cycle lanes by 2030, with 55km separated from traffic. Although [Fiona Campbell, Sydney council's manager of cycling strategy] admits that segregated cycle lanes are not ideal, with the risk of producing a "them and us" mentality, they have been successful in persuading previous non-cyclists to get out on their bikes. Research done by the council has shown that the likelihood of a resident commuting by bike increases exponentially with the proportion of their commuting trip made possible on a separated bike lane.

The new lanes have been combined with decreased speed limits and extensive junction redesigns which give cyclists priority and improve visibility. One advantage of the new junctions is that there has been a decreased number of accidents involving all modes of transport, not just bikes.

I would respectfully disagree with Campbell about separated lanes creating an "us and them" mentality. In my experience, that problem is more likely to exist in places where bikes and cars are squeezed together in spaces without clear delineations and expectations.

Here in New York, it’s true that a separated bike lane on Prospect Park West gave rise to a lawsuit. But the furor has died down since the lawsuit failed, and the lane has proved quite popular with the community. Other protected lanes have been built on major arteries in Manhattan as well, and the city’s cycling rates just keep going up. According to the New York Department of Transportation, commuter cycling has quadrupled over the last ten years.

Now if we can just get the city to put some more permanent barriers where Brooklyn Spoke’s plastic cups used to be…

MORE FROM THE ATLANTIC CITIES

When the Bad Guys Ride Bikes

The Evolution of the Bike Lane

The Rise of the Citizen Cyclist

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.