Protected Bike Lanes Attract Riders Wherever They Appear

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. Second in a series.

The data has been trickling in for years in Powerpoint slides and stray tweets: On one street after another, even in the bike-skeptical United States, adding a physical barrier between bikes and cars leads to a spike in bike traffic.

Now, the first multi-city academic study of U.S. protected bike lanes is out, and a series of anecdotes have formed a very clear trend line: When protected bike lanes are added to a street, bike traffic rises — by an average of 75 percent in their first year alone, for the eight projects studied.

The bike spike showed up at every single facility measured, even those that previously had conventional painted bike lanes.

As pointed out yesterday by CityLab’s Eric Jaffe, these rates of growth met or exceeded citywide bike traffic growth in every case. (The one case in which traffic along the lane tracked citywide bike growth, rather than exceeding it, was Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, a key route into the downtown Loop that was already one of the most-trafficked bike lanes in the country before protection was added.) On average, bike traffic in the protected lanes grew three times faster than bike traffic citywide.

As the new study from Portland State University’s National Institute of Transportation and Communities notes, about three-quarters of the new users of these routes tended to come from other routes (presumably because the physical separation makes these safer and more comfortable than the alternatives) and about one-quarter of the new users tend to be using a bicycle when they wouldn’t have done so before.

How people bicycling on new protected lanes would have done the trip if not for that infrastructure. Source: PSU

Jennifer Dill, a PSU scholar who co-authored the study, said the evidence is clear that people who bike prefer to do so in these lanes. But it’s not clear yet whether these projects will fulfill their true mission: getting a far larger share of Americans to ride bicycles.

“We’re seeing people who already bike shifting the routes that they’re taking; we’re seeing a small amount of new cycling,” Dill said. “One thing that we don’t know from this or any other research out there is how long it takes for people to really start changing their travel modes.”

On that question, it’s likely to take a few years for academic evidence to come together. In the meantime, though, it might help to go back to the anecdotes. Washington DC, one of the first U.S. cities to start installing buffered and protected bike lanes — and also one of the cities that’s had the most success at getting its commuters to switch from cars to bicycles — now has several years of data on two of its routes. They’ve seen ridership grow much faster than the citywide average, year after year after year:

Peak-hour bike count on Pennsylvania between 6th and 7th Streets NW, Washington DC. Source: DDOT
Peak-hour bike count on 15th between T and Swann streets NW, Washington DC.

Will other bikeways around the country see the same ongoing surge in ridership? We’ll find out.

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  • BBnet3000

    Too bad we are done building them in New York. A half dozen will do I guess.

  • thomas040

    they just put one on Lafayette, and Hudson street is pending…. I don’t think they are done at all. There’s a request by the community board for the DOT to examine turning 5th avenue into a protected lane as far as I recall.

  • BBnet3000

    One by one, and already at a slower rate than they were doing years ago (see: No cohesive/continuous network, especially outside of Manhattan.

    Lafayette got it from Prince to 12th. Thats what, a 5 minute ride on a bicycle until youre out of protected lane?

    Meanwhile, going south on 2nd Ave you still have to cross over the road when that protected lane ends, going into one of the shittiest non-protected lanes in the city the rest of the way to the Manhattan Bridge. The 2nd Ave lane has been around for years and they still havent connected it to the bridge in a way that a normal person would feel comfortable riding.

  • 94110

    Those final two graphs look pretty dodgy. The first appears to show only a slight increase to the rate of growth after the buffered bike lane opens, while the second one appears to show the rate of growth dropped dropped severely after the one-way protected bike lane opened, then the two-way protected bike lane caused a decrease in ridership which did not recover for about a year.

    Looking closer it looks like these are overly smoothed poorly sampled data sets, but these as presented don’t support Michael Andersen’s point, they fairly well argue against these projects.

    While I’m complaining, it would be nice to have Oak (Fell’s pair headed the other way) as it’s transformation was much more dramatic.

  • madopal

    What I find interesting is a street like Milwaukee in Chicago. 21% is a small gain compared to the others, which says to me that there are certain routes that are already garnering a large ridership that may not increase for some reason when adding a PBL. I’d think then the thing to do would be to study the ones with the largest potential gain for addition of bike traffic.

    I wonder if streets like Dearborn show this…no one was riding it until they added the lane, then ridership jumped. This would seem to say that the best place to add PBLs are where riding is possible but not done.

  • JacobEPeters

    I’d venture a guess that the lack of a direct alternate to Milwaukee through this section contributed to it already being one of the highest ridership routes in the city,and not having as many people shifting from other routes. Versus Dearborn, which was exactly the same as every other northbound street downtown, so that 60% using other routes includes my detouring over from other streets whenever I’m downtown.

    Because Milwaukee was already at between 500-750 cyclists per 2 hr period, it’s increase to 850-950 isn’t as large of a percentage increase, but is not that much less in actual cyclists than the increase from 186 to between 250-and 550. Milwaukee still handles around twice as many riders at Dearborn, because there aren’t many other alternatives for us coming from the NW on bike.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Oh here we go again! “People Clueless about Biking” holding up the Bluebonet Cycletrack as a model for the nation to follow. This is likely one of the most useless and most dangerous examples of a cycletrack I’ve EVER seen. First, there is NO reason for a two-way cycletrack on a low volume residential two-way street. Second there are intersections and/or driveways every 100 feet or so. Yes, this cycletrack might actually work for moms and their kids going to Bluebonet School at 5mph but are completely useless and more dangerous for cyclists who can ride on low traffic streets at even modest speeds. Now the competent cyclists who like to ride at modest speeds and understand the dangers this facility produces have less road to ride on and will be subject to incensed drivers saying, “Get the “F” in the bike lane!”

    Look, I’m all for cycletracks and this study has a lot to show but cycletracks have to be useful for ALL cyclists. Bluebonet is a “toy” facility for children not a “TOOL” facility that is useful for adult cyclist. That “People for Bikes” continues to constantly hold this project up a model is disturbing.

    This is how you create a cycletrack useful for ALL cyclists, as featured in LA Streetsblog. Rosemead Blvd IS the model cycletrack!

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Didn’t Milwaukee already have a bike lane? So the question I have, “Is the increase in bicycle mode share actual due to the cycletrack OR a product of cycling just getting more popular?” It’s likely the cycletrack but the question begs to be answered.

  • StepUpAndSaySomething

    People new to biking really like bike lanes. It’s impossible to know how many people would have given up cycling if they didn’t have a protected lane.

    Streets with bike lanes have a decrease in crashes between all forms of transportation, even those not involving bikes.

    We could argue semantics, specific design, or esthetics, but if you want more people to bike and everyone to be safer, you need to demand more protected bike lanes.

  • Kevin Love

    “But it’s not clear yet whether these projects will fulfill their true mission: getting a far larger share of Americans to ride bicycles.”

    This is one of those sigh and roll my eyes moments. Americans (and everyone else) will cycle when cycling is the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of travelling from A to B.

  • oooBooo

    The problem is the irrational fear of being hit from behind. This relatively low type of car-bike collision is being traded off for roadway complexity that novice riders are ill equipped to handle. They are being lulled into a false sense of security or a very confining bicycling experience at low speed.

    Most PBL’s scare me for the simple fact they make riding at speed more hazardous. Many a driver will not see me doing 25mph over there, out of sight and out of mind. The bi-directional type are even more scary.

    How many are going to keep bicycling when they nearly get hit at an intersection or find it difficult to do something simple like a left turn because of the complexity?

    Protected bike lanes waste road space and leave more under utilized. Of course since the real goal is to discourage driving, that’s not surprising.

  • oooBooo

    Exactly. These facilities are for people who plod along at single digit mph speeds done by and for people who see bicycling as playing with a toy in traffic.

    Even your golden example looks bad to me. The photo shows the rider crossing a drive way. The planted area makes the lane look like part of the sidewalk. Just what I see there would have me riding in the “car” lane if I wanted to do more than 10mph.

  • J

    So about 40% of all bicycling fatalities occurred when the cyclist was hit from behind. What’s irrational is forcing 200lb 12mph cyclists to share space with 4000lb 40mph cars and trucks.

  • J


  • Andy B from Jersey

    Having never been to Chicago, save O’Hare, I appreciate the insights about Milwaukee Ave.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Hmmm… At least someone agrees with me but I’m not going to throw out the idea of cycletracks altogether. I think the excellent sightlines on the Rosemead Blvd cycletrack negate most of the typical problems with most other designs. If a driver can’t see you from behind a small planting strip, I think they were going to hit you either way. I think the Rosemead Cycletrack provides both “perceived” and “actual” safety. With most cycletracks, the later is often lacking.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    oooBooo, I hear ya’ on all other points but getting hit from behind still scares the crap out of me. Purposely keeping one’s back to a predator is highly counterintuitive so I think its a rather rational fear.

    That said, I’ve been living and riding in Seattle for a few weeks now and the drivers here are absolutely wonderful and know the true meaning of “Share the Road”. They slow down and give cyclists a LOT of room and respect. That fear of getting hit from behind is almost gone.

  • Aren’t moms and kids users, too? I see no problem with a bike route being targeted to specific users.

  • I highly doubt you bike anywhere near 25 mph when you’re on city streets.

  • I recently read that 40% of bicycling fatalities are the result of being hit from behind. I don’t think that attempting to cut that risk down is irrational at all. I personally purchased the brightest red blinky I could find, and use it now day and night to make my butt even more visible.

    The complexities of intersections are certainly a concern, and need to be dealt with through better engineering, but at least in those cases you have at least a better chance to see it coming. Whether that helps in the end, or whether it just gives you a chance to mutter “oh, shit!” one more time before you become part of the pavement, I don’t know.

  • Alan

    So god forbid people different than you have different transportation needs? If anything it sounds like even modest bike infrastructure (lets be honest its not many cities priority) leads to more ridership which is a good thing. I generally go out of my way a little to use lanes even unprotected ones when I can because most drivers at least grudgingly respect them.

  • Alan

    And safer(est) too.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    I think the disagreement in the statistics here is that hit-from-behind is a relatively low fraction of collisions, but it’s a high percentage of fatalities. Dooring is a very large fraction of collisions, but a low percentage of fatalities (depending on how it gets counted).

  • oooBooo

    Not all crashes are fatalities. That’s the likely deviation from the crash type manual for bicyclists. Hit from behind does tend to be severe because it’s usually an impaired driver who hits the bicyclist at speed, but it’s not a significant source of crashes.

    However, we can expect intersection related crashes to rise even further by adding complexity. If I delete intentionally hostile motorists nearly every near miss I’ve been involved with was due to riding in a bicycle facility of some sort that was off to the side and out of the way from where drivers were looking for someone moving at vehicular speeds.

  • oooBooo

    I’ve kept up with motorized traffic on Chicago city streets like Irving Park Road, 31st street (prior to bike lanes), and Michigan ave.

    I’m slower than I used to be. I used to hit 30-35mph on a regular basis. Now I top out at about 28mph. I remember passing a cop running a speed trap and seeing the reaction on his face was priceless…. I was in a good 30mph sprint at the time on a 40mph PSL road in the suburbs.

    My best long flat run was at 35mph on Dundee road with the wind in my favor some many years ago. The return trip wasn’t so fun 😉

  • oooBooo

    Then don’t be prey. Ride vehicularly, take the space. That solves the problem. Cowering on the edge of the road sends a prey message.

  • oooBooo

    Collisions and fatalities are not the same measure. As I argue in speed kills debates, I’d rather not crash in the first place.

    Hit from behind is probably more often fatal given that it is usually the result of an impaired driver who hits at speed, but it doesn’t happen often. Intersection collisions, ride out collisions, anything that creates conflicting movements happens often and severe injury and fatality from said collisions aren’t uncommon. I don’t like this trade. I’d rather not crash in the first place. And the best odds of not crashing are not to be exposed to traffic turning across my path.

  • Joe R.

    If you’re pacing road traffic, in the traffic lane, it’s not all that hard to maintain 25-30 mph. The motor vehicles cut out a substantial portion of your aerodynamic drag, even when you’re 10 to 20 feet behind them. I’ve gone up to 55 mph pacing behind large vehicles.

  • oooBooo

    It’s not that drivers can’t see a bicyclist there, it’s that they don’t look for one moving at vehicular speeds. The human mind takes shortcuts. They’ll see the ploder moving at 8mph. They won’t see someone moving at 20mph because such a thing doesn’t exist in to them. They aren’t looking for it. Even if they do see the faster bicyclist their mind will compute the crossing of paths as if he were going 8 to 15mph.

    It’s much the problem motorcyclists have with a lot of drivers. Drivers are looking for cars so they don’t see motorcyclists.

  • TomG

    This isn’t a jungle, dude. It’s a city. Kind of the exact opposite of a jungle, actually. The whole idea is to protect riders and give them as much of their own protected space as possible. You’re not biking with a bunch of antelope, you’re biking with a bunch of distracted drivers who don’t give a crap whether you’re cowering or taking the lane in a virile manner. They’re going to run you over anyway while they’re texting and driving with their knees and screaming at the cabbie that just cut them off. I think you’re kind of delusional. You’re going to seriously die if you keep thinking this way.

  • oooBooo

    Did you read what I was replying to or did you just knee jerk? I’m guessing the later. I replied using the same context as the person I was addressing. It’s a common conversational technique. Understand?

    Riding further left is how one is seen as well. It sends a message of confidence to take one’s proper spot on the road and behave in a predictable vehicular manner. If you cower at the edges behaving like you’re playing in traffic you’ll be treated that way. Furthermore, if the drivers are so damn distracted then over complicating the intersections is a really good way to get hit.

    I’ve biked untold thousands of miles on city and suburban roads. If what you said were even 10% true I’d would be too dead to type this. I’ve encountered drivers who intentionally wanted to harm me and I’m still here. Think your protected bike lane will save you from such assholes? Think again.

    Bicycling is not a dangerous activity and pretending it is dangerous is counterproductive, expensive, and all around a bad idea. I’ve been ‘thinking this way’ for almost 20 years now. And given the attitudes here most people on this site were probably peddling big wheels at the time or be shuttled around in a minivan with a baby-on-board sign when I switched over to vehicular bicycling.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I’ve got to admit you make a good point which has forced me to reevaluate this. Here is my response:

    My take has always been that this facility is dangerous due to high number of intersections and driveways, every 100 feet or so. The “protected” nature of this facility creates a false sense of security to novice users making those users blissfully unaware of how difficult it is for drivers to see them there in a very unconventional location. Bluebonet is also a minor collector type street with 25 maybe a 35 mph speed limit (I forget). It’s just not a candidate for such a facility. I would have eliminated parking from one side of the street, put in well designed conventional bike lanes on each side of the street, maybe with protective traffic islands every so often to provide traffic calming and a sense of security while maintaining conventional lane placement and sight-lines.

    For comparison kids of all ages get to school just fine in Davis California (there’s no student busing in Davis) on conventional bike lanes, multi-use paths (greenways) even excellently design sidepaths (multi-use paths that happen to be on the side of the road that have few to no road or driveway crossings). The end result is that the facilities are useful to all cyclists, regardless of skill level but most of all SAFE! This is evidenced in Davis’ 19% bicycle mode share using conventional bicycle amenities (i.e. those that predate NACTO). See this classic Streetfilms video:

    Again, I don’t think protected bike lanes or cycletracks are inherently bad. It’s just that some of the designs that have popped up lately are poorly thought through and full of safety flaws. The facilities in Davis were designed by progressive but highly experienced, “old timer” cyclists, not green, just out of grad school 20 somethings, and that makes a world of difference.

    The Bluebonet Cycletrack is probably the worst I’ve ever seen, yet People for Bikes continues to hold this up as a model facility leaving me to strongly call into question their competence as bicycle advocacy organization.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I do! I’m an LCI who can teach the advanced classes.

    Even when I “control the lane,” I’ve dealt with distracted or flat out belligerent drivers. Also, since Seattle has long made efforts to build multi-use pathways paralleling major thoroughfares, there is not much of a need to ride on high-speed arterials and I appreciate that!

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Wow TomG! As an LCI I have a REAL problem with your thinking! I rode in New Jersey for 20 years which has squat for on-street bicycle facilities and my Vehicular Cycling skills really saved my backside. Still, it is a skill that most will never master. The REAL problem remains the typical American driver which Seattle drivers are a pleasant exception.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I agree that motorists don’t see motorcyclists because they are looking only for cars. I don’t think they don’t see (double negative) slow motorcyclists vs. fast cyclists. Here we will have to agree to disagree.

  • Joe R.

    Fatal “hit from behind” collisions typically occur on two lane country roads where speeds are high, and there isn’t a lot of room for error on either the part of the cyclist or the motorist. They rarely occur on wide city arterials with much lower speeds. That’s the point several people here are making. Protected bike lanes are a solution in search of a problem in the majority of places they’re used. In fact, they often create more problems than they solve, particularly because their design often shuts out faster riders. Those riders will then ride in the street with motorists shouting at them to use the bike lane.

  • oooBooo

    They expect bicyclists to be slow, they expect everything on side paths to be slow. They don’t expect anything to be moving at speed over there. They see only what they look for.

  • oooBooo

    The reason I stuck with vehicular bicycling because the instances of belligerent drivers was far less than the near misses from apologetic drivers when using the street parallel paths, sidewalks (same thing really) etc and so on. The belligerent drivers are playing a psychological game. I don’t like it either, but fine, I’ll play it because beats being hit by some driver making a turn or crawling along at 8mph.

  • Daphna

    The parking protected bike lane on Lafayette was supposed to have been from Broome to 14th Street. This would have been 1.25 miles. Certain people fought this beneficial plan and got the NYC DOT to shorten it. Now the cycle track on Lafayette will be from Prince to 12th Street as BBnet3000 wrote. This is 3/4 mile.

    There will be an unprotected lane from Spring to Prince because the FDNY seemingly did not want to accomodate a curbside lane on the block with their firehouse.

    For unclear reasons, from 12th to 14th there is no protected lane but instead two unprotected northbound bike lanes on either side of the street.

    From Spring down to Broome there will be no bike infrastructure.

    It is a loss to the community that misguided powerful people were able to get the Lafayette protected bike lane shortened to a 13 block stretch instead of the 18 blocks that it was supposed to have been. The 1/2 mile that got cancelled would have been useful.

    BBnet3000 is completely right to stay that Chrystie from Houston to Canal Street is a terrible unprotected lane in a heavily biked corridor. I would like a bike lane along the median (like Sands Street in Brooklyn) [although done less expensively with paint and flexible delineators instead of raised concrete and curbs] along this stretch of Chrystie.

  • Daphna

    Protected bike lanes, or cycle tracks, are the way to go. While there might be some people who want to bike at high speeds and who feel comfortable biking in traffic, new cyclists, kids, and women tend to only start biking when there is robust infrastructure such as bike lanes physically separated from moving motor vehicles. There is no way to significantly increase the number of bike commuters without a fully connected network of cycle tracks. The only way that bike commuting will acheive a higher modal share is with protected lanes.

    The debate needs to be about how to get these protected lanes designed better. Most are too narrow and do not allow easy passing of slower cyclists, do not allow two to ride abreast, and do not allow faster speeds comfortably. The standard of a 6′ lane that includes 1.5′ of usuable curbside space is too narrow (making the usable part of the lane only 4.5′). More road space needs to be allocated. These cycle tracks should be about 10′ plus the 5′ buffer for a single directional lane and more for bi-directional.

    Pedestrians need to be taught to respect the lanes and motorists should be ticketed if they stop in the cycle tracks. Then cycle tracks could start being useful for a wider range of cyclists.

  • Joe R.

    Protected cycle tracks make the most sense where you have high-speed auto traffic, and you also have fairly long distances between intersections. This is primarily suburban arterials. In such cases, being hit from behind could end up being the primary way cyclists get injured or killed. Cycle tracks aren’t a great idea where you have frequent intersections, as on many urban streets. In that case collisions at intersections injure/kill far more cyclists than being hit from behind. In all honestly, putting bike routes on any street with frequent intersections really isn’t a great idea, but putting protected cycle tracks on such streets likely makes things worse, not better. On crowded urban streets we really need to seriously consider total grade separation for cyclists, as costly as that may be. There really aren’t any other solutions in such scenarios which allow safe, efficient cycling.

    Totally agree that cycle tracks need to be made more useful to a wider range of cyclists. There are quite a few cycle tracks which are used where they make sense. Unfortunately, here in the US we tend to design only with 8 to 12 mph cyclists in mind, so such cycle tracks end up being shunned by more experienced cyclists. Often, we don’t even allow enough room to safely pass. Ideally, cycle tracks should be wide enough for at least two 5′ lanes.

  • Well, in the past 20 years, only about half the tour de France winners have maintained an average of over 25 mph. Time trial bikers average in the 30-35 mph range (usually around 32-33). During sprints they max out at 40-ish. They will hit upper 50’s during long descents. Those are highly trained athletes with the best equipment in the world.

    So if you’re actually commuter biking at those speeds on city streets, with all the stop-and-go and with anything less than a super high end road bike, you really ought to think about a career in bike racing.

    Or you can get a GPS bike computer that will show you bike in the 12-18 mph range when cruising and average 8-12 mph over your entire trip. Pretty much like everyone else on the street.

  • Joe R.

    I don’t know about oooBooo, but I have reams of GPS data from my last 4 years of cycling. To preface, I’m not a world class athlete, nor have I ever raced professionally, or even casually. I’m also 51 years old, about 20-30 pounds overweight. Nevertheless, according to my GPS logs on a really bad day my average speeds will be in the high 12s/low 13s. On a really great day I’ll crack 17 mph. Most of the time I fall somewhere between the high 14s and mid 16s. This is riding on NYC streets, slowing or stopping at red lights, stop signs, potholes, and so forth as needed. Cruising speeds tend to range from about 17 to 22 mph, depending upon how I feel that day, the weather, etc. My peak speeds tend to be in the high 20s to low 30s most of the time, although I have gotten well past that with tailwinds. I have a Schwinn exercise bike in the basement which tells me my sustained 1 hour power output is in the 200 watt range. This is about twice what your typical cyclist can do, but it’s nothing special. I probably gradually reached that fitness level just from logging over 71,500 miles in the last 36 years.

    Bottom line, you don’t need to be a super athlete to do what oooBooo claims. As I said in my post above, when you’re pacing motor traffic you’re “cheating” in a sense. By the way, the average speeds I gave just now for my rides are not motor paced. Most of the time I ride late nights, with little traffic around to ride behind. I could go substantially faster if I regularly paced behind motor traffic.

  • So a parked-car-buffered cycle track removes dooring from the equation. That’s a plus.

    Still very interested if someone could point to a website where I could take a look at all the stats for bike collisions. Need a good point of reference, because the claims from posters all seem to vary widely and don’t usually include verifiable statistics.

  • I’m interested in some place where I can see an aggregate of such stats. Do you know where to point me?

  • I’m asking everyone this same question — do you know of a place where these stats are readily available? Not questioning your assertion, just genuinely curious as to where such figures are kept.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    There has been a recent study that actually collects a lot of data about bicycle fatalities. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look at non-fatal collisions, and the way they classified their data makes all doorings count as something else:

  • Joe R.

    This site might be a good starting point:

    “Around half of cyclist fatalities occur on rural roads” according to their information.

  • Very useful. Thanks.

  • Daphna

    People like protected bike lanes for a whole host of reasons beyond just a fear of being hit from behind.

    If protected bike lanes make people feel safe, whether their fears are rational or not, then protected bike lanes are doing a good job. They give timid cyclists a place to bike and increase overall numbers of cyclists.

    Biking with traffic is frightening to many people, whether that fear is rational or not. A network of good quality bike infrastructure is what will get these people biking. Telling them their fears are irrational is not going to get them to change their behavior and start riding.