Separation anxiety

I appreciate that bicycle lanes exist. They are a good way for cities and towns to create space for cyclists and encourage cycling as a mode of transportation. However, the definition of “bike lane” ranges widely, and we’re not just talking about the width of the lane. In these United States, conventional bike lanes are typically built Right Next To Traffic, often slapped down on any street without regard for vehicle speed limits or volume — in fact, they’re often used explicitly for streets with high volumes and/or speeds, according to NACTO. Honestly, riding in a conventional U.S. bike lane makes me pretty nervous these days.

Don’t even get me started on sharrows. Some people love them, but personally, I see them as a cop-out. I’m so happy we left Seattle before that took hold there. As I see it, they make streets not really for cars, not really for bikes, everyone’s confused and nervous. They imply that a cyclist can “take the lane” — which we’re allowed to do anyhow, although many drivers don’t know that. I still need to look at some hard numbers, but my guess is that sharrows haven’t really convinced anyone to get on a bike who wasn’t already doing it, especially on streets with many or fast cars to begin with. (Note: I consider anything above 20mph to be fast.)

I enjoy off-road trails when I’m on vacation or spending an afternoon cycling in the countryside with my family, but they rarely make any useful connections, particularly in cities. (I know there are exceptions to this, but this is a general rule I’ve found to be true around the world.)

Bicycle Boulevards are great, and there are many in Portland (also known as Neighborhood Greenways). These are streets with low motorized traffic volumes and speeds, designated and designed to give bicycle travel priority. Because they are typically off the main through-street, they intrinsically feel quieter and more neighborly, more like a place where people, especially families, would actually ride — and they do. I do go out of my way to use them, and I think they could be a great (cheap!) way for many cities to boost their cycling numbers. Many people have pointed out, though, because they’re not ON the main/high street, cyclists and merchants can miss out on shopping opportunities.

In my experience overseas, one of the best choices for cycling infrastructure is the so-called cycle track, meaning a big, cushy, warm, fuzzy bike lane that is physically separated from motor traffic, yet distinct from the sidewalk. Okay, my bias: they were everywhere in Copenhagen, pretty much everywhere in Berlin, and most places you needed to go in Vienna. I’m spoiled, or at least I was when I lived in those places. They were wonderful, highly utilized, and I doubt anyone could argue that they didn’t contribute to the high level of cycling in those countries, especially by women and people cycling with children.

The key now is to get US cities to embrace them (which will of course be easier to do in places where cycling is considered a viable part of the transportation mix, ha!). They do not need to be the fancy extended-sidewalk version of Denmark, Holland, or Germany, as pictured above, but what is key is that there’s a buffer. Projects going in now all over the country (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles are a few examples) are showing great promise, as has been highlighted through the Green Lane Project (and here, great news that the number of these projects is quickly on the rise). It’s a long journey to create great, connected, and safe cycling networks. I can’t wait for more and more.


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