By Celeste C.B. Bennett

It may not be so in most U.S. cities, but in many places around the world, bicycle and pedestrian travel are considered legitimate modes of transportation – often preferred over cars. As such, planners in these regions design city and community infrastructure with multiple transportation modes in mind. On World Bicycle Day, let’s explore how civil engineers in the U.S. can work toward creating bicycle-friendly communities.

According to Amanda Purcell, P.E., M.ASCE, a senior project manager in the Pittsburgh office of Traffic Planning and Design, communities must give bicycle infrastructure as much weight as they give car and public transit infrastructure.

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Creating a community that is safe for bicyclists is crucial. People will feel comfortable and confident riding their bikes – and use other forms of pedestrian transit – if they know they will be respected and safe on their routes.

How do you get there?

“There are quick and cost-effective ways for a community to take steps toward better bicycle accommodation,” says Daniel L. Murphy, P.E., M.ASCE, a senior project manager in the Westwood, Massachusetts, office of Tighe & Bond. Murphy is also the vice chair of the Active Transportation Committee in ASCE’s Transportation & Development Institute.

“City planners and transportation or traffic engineers can review potential bicycle corridors for opportunities to reassign existing pavement widths. Overly wide lanes encourage high travel speeds (that can endanger bikers) and can often be reduced to standard widths. Street parking can be reconsidered, allowing room for bike lanes. It can often be a matter of restriping the roadway to provide some level of bicycle accommodation.”

Purcell agrees. She says adding standard bike lanes with pavement markings on wider roads allows engineers to include bike lanes and buffers without removing travel lanes or parking altogether.

Utilizing a “road diet” can also be effective. It takes investment, says Purcell, but can provide substantial benefits. A road diet is another term for a road reconfiguration. According to the Federal Highway Administration, a road diet “typically involves converting an existing four-lane, undivided roadway segment to a three-lane segment consisting of two through lanes and a center, two-way left-turn lane” and integrates “pedestrian and bicycle facilities and transit options.”

The FHWA offers free road diet workshops for those who want to learn how to implement them. Murphy also suggests accessing free resources like the FHWA’s Bikeway Selection Guide, which helps transportation agencies “in the development of connected, safe, and comfortable bicycle networks that meet the needs of people of all ages and abilities.”

Other free resources are provided by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, including its 2023 digital guide called Designing for Small Things with Wheels and its 2022 guide Breaking the Cycle: Reevaluating the Laws that Prevent Safe & Inclusive Biking.

Outreach and education are important too.

Murphy suggests “bike-focused elements at community events where children are taught how to ride or wear helmets. Pop-up demonstration facilities and safety education are helpful toward making riders feel more comfortable riding. Communities can collaborate with bicycle advocacy groups that can assist with events.”

He continues: “Also consider bike parking and storage at destinations. Bike racks at parks, transit, and retail centers (or) bike rooms or lockers in new residential developments (will give riders confidence to safely store their bikes before and after use).”

Along those lines, New York City will install 500 “secure bike parking locations” across its five boroughs starting in early 2025. According to a New York City Department of Transportation news release, the initiative will provide “a safe and environmentally friendly transportation option” and build upon the 600,000 daily bicycle trips residents and workers already take throughout the city.

Benefits of bicycle infrastructure

Better safety and health outcomes are immediate benefits to bike-friendly cities and communities. Additionally, says Murphy, “A bike-friendly community provides cost savings for those residents who choose not to own and maintain an automobile.”

What about long-term benefits? One is inclusivity. NACTO’s Designing for Small Things with Wheels guide uses the phrase “all ages and abilities user.” And it explains how considering inclusivity directly benefits all members of the community, including children, seniors, low-income riders, people of color, women, and others.

In designing bicycle transportation, planners must also consider riders’ varying levels of experience, skill, and confidence, the guide notes.

Other long-term benefits are less traffic congestion and environmental advantages. A final long-term benefit to prioritizing bike infrastructure, Purcell says, is a more active and vibrant community because these cities are more accessible. Biking also encourages people to engage with the outdoors and other people.

If you’re overwhelmed by the changes your city or community requires to create safe bicycle transit, Purcell says to remember that big changes can start with small steps.

“Bike friendly in a community that’s starting at zero may look much different than in a community with a robust network of bike infrastructure,” Purcell says.

Maybe that looks like initiating positive working relationships with city authorities or lowering a speed limit; it could also mean prioritizing bike-friendly elements into your city’s future infrastructure designs.

“Civil engineers can, and should, look at any transportation or development project as an opportunity to incorporate measures that will promote active transportation modes such as bicycling, walking, rolling, etc.,” Murphy says. “Every project presents an opportunity to reevaluate distribution of available space.”

Purcell recommends starting with your own inspiration.

“As civil engineers get inspiration from every trip we take, I don’t know any colleague who doesn’t look at infrastructure while vacationing,” she says. “If you see something you like or want to know more about a design, call the city or state and ask.”

This article was published by Civil Engineering Online.