In 2013 Portland, Oregon, added protected bike lanes to Northeast Multnomah Street. The bike lanes are painted beeswax yellow and separated from automotive traffic by planters and flexible plastic posts at some points, and by a row of parked cars at others. Nathan McNeil, Portland State University
Any physical barrier between cyclists and car traffic goes a long way toward improving the perceptions of safety among riders, and proves effective in limiting car/bike encounters, according to a recent study by Portland State University.
July 29, 2014—As American cities becoming more congested, planners are faced with the challenge of managing traffic without breaking the bank. One solution that is gaining ground is encouraging residents and commuters to drive less and bicycle more. But almost every city with a probike initiative eventually experiences a unique set of problems related to the mixing of cyclists, pedestrians, and cars.
Boosting bicycle traffic via outreach programs, bike-sharing arrangements, and designated bike lanes has led to an ongoing debate among drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists over who has the right of way on roadways. Such cities as Austin, Texas; Chicago; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have made efforts recently to help alleviate that confusion by going one step further, providing “protected” bike lanes, which offer some sort of physical buffer between cyclists and automobile traffic.
A recent study authored by Christopher Monsere, P.E., Ph.D., and his colleagues at Portland State University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering—which examined the effectiveness of protected lanes in those cities—backs up those efforts in a concrete way that should prove useful to city planners. The study, Lessons from the Green Lanes: Evaluating Protected Bike Lanes in the U.S. (Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium, 2014) examined the growth of cyclist traffic on streets on which protected lanes have been added, and how safe cyclists feel in a protected lane compared to a painted but not physically separated lane. The study also examined the range of protocols for pedestrians, cyclists, and cars as they meet at intersections, and whether installing physically separated lanes resulted in an increase of economic activity by boosting bike traffic on streets.
The study, which examined a 20-month period from 2012 to 2014, was sponsored by People for Bikes, a cycling advocacy group that has as its core goal “to make every bike ride better,” according to its website. Martha Roskowski, the organization’s vice president of local innovation, says protected bike lanes, in whatever form they may take, can be a fiscally responsible answer to many of the “throughput” problems cities are facing. The installations range from relatively simple—paint and plastic flexible posts—at a cost of roughly $100,000 per mile, to such complex and expensive solutions as bollards, planters, or even a row of car parking, she explains. Even those higher-end solutions are still far less expensive than extending bus service, constructing light-rail, or building new subway lines. “This is by far the cheapest thing we can do,” she says.
And while many cities have been adding bike lanes, that alone doesn’t encourage enough ridership to reduce traffic in many cases, she says, because bicyclists still don’t feel safe, despite low recorded crash levels. “We’ve been putting down paint, carving out a space for bikes, and saying ‘This work is complete,’” she says. “[But] when you look at their effectiveness in actually encouraging people to ride, they are not creating a space where people feel safe.”
Roskowski hopes more cities will follow the lead of the cities in the study, which are employing a method proven by European cities in which automobile and bike traffic have coexisted for decades. “In the Netherlands and Denmark, on the bigger, busier streets, they separate the bike travel from the car travel. They provide some kind of physical separation,” Roskowski says.
Anecdotal evidence only goes so far in planning meetings, says Mike Goodno, the bicycle program specialist for the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation. “Often we’re taking away parking or we’re taking away a travel lane, so it’s really helpful for me to have data that I can present that people like [the lanes] and they’re safe.”
The District of Columbia conducted its own bike-lane study, published last year, and Goodno was pleased to see that the findings of the national study mirrored the district’s. “Residents, whether they bike or not, see [barriers] as valuable assets for their neighborhood. They want to see us investing in more of them, and they believe it improves bicycle safety. And the data, particularly in this [national] study, back this up.”
The national survey is based on an analysis of 168 hours of video that tracked the behaviors of roughly 16,000 cyclists and almost 20,000 vehicles. Residents were also surveyed by mail, with more than 2,000 responses received, and more than 1,000 cyclists were intercepted along their commutes for interviews.
“One hundred sixty eight hours of video and there were no crashes, just a few precautionary maneuvers where someone had to brake or swerve out of the way,” says Goodno, marveling at the depth of the research. “I think it really points to the value of the protected bike lanes.” The depth of the survey was particularly useful because individual cities often lack the budget to staff intersections in order to count and intercept cyclists, he says.
The national study found that the installation of a protected bike lane instantly resulted in more cyclists taking advantage of the route. For example, on Dearborn Street in Chicago, a 1.2 mi, two-way track resulted in a 171 percent increase in cyclist traffic within one year.
The study also found that the type of barrier used doesn’t matter as much as 50 to 75 percent of respondents expressed some level of comfort with all of these types. But the far less-expensive alternative, a line of plastic flexible posts, was received just as well, the research reveals.
The removal of parking spaces on a street to make room for protected lanes generated the greatest concern among respondents. Even when a minimal amount of parking was eliminated, about half of the respondents had a negative perception of the bike lanes.
Yet the construction of protected bike lanes was seen as desirable even outside of urban settings, within neighborhoods. Only 14 percent felt the lanes had a negative impact there; 43 percent saw it as a positive.
While there were no crashes between bikes and cars during the study’s time frame, the question of how to handle the fact that sometimes cars are turning at intersections while bikes intend to drive through remains thorny. One expensive but almost foolproof option exists in Chicago, where cyclists have their own traffic signals. Other cities use a limited-entry method that requires turning vehicles to enter a mixed-use lane; bikes continue forward on such a lane while cars turn right, avoiding the bicyclists. This method seems to have a clear benefit, though the study that found that in Portland, where such a system is used, the bicyclists did not handle the intersection correctly, so additional outreach about the method is required.
Monsere sees the intersection portion of this study as a first step; additional research on the relative benefits of different intersection arrangements is required. “We looked at intersections and how they performed, but there wasn’t enough information about the safety of the different intersection designs yet,” he says. “There are some clear indications about which designs might work better and do a better job of absorbing traffic, but there are still some unanswered questions.”
The next step for engineers like Monsere and advocates like Roskowski and Goodno is to determine the best way to integrate these bike lanes with already-existing transportation options in a city. “There’s a realization that streets are for moving people, not just cars, and the engineering world is being asked to move quickly to meet that demand,” Roskowski says. “The design manuals of 2020 are going to look a lot different than the manuals of 2010.”