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The Little Thing Our Cities Can Do to Inspire Millions More People to Bike

Protected bike lanes help riders feel less exposed to danger, and are also appreciated by drivers and pedestrians, who know where to expect bicycles.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Dimitri Naumov

 
 
 
 

You can see big changes happening across North America as communities from Fairbanks to St. Petersburg transform their streets into appealing places for people, not just cars and trucks.

“Over the past five years we’re seeing an infrastructure revolution, a rethinking of our streets to accommodate more users—busways, public plazas, space for pedestrians and, of course, bike lanes,” says David Vega-Barachowitz of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “More protected bike lanes is one of the most important parts of this.”

Protected bike lanes separate people on bikes from rushing traffic with concrete curbs, plastic bollards or other means— and sometimes offer additional safety measures such as special bike traffic lights and painted crossings at intersections.  Protected bike lanes help riders feel less exposed to danger, and are also  appreciated by drivers and pedestrians, who know where to expect bicycles. Streets work better when everyone has a clearly defined space. 

The Continuing Evolution of Bicycling

Protected bike lanes are standard practice in the Netherlands, where 27 percent of all trips throughout the country are made on bicycles. That’s because more women, kids and seniors along with out-of-shape, inexperienced riders feel comfortable biking on the streets. Dutch bike ridership has doubled since the 1980s, when protected bike lanes began to be built in large numbers.

American communities, by contrast, paint bike lanes on the street, often squeezed between parked cars and busy traffic. With just a white line dividing bicyclists from vehicles, it’s no surprise that only a small percentage of Americans currently bike for transportation.

“Conventional bike lanes have not worked well to get new people on bikes— they serve mostly those already biking,” says Martha Roskowski, vice president of local innovation for PeopleForBikes. “It’s time to evolve the bike lane.”

Nearly two-thirds of Americans would bicycle more if they felt safer on the streets,  reportsthe Federal Highway Administration. Protected bike lanes, along with  public bike sharesystems, are two of the best ways to get more people out on bikes, according to a growing chorus of transportation leaders.

Protected lanes have recently popped up in more than 30 communities  across the U.S. from Munhall, Pennsylvania, to Temple City, California, with many additional projects set to open later this year.

Bicycling Goes Mainstream

Montreal is North America’s pioneer in protected lanes. Inspired by Dutch, Danish and German examples, the city established a network of protected lanes that now covers more than 30 miles. The idea began to stir Americans’ imaginations in 2007 when New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan launched plans to tame the city’s mean streets. New York has since built 43 miles of protected lanes, with measurable results in safer streets and rising bike ridership.

New York’s first protected lanes provoked  fierce opposition from a few people, but Paul White of the local bike and pedestrian advocacy group Transportation Alternatives says the public debate has now shifted to “Where’s mine? How come that neighborhood has safe streets and we don’t —don’t my kids matter as much as theirs?”

Chicago aims to catch up with New York, and has recently opened 23 miles of protected lanes. San Francisco has built 12 miles so far. “Wherever we can, we try to put in protected bike lanes,” stresses Seleta Reynolds, former Section Leader of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency who oversaw installation of many of San Francisco’s protected bike lanes. Reynolds was recently tapped by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to  head the City’s Department of Transportation.

Other leaders in the field are Austin, Texas, with 9 miles and Washington, DC with 7 miles, including a highly visible route down Pennsylvania Avenue leading to the U.S. Capitol, which has tripled the number of people riding bikes on the street. More protected bike lanes are planned or under construction in all of these cities.