Should we build more bicycle highways?

Collective wisdom.
June 30 2010 1:11 PM

Bicycle Highways

Should cities build specialized roadways for cyclists?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

In this project, " Nimble Cities," Slate wants to hear your best ideas for making urban transportation more efficient, safe, and pleasant. Read Tom Vanderbilt's explanation of  Nimble Cities. You can submit your proposal  here, scan all the proposals submitted by readers so far, and vote for your favorites. Over the next month, Tom Vanderbilt will evaluate the most interesting ideas and the top vote-getters.

While there have been any number of bicycle-related entries in Nimble Cities, several readers have proposed an idea that can essentially be described as "bicycle highways." "I live in Chicago and take the L to work,"wrote one,"but I'd rather ride my bike. A large problem with bicycling in cities is fear, generated by the fragility of a 5-pound bicycle when faced with a 2,000-pound car. To combat this fear, cities must develop or designate roadways specifically for bikes."

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Another argued that bicycle rental programs, while a good way to seed networks, were lacking: "Most people don't ride bicycles to work not because they're difficult to store/lock up but because they are at a serious disadvantage safety-wise. No bike helmet will protect you if an SUV driver on a cell phone accidentally broadsides you!"

There is hardly a major city in the world that is not trying to get more people on bikes—ridership is up in cities ranging from Paris to New York—and city planners the world over envision ever greater numbers of people on bicycles in their long-term projections. The reasons are fairly obvious: Bicycles lessen congestion while improving the health of the citizenry. Cycling moreover has begun to seem a kind of indicator of overall urban health. A recent and not atypical survey of the world's 25 most livable cities (by Monocle magazine) was stacked with Copenhagen, Munich, Stockholm, and other cities that have invested heavily in cycling; Portland, Ore., was one of two U.S. entrants. But the question of how to move cycling forward is less clear. Among the hurdles are overcoming the culture of fear that can surround urban cycling (often for good reasons) and overcoming the almost inertial political resistance to giving cycling road space at the expense (perceived or real) of cars.  

But the key, one could argue, is infrastructure. While the school of so-called "vehicular cycling" argues that cycles should be treated as cars and share the roads, this philosophy seems to be the result of (primarily American) cyclists adapting by necessity to their harsh surroundings rather than the sound basis of a widespread transportation shift. In the world's top cycling cities, one finds not muscular riders harried and buffeted by passing cars, but all manner of people—young, old, carrying groceries, carrying kids—riding on networks that have been designed for them. In the Netherlands, for example, where no new road is built without a provision for cycles, cyclists ride on paths with a minimum width of 2.5 meters (which must be 1.5 meters from the road), get their own green lights, and find parking (if not always enough) at train stations and even bus stops. And even within the cycling-happy Netherlands, as David Hembrow has noted, the cities that have better infrastructure—and not necessarily the most densely populated ones—have higher cycling rates. And what's the annual cost of the world's best cycling infrastructure? By Hembrow's estimates, is roughly 30 euros for each Dutch citizen—well less than a tank of gasoline.

There have been many protracted debates in the transportation world about what sort of facilities are safest for cyclists (a picture that is complicated by the recent finding, for example, that drivers seem to drive closer to cyclists on streets with bike lanes than without). One thing that seems clear, however, is that cyclist safety tends to improve as there are more cyclists. And the best way to get more cyclists is to make them feel safer. And the way to make them feel safer is, many planners argue, to provide separate facilities. "I do believe the separate facility is the best," says Jacob Larson, a researcher at McGill University who recently completed a study of Montreal's bicycle infrastructure. "Not only in terms of actual safety performance but in terms of encouraging people who are less likely to ride their bikes. These people shouldn't have to be some kind of breakneck radicals that are really diehards—it should be a clear and safe option, and I think separate facilities give the perception that it is, and often do provide a truly safer alternative."

And while the words bicycle highway might conjure something like this image of a rather pathetic bike lane along a high speed motorway in the United Kingdom, those two words used together are actually gaining a certain currency. In Denmark, for example, the city of Copenhagen is extending its bicycling network outward into the suburbs, creating what the blog Copenhagenize calls "bicycle superhighways," for commutes of 10 kilometers or more, with everything from "green wave" lights (cycle 20 kilometers per hour to hit all green) to standardized signage to bicycle service stations along the way. * In London, Mayor Boris Johnson's own network of a dozen cycling "superhighways" (like football's Premiere League, they are sponsored by Barclays) is taking root; it "will provide cyclists with safe, direct, continuous, well marked and easily navigable routes along recognised commuter corridors." Johnson has been criticized, however, by cyclists who say the "superhighways" are just new-model bike lanes, too narrow and too frequently encroached upon by cars (and clearly there are some parts of the network that will have to be fixed). But as the engineering firm Colin Buchanan points out, the Netherlands didn't get its extensive network of separated bicycle facilities overnight—it took decades—and the volume of protest in London may itself be sign of an ascendant cycling culture; i.e., the debate has moved on, as it unfortunately has not in many U.S. cities, from the question of whether there should be bicycle facilities in the first place to the qualities of those facilities.

Even in the United States, however, the idea that there might be entire roads that are prioritized for bicycle use is slowly moving into the mainstream. Take, for instance, so-called "bicycle boulevards" (see here for a short video summary) which are described by Portland State University's Center for Transportation Studies as "low-volume and low-speed streets that have been optimized for bicycle travel through treatments such as traffic calming and traffic reduction, signage and pavement markings, and intersection crossing treatments. These treatments allow through movements for cyclists while discouraging similar through trips by nonlocal motorized traffic." The idea, inspired by the German Fahrradstraße or the Dutch Fietstraten, is to turn roads into de facto bike paths, shared with the occasional local car.

Not surprisingly, it's Portland—which may spend $600 million on bicycle infrastructure over the next 20 years, with a goal of upping the cycling rate to 25 percent of all trips by 2030—that has most energetically taken on the bicycle boulevard concept, even piggybacking bicycle-friendly traffic-calming measures onto storm-water runoff treatments in its "green streets" program. But any number of other cities are moving ahead with bicycle boulevards, from Austin, Texas, (David Byrne wrote an accompanying theme for that city's plan) to Minneapolis to Wilmington, N.C.* In Rochester, N.Y., residents of the Upper Monroe neighborhood recently did a demonstration ride ("just ordinary folks finding out what a bicycle boulevard would look and feel like in our area") of projected bicycle boulevard routes, emphasizing key points: Boulevards need to lead to things, like shopping districts or other bike networks, and bicycle boulevards need to stretch across neighborhoods—so community involvement is essential.

One sometimes hears, in critiques of bringing bicycling in a bigger way to American cities, something along the lines of "that might work in Europe, but it will never work here." But the preponderance of cycling didn't just happen in Amsterdam or anywhere else—it was the result of a politically nonexpedient, concerted effort. Now, that refrain has often shifted to something like, "Well, that might work in Portland, but it wouldn't work in a city like (insert your city here)." Who knows where it won't work next?

Correction, July 15, 2010: This piece originally misspelled the name of the musician David Byrne. It also said bicyclists could cycle 20 kilometers to hit all green lights on Copenhagen's bicycle superhighways; it should have said 20 kilometers per hour. (Return to the the corrected paragraphs.)

Read the introduction to our Nimble Cities Hive here. Read about how eliminating parking spaces could improve urban transportation. View contest entries by clicking the button below.

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