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Separated Lanes Help Cyclists Navigate Cities
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Bicyclist riding on a protected bike lane, known as the 'Green Lanes Project'
The Green Lanes Project took its name from the color favored for protected bike lanes, lanes that are sometimes bounded by flexible candlesticks as they are on Market Street in San Francisco. SFBC

Groundbreaking research is under way on a new generation of protected bicycle lanes that its advocates as well as transportation engineers believe will improve roadway design to accommodate a burgeoning number of cyclists in urban settings.

March 5, 2013—Motorists have had dominion over roads ever since horse-drawn carriages clop-clopped into the sunset. But higher fuel prices, growing traffic congestion, and increasing environmental concerns have raised the bicycle’s popularity as an alternative transportation mode, particularly in cities.

As more and more cyclists commute to work or perform daily errands they once did by car, the number of conflicts between two- and four-wheelers has risen. Motorists complain of being trapped behind slow-moving bikes or behind cyclists who maneuver erratically, sometimes heedless of traffic signals. Cyclists are afraid of being squeezed off the road, whacked by a suddenly opened door, or otherwise finding themselves on the losing end of an encounter between a 25 lb bike and a 2-ton automobile.

As city bicycling has grown, so too has the introduction of ways to allow safe travel for nonmotorized modes. The Colorado-based Bikes Belong Foundation and other advocacy groups are funding a research study by Portland State University and the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium to assess the safety, operation, economic effects, user experience, and perceptions of protected bikeways. The Green Lane Project will focus on the experience of six U.S. cities: Austin, Texas; Chicago; Memphis, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C. These cities were culled from 43 applicants because they have both made significant investments in bike infrastructure and seen significant increases in the numbers of cyclists on their streets. 

Bike path along Jackson Street in Chicago, Illinois

Chicago is one of the six cities in the research study on protected
bike lanes. Parked cars, such as those on Jackson Street, provide
what engineers say is the sturdiest barrier for green lanes. Green
Lane Project

The study will be released in January 2014, and according to Martha Roskowski, the director of the project, its goal is to gauge additional quantitative evidence of the benefits of green lanes for cities. “There is already evidence that green lanes increase ridership. There are also studies that show a reduction of accidents, but not very much research to date,” says Roskowski. “We believe that if you create dedicated lanes for cyclists, it tends to improve relations among motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists.” She also suggests that there could be a reduction in air pollution as bicycles displace automobiles and that streets with bike lanes may be more attractive to businesses, thus increasing tax revenues.

So just what is a green lane? “Green lane is a term we came up with to encompass a range of designs of better bike lanes, from painting a lane green to providing physical separation to erecting a buffer ranging from plastic candlesticks to concrete planters to a wall of parked cars,” Roskowski explains. Green lanes are also referred to as protected lanes, buffered lanes, and cycle tracks.

Until 2011 there were only 62 of these protected bike lanes in the United States. By December 2012, the number had increased to 102, and lanes were in place in 32 cities. By the end of this year, 100 more lanes are expected. “These projects average about one mile in length; some are three blocks long and some stretch for two or three miles,” says Roskowski.

New York City, which is not included in the study but is used as a model, has perhaps the most extensive network of protected lanes, most of which are simply painted. City transportation officials and bikeway designers have beaten a path to the Big Apple to see how it’s done, often including in their itineraries the Dutch city of Amsterdam and the Danish city of Copenhagen, the cycle track leaders of the world.

Bicyclists riding on street bike lane

The inventory of green lanes in the United States has grown from
62 in 2011 to a projected 200 by the end of 2013, lanes averaging
one mile in length. Green Lane Project

In Portland, three projects will be studied, two of them demonstration projects, which simply means bikeways were added without civil construction. But one, a 1.2 mi green lane on Cully Boulevard, involves a 7 ft wide bikeway slightly higher than the roadway but not as high as the sidewalk. As an additional buffer, a parking land separates the bikeway from the traffic lanes. The bikeway has proved successful, says Rob Burchfield, P.E., the traffic engineer for the City of Portland.

“The design of protected bikeways has to adapt to parking and traffic conditions on each street,” says Burchfield. “It’s a process. We don’t use the term complete streets here, but it’s our policy to include bicyclists and pedestrians in all our design work.” Burchfield is hoping that the Green Lane Project will improve the templates available in the design toolbox developed by the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

Christopher Monsere, Ph.D., P.E., an associate professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at Portland State University, is heading the research team for the Green Lane Project. In the six cities being studied, the width of a one-way cycle track ranges from 6 to 8 ft, he notes, which allows room for cyclists to pass one another, while a two-way track requires 8 to 12 feet. Monsere explains that the key elements in building a successful protected bikeway are, first, finding the right context so that there is sufficient right-of-way for a bikeway without having to constrict traffic flow and, second, determining whether the bikeway should be a one-way or a two-way track and then making the correct design decisions with regard to width and buffering.

Perhaps the knottiest problem to be unraveled is, what happens when a bicyclist in a protected facility wants to turn at an intersection? If the cyclist is in the main roadway, he or she, just like a motorist, follows traffic signals. But in a protected facility the cyclist has to leave the facility before turning. Thus it has to be clear where the cyclist is to wait before turning at the intersection and whether he or she should follow the signals for cars or pedestrians.

These so-called conflict points are the Gordian knot for bikeway engineers. Theodore Petritsch, P.E., PTOE, a Florida-based bikeway consultant, is outspoken on the subject. “With some caveats, I don’t really get any heartburn from protected bike lanes—until you get to the intersections,” says Petritsch. “I think the design has to support legal operation of cars and bikes with regard to turns. So my big concern with protected bike lanes is how you deal with the conflict points and how you make sure you have sight distances for conflict points—meaning no parked cars in the way.”

Image of a two-way cycle track down the middle of broad, historic Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation's capital

In the nation’s capital, a two-way cycle track down the middle of
broad, historic Pennsylvania Avenue has been very popular with
two-wheeled commuters. DCDOT

In Washington, D.C., new cycle tracks have been installed on Pennsylvania Avenue, L Street NW, and 15th Street NW. The last is proving problematical for cyclists wishing to turn at intersections because the cycle track is two way whereas the traffic on 15th Street is one way. The original plan was for turning bikes to exit the facility and then follow pedestrian signals. This hasn’t been too successful, and engineers are working on plan B.

Bill Schultheiss, P.E., is a senior engineer with the Toole Design Group in Silver Spring, Maryland, which did consulting and design work for the Washington, D.C., cycle tracks and is one of the leading bikeway design firms in the country. Ultimately, signals just for cyclists are the best option for resolving conflict points, he believes. “They use them in New York City, and there’s good compliance there,” he says. “Using these signals provides a clearer message for cyclists, so I think we’re going to move in that direction generally over time.”

Schultheiss welcomes the Green Lane Project “because these facilities haven’t really existed in the United States until recently and there’s no real research into their safety value. What I’ve also seen is, throughout the civil engineering profession, there wasn’t a lot of shared knowledge and there weren’t a lot of people with direct experience of building these lanes or changing roads to accommodate cyclists. So there’s been discomfort and misunderstanding in design.”

In fact, Schultheiss is certain that the new research will aid advocates as well as designers as they seek to create the best possible solutions for cyclists without forcing the issue where such facilities would not perform well. “Advocates of cycle tracks want them everywhere,” he says, “but they’re not right for every situation and they have to be adjusted situationally.”


 

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