A New Generation of Bikeways
City planners are increasingly installing separated bike paths as a way to accommodate smart, sustainable urban growth.
Bicycle lanes are getting an extreme makeover. No longer are new bike lanes painted strips hugging auto lanes. In a growing number of cities, bicycle lanes have achieved a status entirely independent from their car-lane kin through physical separation created by parked cars, curbs or other barriers.
The push for independence for bicyclists comes from today’s combined emphasis on sustainability and enhanced quality of life in the face of continued population growth in many cities across the United States.
“New York City has a sustainability plan called PLANYC2030 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in 2030,” explains Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn of the city’s department of transportation. “There will be 1 million more people in New York City by then. How do we make a New York City with a 9 million population work better than one with an 8 million population? Getting people out of cars and onto bikes is one way to do that, and it has a dramatic effect on emissions.”
The focus is on making people who’d love to bike— but are wary of doing it on busy city streets — feel safer. In 2009, New York City unveiled the 9th Avenue bike lane. It’s separated from street traffic by a floating parking lane so that space which once held curbside parking now houses a bike path, and a floating parking lane serves as a buffer between the now-curbside bike lane and moving cars. At the same time, the city broke ground on another separated bike path on 2nd Avenue and began restricting every fifth cross street to bicyclists and pedestrians. By 2011, the city expects to complete a segregated bike lane on every other avenue.
There are critics, but advocates are pushing forward. “I take a populist approach,” says Mike Lydon, founding principal of The Street Plans Collaborative, a New York City planning and design firm focusing on making streets more bike and pedestrian friendly. “By not having separated bicycle facilities, you’re not inviting people who aren’t already experts on bikes to become cyclists. Separated bicycle facilities are environmentally friendly, cheap and easy.”
Why don’t more Americans bike?
Bicycle ridership has long been higher in Europe than in the United States. In the Netherlands, 30 percent of all trips are made by bicycle, according to the Seattle-based International Bicycle Fund. Twenty percent of trips in Denmark are by bike, followed by 12 percent in Germany, and 10 percent in Switzerland and Sweden. In the United States, only about one percent of trips are made by bicycle.
A growing number of urban planners are convinced more Americans would take to their bikes if they felt safer doing so. “For more than a decade, people have been telling us bike planners they’d prefer to ride on sidewalks, but the common design practice is to avoid that,” explains Matthew Ridgway, a principal and leader of the pedestrian and bicycle discipline group at Fehr & Peers in San Francisco. “The American Traffic Safety Services Association’s bike guide also strongly discourages the use of separated bikeways, either on the roadway or immediately adjacent but separated by vehicles. The argument is that by removing bikes from the road, you reduce their visibility, and when bikers come to intersections — where they’re most likely to be involved in an accident — you’re introducing a user the vehicle driver didn’t know was, or expect to be, in that location.”
That view is changing. “For the last five years, the argument that we need separated bikeways has been making more progress,” says Ridgway. “We’re recognizing, but we’d like more data on it, that having separate bikeways is a major contributor to people riding.”
That’s true, says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists in Washington, D.C. “There are places that have done separated bike lanes really well, and there are lots of ways you can screw it up by not getting the details quite right,” he explains. “But it may only be wonks like me who see the difference. For most people, the separation from motor vehicle traffic is a heaven-sent opportunity to get out and ride without fear for your life.”
What’s being done?
If you build separate bike lanes, who will come? Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator for the Portland, Ore., bureau of transportation, says Americans fall into one of four categories when it comes to cycling. About one-third won’t ride no matter what facilities you provide. Roughly one percent are “strong and fearless,” and they’ll ride anywhere. About 10-15 percent are “enthused and confident,” and they’ll bike on the street, but they’ll also move to bike lanes if they’re available.”
Interested but concerned” Americans make up the rest of the population. “They’re average people who right now are driving cars,” says Geller. “They’re interested in riding, but they don’t feel comfortable in a standard bike lane. That’s the group we’ve created our bike plan around.”
Portland is expanding its number of bike lanes by installing a combination of lanes separated by floating parking or buffered by a several-foot-wide painted strip of pavement between bike and auto lanes. It’s also building a 1.25-mile road with grade separation for auto, pedestrian and bike facilities. “There will be a sidewalk at one level, a step down will be the bike track, another step down will have on-street parking, and outside of that we’ll have the travel lane,” explains Geller. “The entire project will cost about $5 million, but some engineering estimates show we could retrofit existing roadways for $1-$2 million per mile.”
Washington, D.C., is also working to expand use among wannabe bicyclists. “Our audacious goal is to capture an 11 percent bicycle mode share in the next 10 years, and we’re at two percent now,” says Karina Ricks, associate director in the Washington, D.C., department of transportation. “We’re looking at capturing the mode share of your everyday commuter. We want to make bicycling the mode of choice for trips under three miles, which are a little too far to walk but comfortable to do on a bike. To do that, we need to have comfortable, attractive facilities, some of which are dedicated exclusively to bikes, and some are not.”
Bike paths in Washington, D.C., include a lane on 15th Street that opened in fall 2009 and is separated by yellow posts with parking on the other side of the posts. “That’s been greeted with wild success within the biking community,” says Ricks. “Bikes are biking toward cars, so there’s a little bit of a learning curve. But we’ve had no crashes.”
Dedicated lanes are also penciled in for I and L or M streets, but planners haven’t yet chosen the method of separating those lanes from traffic. On Pennsylvania Avenue, the center lane — where a median would typically sit — is being designated as a bike lane. “We’ll separate it through design treatments,” says Ricks. “It might be highly visible paint or tactile warnings like rumble strips. We’re also separating signals so bikes will go through on their own green light, and cars will go through on a green arrow.”
Major projects that involve redesigning entire streetscapes can be expensive, but it costs very little to create most separate bike lanes. “Bicycle facilities are among the cheapest transportation improvements you can make on a per-head basis,” says Ricks. “Generally it’s the cost of paint, reflective tape or posts.”
Transforming drivers into bikers also reduces road maintenance costs. “Road maintenance is extremely expensive, and bikes have very little impact on that,” says Lydon. “Shipping road maintenance money to a more sustainable mode of transportation is a wise investment.”
Skeptics: You’re not our demographic
Separate bike lanes aren’t universally accepted. Some cities that are serious about bikeways aren’t interested. “We looked at those and discarded them because they didn’t really work well,” says Tara Goddard, bicycle/pedestrian coordinator for Davis, Calif. “They’re good if you’re trying to go from point A to point B. But they’re very difficult to turn on and off of, and if you have a lot of driveways, alleys or entranceways to buildings, you set up many more conflict points than if bikers use the street. We’re small and have a good grid system, so we don’t have any place where the application makes sense.”
Cities that have installed separate bike lanes, however, haven’t seen an increase in accidents. “We did before-and-after studies on the impact of these routes,” says Sadik-Kahn of New York City. “In every corridor, we saw a 54 percent decrease in all injuries.”
There’s also pushback from the general public and serious cyclists. “We find far more resistance to bike facilities than to dedicated bus lanes,” says Ricks. “It’s also perceived that we’re designing for the yuppie youngins, not folks who’ve been around for a long time. That’s not the case, so we need to do more communication around it.”
John Forester, an avid bicyclist and independent bicycle transportation engineer in Lemon Grove, Calif., is an opponent. He says separate bike facilities slow down dedicated, law-abiding bicyclists, and he’s frustrated that some states, including California, require bicyclists to get off the road and onto available bike lanes. “I don’t want to be treated like a child,” he says.
In response to hard-core bikers, some areas, like Washington, D.C., allow bicycle riders to continue to ride in streets. Oregon, however, doesn’t. “To those who don’t want to ride in designated bike lanes, I say, ‘Go out and change our state law,’” says Geller. “I’m sorry, but we’re really not designing these bike lanes for you. We’re building cycle tracks for the vast majority of the population.”
That group is responding. “In the past two years, we’ve seen a 66 percent increase in the number of cyclists on our streets,’ says Sadik-Kahn. “People feel safer in separated bike lanes.”
Taking Baby Steps Toward Bike Sharing
Learning from European cities, U.S. cities dip their toes into bike sharing.
The French probably started it.
“It” is bike sharing, a trend that has taken off in many European cities and is slowly taking shape in the United States. The idea is that by making bikes available for short trips at a reasonable cost to residents and visitors, cities reduce both traffic congestion and the amount of pollutants emitted by cars every day.
Washington, D.C., launched its bike-sharing program, SmartBike, in 2008 and is now expanding it into a regional system. Denver followed suit in April 2010, and Minneapolis will, too, in June 2010. Other cities area waiting the results of those first American programs.
“The key and most wonderful part of bike sharing is that it starts people thinking about bicycles as a regular part of transportation,” says Russell Meddin, founder of Bikeshare Philadelphia, an organization working to build support for a 5,000-bike citywide program. “That’s the real green — the real sustainability — of bike sharing.”
Bike sharing, American style
Though there’s debate on where bike sharing originated— in the 1960s in Amsterdam; in the late 1990s in Rennes, France; or somewhere else altogether — most experts agree it picked up speed when it became a rousing success in Paris.
When the Paris program, Velib, kicked off in 2007, doubters grumbled that nobody would ride and bikes would be stolen. True, some Velib bikes have been stolen, but riders have embraced the system. Today, Velib offers 20,000 bicycles at more than 1,400 stations throughout Paris. Other cities have also followed suit, including Barcelona, Spain, which created Bicing in 2007, and Rome with Roma-n-Bike in 2008.
There’s growing interest in bike sharing in the United States, but program launches have been slow in coming. The Washington, D.C., system began with 100 bikes at 10 stations, with residents paying $40 annually to access the bikes for two-hour stints. About 1,500 users have done that, making about 120 trips per day, according to Jim Sebastian, bicycle program manager at the city’s department of transportation.
In May, the city announced it would expand its program in coordination with municipalities throughout the region to 1,000 bikes at 100 stations. “That will dramatically expand the system and make it available to many more users, including visitors,” says Karina Ricks, associate director in the Washington, D.C., department of transportation.
Denver’s program, Denver B-cycle, launched on Earth Day, April 22, 2010. “By the end of June, we’ll have 45 to 50 stations and 500 bikes,” says Brent Tongco, a city spokesperson. “Our expected use per bike per day is four rides.” The cost ranges from $5 for a 24-hour membership to $65 annually.
Other cities are watching the results in the early adapter U.S. cites before creating their own programs, in part because of funding issues, but also because there’s a question of how Americans will take to bike sharing, especially in cities that already have a respectable share of bike traffic. “We’re excited about bike sharing and are moving forward cautiously,” says Steve Hoyt-McBeth, SmartTrips business project manager for the Portland, Ore., bureau of transportation, where six percent of trips are already made by bike.
“Bike sharing can act like a shot of adrenaline for a city with very little existing bike ridership,” adds Hoyt-McBeth. “However, there are no bike sharing cities we’ve found with the percentage of trips made by bike of five percent or more that experienced an increase in mode share from the introduction of bike sharing. Assuming that bike sharing in Portland would substantially increase the number of bike trips requires a leap of faith. So we’re eagerly awaiting the results in Minneapolis and Denver.”