How to Build a Better Bike Lane (and Get More People Out on Bikes)

More and more city planners are seeing bike lanes as "a rational part of the mobility picture."

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Joe Flood

Martha Roskowski has been a bicycle advocate in the United States for some 20 years. It hasn’t always been easy. These days, though, things are starting to feel different.

"In the past few years, we have seen a sea change," says Roskowski, who is heading up a two-year effort called the Green Lane Project (GLP) for the national advocacy group Bikes Belong. "Top city officials are now seeing bicycling as a really practical, rational part of the mobility picture." In other words, it’s not just a bunch of "bike nuts" who see the benefits of building better bike lanes. Urban transportation officials, facing growing populations, automobile congestion, and strained transit systems, are increasingly looking to bicycles as part of an overall solution. "Cities are really leading this, even when the feds aren’t," says Roskowski.

The GLP aims to foster this evolving mindset by helping six target cities to adopt high-quality bicycle infrastructure – bike lanes where people can ride with at least some protection from car traffic in the form of bollards, parked cars, raised pavement, or other separation. Often they are painted – that’s right – green. GLP is educating city officials through travel and the exchange of information with peers around the world; identifying obstacles to implementation of better bike infrastructure; and gathering data to quantify the effect such lanes have on riding patterns and demographics. It will make its findings available to the general public as the project progresses.

Protected, separated bike lanes on urban streets are not an entirely new phenomenon in the United States. One of the oldest can be found in New York City on Ocean Parkway, where a dedicated bicycle facility was opened in 1894 in a ceremony attended by the members of some 60 "wheelman clubs."

But for the most part, such lanes are an innovation in the U.S., regarded with some skepticism by some longtime urban cyclists as well as the general public. By partnering with officials in Austin, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, Chicago, Memphis, and Washington, D.C. – New York is serving as an advising city -- the GLP hopes to educate municipal planners and engineers, increase the visibility of such lanes, and make them part of a mainstream approach to designing urban streets.

The idea, says Roskowski, is to get cities to start building bike networks that provide a comfortable place to ride not just for what she calls "the 1 percent" – the fearless, physically fit, expert bike handlers who are willing to jockey for space with cars, trucks, and pedestrians. Green lanes are meant to serve a more cautious group, people who might want to ride to work, to socialize, or to do errands, but who are intimidated by pedaling through hectic urban traffic.  

The GLP was envisioned as a relatively low-cost way to support cities that already “get it” to build more protected bike lanes, learn best practices from around the world, and quantify their progress. City transportation officials have traveled to the Netherlands, for instance, where the network of protected lanes is vast and people of all ages – 8 to 80 is the goal – are able to ride with a full expectation of comfort and safety.

Market Street, San Francisco. Image courtesy of Mark Dreger

Seeing that ideal in practice can be a little daunting, says Roskowski. She recalls how Chicago’s transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein, reacted to his Dutch experience, at first feeling euphoric when he saw how great city biking can be, then plunging into depression when he remembered how many obstacles there are to bike networks in the U.S., and finally stabilizing somewhere in between.

Most participants are feeling energized by the challenge, says Roskowski. As part of the two-year program, the GLP is gathering data on how many new lanes are built in each city and how many people are out riding them. “I just went to give a talk in San Francisco and they wanted to know how their city is measuring up," says Roskowski. "Who is making the most progress? There is a real sense of competitiveness. They all want to be the best."

So far, New York added 11.3 miles of new green lanes in 2012, with Chicago installing 9.4 and San Francisco logging 5.5. That may have put S.F. in third place by one measure, but Roskowski reassured the Bay Area officials that they were doing great when you looked at their total roadway miles compared to the other cities.

Opening up bicycling to a larger population, Roskowski says, will mean a culture shift away from the often contentious identity politics that have characterized bicycle advocacy and policy for a generation. This isn’t about messengers and Lycra-clad road riders anymore, says Roskowski.

"It’s not that those cultures are going to go away," she says. "But how do you speed this progression from ‘cyclist’ being a weird subset of the population to having riding a bike being something you just do to get around?"

Roskowski admits that "green lanes" as they exist in the U.S. today are imperfect and incomplete. But she says that they represent an important step in the evolution of American streets as a place for all users. One Dutch official, she says, looked at a picture of an American green lane and told her, "That’s what Amsterdam looked like in the 1970s."*

Maybe the biggest change, Roskowski says, is psychological. Now, when they look at streets, city planners in the U.S. are increasingly seeing something new, and the public is beginning to see it, too. "We’re getting away from the assumption, ‘That’s car space and can’t be used for anything else," she says. "It’s space for people – in cars, on bikes, on transit, and on foot. It’s public space."

* Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the decade.

About the Author

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