SPECIAL IDEAS REPORT

Idea of the DayThursday, June 25, 2009

Create Bike-Only Roads

Ron Greer/Flickr

Citing a need to alleviate motor traffic, reduce air pollution, and increase general health, cities are carving out more bike lanes. But bike lanes simply don't work. Maybe something about America's competitive cowboy culture means drivers just can't bring themselves to share the road, frequently parking in bike lanes, turning across bike lanes without warning, and colliding with bikes. 

In 2007, car-on-bike accidents killed 698 cyclists and injured 45,000, including me, courtesy of a Washington, D.C., minivan driver who, unsatisfied with my 22-mph pace at the height of rush hour, decided she had more of a right to the stretch of road I was occupying. With law enforcement often unwilling to enforce bikers' claims to the road, it's hard to see behavior changing. Take the much-publicized case of the driver who crippled a 14-year-old cyclist by dragging him under her SUV for 131 feet and got a $500 ticket. Not much of a disincentive.



The solution isn't more bike lanes, many of which are so poorly designed that they make biking even more dangerous. The solution is a segregated set of roads and paths for bikes only. We separate fast-moving highways from slow-moving local roads -- why not create a separate road system for even slower bikes as well?

City planners should take overcrowded city streets, which barely move anyway and are unsafe for cyclists, and close them to cars. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently closed a stretch of ultra-busy Broadway, and actually improved traffic. Additional closures would reduce the incidence of deadly collisions and encourage more people to bike to work, improving both air quality and general health, and making car-free roads even more necessary. With research showing a city's economic growth linked to bike-friendliness, bike-only roads could even be a boon to struggling cities.

Raising short-term barriers to city driving -- whether by imposing fines through congestion pricing or reducing the number of available roads -- makes four-wheel commuters more likely to consider other means, freeing up the roads for people who most need them and who lack other ways of getting around.

If bike-only roads grow and traditional roads shrink, auto commuters who live close enough to work to bike will be far more inclined to do so, thus ultimately reducing traffic for those who must drive. Those drivers would also benefit from more available parking spaces (bikes take up less than one-tenth the space of cars). Even if car traffic isn't reduced, maybe drivers will find comfort in cleaner air and reduced health-care premiums (those injuries are expensive to treat, as is obesity), and in the addition of a safe, convenient place to bike on weekends.

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Comments (20)

"More dangerous" is a measurable statistic- please don't post questionable literature from the John Forrester crowd without any data. We can aspire to someday having networks of fully-separated paths and bicycling in the same numbers as northern Europeans, but most of our destinations are on arterials- thus we're left with learning to ride in traffic as best we can for now. Bike lanes boost numbers of cyclists and lower crash rates.

Read (Replying to: kurisu)

what a terrible generalization to make - "most of our destinations are on arterials" - when in fact each of us can name regions of cities for which this is demonstrably not true. Substituting bikes for cars on select streets in mid city New Orleans, in downtown Washington DC, in lower Manhattan - pick a city scape that is flat as a pancake and historically urban, then try and convince me the opportunities in a flat, northern European city like Copenhagen can't be introduced successfully here. Segregating bikes and cars can be better for both...

kurisu (Replying to: Read)

You must not have read me clearly - "we're left with learning to ride in traffic as best we can for now." Copenhagen got to 50% of commuters biking to work over a period of a few decades, not right away. To be realistic, if we want people to be able to ride as a practical transportation choice, they will need to feel safe on streets that already exist and contain their destinations. Certainly, "there are areas" of cities where it's possible to stay on low-volume streets, but bicycling should be accessible to everyone. And don't say it can't work in my hilly Seattle, either!

jaxander86 (Replying to: kurisu)

As an everyday cyclist like many of y'all are I agree that bike lanes in the city seem to be more dangerous than safe (what would cars do if a slew of cyclists parked bikes in the middle of the road, like they do our bike lane).
Now, the city is a place that needs a solution for cyclists, but even more than the city our highways which reach rural communities need to built to accomodate cyclists. Here sits a gold mine. A two lane bike lane that sits X amount of feet off the highways. This would bring an entirely new economy to the highway/middle of no where traffic. Think of the healthy alternative food stops that would sprout up (cyclists simply don't eat garbage, not to mention the support this could have on rural farms), camp grounds for some or LEED certified small motels or others.
Many people want to become cyclists but are just afraid of the cars and the crazed (I'm bigger than you) lunatics who drive them.
Please give me some feedback on what you think.
james

thank you for this good idea. I would like the inconsiderate and dangerously inattentive bikers _off_ the city streets I drive on. They cut across lanes, run red lights, drive down in between lanes of cars waiting at lights, do not signal turns, and wear headphones (!!) so that they can't even hear the traffic. Sometimes they do all of these things with their small kids in a little pull-wagon behind them. In all of my years "sharing the road" with bikers, I have only ever seen 2 or 3 who actually followed the rules of the road.

What we have here is a cultural problem. Infrastructure is a reflection on and perpetuation of our priorities. The last thing we want to do is create even more tension between cyclists and drivers by building bike only roads that don't get much use. But we also don't want to continue our habit of incentivizing driving while disincentiving alternative forms of transportation. Personally, I'm in favor of a significant gas tax increase as one way of leveling the field, but I really think that better urban design can present a huge incentive for getting people out of their cars. Let's work much harder to make things more esthetically appealing, more interactive, and cleaner so that people will want more direct engagement with their environments. If we do those things, bike and walking trails will be more normal in our society.

As an approach, this has some benefits and some shortcomings. Berkeley, CA has partially implemented it with their Bike Boulevard system, which does provide calm, pleasant throughways for cyclists (with diverters every other block to nudge cars off to the arterials). But bike lanes will continue to be a very reasonable solution in cases where bike traffic can't be routed off to a sidestreet, for example in a shopping district or downtown where cyclists are quite reasonably trying to get to locations on the main streets themselves.

@lebecka - when motorists complain to me about reckless cyclists, I always ask how many they see in a day - one? two? five? out of, say, a few dozen total cyclists they drove by. But how many reckless drivers do you see in a day? In my experience, there are many bad drivers for every bad cyclist, and they pose a much greater threat to other cars, to cyclists, and to pedestrians.

@slag, I don't think the author is suggesting that we'd build new roads for bikes, but like NYC and Berkeley, we'd repurpose existing ones.

Even where dedicated bicycle lanes exist, cyclists may still assert their right to ride on vehicular streets.
Or is anyone suggesting that cyclists' use of bicycle lanes be mandatory ?

Toby (Replying to: tcrosse)

Here in Oregon, the law is fairly clear - we are required to ride in the bike lane, unless making a left turn (and a few other minor exceptions).

kurisu (Replying to: Toby)

In WA, bicyclists ride as far to the right "as is safe." If the bike lane is full of gravel and open car doors, the travel lane is the best option.

Shutting down a couple of streets in Manhattan for bike and pedestrian use turned out well in that setting. However, I think widespread adoption would lend to some inflated infrastructure costs as well as strange or laughable ideas also known as "cutting-edge engineering" or "promoting public art in the Right-of-Way", as not all Planners are as skilled in their trade as they might think.
Besides, as a general and un-written rule, municipal Urban Planners and Transportation Planners are historically uncommunicative with each other. That leads to a major lack of coordination which leads many of these public-feel-good projects to turn into under-used wastes of taxpayers money. Or rather, a great idea that nobody actually uses.
Bike-only roads could have a small-scale effect in certain ideal situations where the extra funds are available, but with everything else happening in the world today (and to everybody who doesn't live in a over-crowded metropolitan area), is this a good use of municipalities' time and taxpayers' money?
Idealogically, its great to say that there would be some wholesale reduction of cars on the road because of increased bike facilities that causes some massive flux in how people transport themselves. Practically, not that many people in America ride their bikes for anything other than recreation. I think mostly because they have heat and A/C and most of the "urban" population now lives in the suburbs.
I am not against bike facilities one bit. However, in my opinion, a separate bike-only network is financially unfeasible. Increasing bike lanes is a great idea but there's no need to go and re-invent the wheel. Instead of using funds for a whole new network, cities can increase the maintenance of existing and future bike facilities; probably for less than half the cost.
Last thing to remember:
WE ARE NOT EUROPE. Why do all these great idea articles turn towards European-based solutions? Europe is not full of countries who's cities are these super-dense, yet quaint, bike wonderlands. That's only in the old town/tourist districts. Fact is, most Europeans now live in the suburbs just like us.

Yes bikes are great I rode to work in la for 1 year , had a shower to use at work, the air sometimes hurt my lungs.. but I had a stroke that makes riding impossible. hopefully I can get enough hand control back , to open the hand and break.

jct405 (Replying to: aag99)

hang in there, buddy. good luck with your rehab.

jct405 (Replying to: aag99)

hang in there, buddy. good luck with your rehab.

This is absolutely what's needed. One of the main externalities of car-based transporation is the physical land space required for roads, highways, parking structures, on-ramps, etc. The value of those spaces is a direct subsidy for the car industries. We need the public sphere to step up and subsidize the alternatives, a few dedicated bike trails go a long way.

Just check out Minneapolis' grand-rounds / greenway, river-road path. It's phenomenal compared to most cities.

Tom Robinson

Both Montreal and Minneapolis (especially Montreal) have stolen lanes from automobiles, then put in raised sidewalky curbs between the bike lane and the rest of the street. You can ride all over Montreal like that, and poke around parts of Minneapolis, too. And yes, those are flat cities.

Here in Seattle we have lots of sharrows and designated bike routes, but are hampered by our hills and lack of dedicated routes throughout town.

I find the idea of taking over whole streets a bit Stalinist and unnecessary, compared to stealing and blocking off a lane. This we could accomplish all over the place.

A growing issue is dedicating bike ways to just bicycles and not pedestrians. In Montreal it's almost obvious because there is so much bicycle traffic, especially at rush hour.

Cities can barely keep the roads they already have up to good working order. And making room for bike on existing roads has been more than difficult, it has, in fact, been very slow and making local officials commit and perform required action pretty damn near to pulling teeth.

Dedicated bike roads is luxury, 12 months ago and ridiculous now-a-days.

urbaneddie (Replying to: ApprxAm)

I'd think that these types of roads would outlast those used by automobiles many times over, given the light use they receive (say avg 175lbs of bike & rider vs. several tons of weight for the average automobile)

Good article, moving in the right direction. Agree that 'bike paths' while well-intended DO often creat more danger than they resolve. This is unfortunate, but with a few standout exceptions - northern Europe, some parts of progressive cities in the US - it is obvious that those who have designed such facilities are not those who must use them.

I write from Milan, Italy, not exactly a pillar of cycling consciousness. But the city has recently activated 'BikeSharing' - see bikemi.it - by which one may pick up a bicycle at one of very many stations around town and leave it at another. It is by subscription, about $45 per year. Returning a bike within 30 minutes costs nothing additional - there's a scale for longer-duration loans, but who needs it? The stations are electronic, a credit-card-like pass gives you access. The only things you need to touch are your card, and the bicycle. When you drop it off you don't even need to lock it. Setting it in its parking place does that for you.

I add these details which may be familiar to a few because this is a good time to enlarge the enthusiasm for getting out of cars and stinky buses. I spoke with a fellow yesterday who works for the city on the shared-bike detail. He was absolutely enthusiastic; said there are now 11,000 annual subscribers. Program began only last Febuary. And 5,000 bikes with about 50 stations in the central city, a radius of about 2 miles around the Duomo (cathedral). Think all of Manhattan below Central Park, plus part of Brooklyn; or half of San Francisco. You see the shared bikes everywhere, in large numbers. On my work days in Milan I use one at least 3 times during the day, often 4 or 5. It's just too easy. And every day I use the system I save $4-6 I'd otherwise spend on transit tickets.

Let's not even think about driving. But to disagree gently with one call-out in the article, the SAFEST time to bicycle in Milan and many other large cities IS rush-hour. The motor vehicles are in a jam and hardly move; oozing along on a bicycle is great fun and gets you where you're going. Faster.

jillnerkowski

I think it is a wonderful idea. I never thought about bicycle only roads. it would be peaceful and nice like hiking in the woods with no car traffic.

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