Protected Bike Lanes Make the “Interested But Concerned” Feel Safer Biking

Portland State University study, June 2014

If you like painted bike lanes, you’ll probably love protected bike lanes.

That’s a key finding from the first academic study of U.S. protected lanes, released this week, which surveyed 1,111 users of eight protected lanes in five cities around the country and 2,301 people who live near them.

Among people whose most important reason for not using a bicycle for transportation is that they feel uncomfortable on the streets — a vast swath of city-dwelling Americans that Portland Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller dubbed the “interested but concerned” in a famous 2006 white paper — there’s been scientific evidence for a few years that painted bike lanes make them feel slightly more comfortable. As cities across the country have followed Portland’s lead by striping major streets with bike lanes, the science has been verified on both counts: The share of urban bike commuters has risen just about everywhere … slightly.

Now, Monday’s study offers scientific evidence that protected bike lanes make the same group of Americans feel more comfortable.

Fully 96 percent of people surveyed while riding in protected bike lanes said the plastic posts or parked-car barriers increased the safety of biking in the street. In fact, so did 80 percent of nearby residents, whether they ride a bicycle or not.

Among nearby residents who either currently bike for transportation but feel uncomfortable riding in painted bike lanes on major streets, or who want to bike more despite feeling uncomfortable in painted bike lanes — the feeling of increased safety was particularly strong: 88 percent of those people said the protected lanes were safer.

Even among people who said they had previously experienced a “near collision” while riding in the protected lane, 94 percent said the protected lanes had made the streets safer than they were before.

Separation barriers don’t need to be fancy to get the job done.

These projects drew overwhelming safety and comfort ratings even though many stretches of the protected lanes studied used nothing except flexible plastic posts to separate bikes and cars. In fact, when asked to rate their comfort levels from 1 to 6, more users of protected lanes said they felt comfortable with plastic posts than with parked cars or even a raised concrete curb:

Portland State University study, June 2014

We’re not saying that good protected lane intersections are a snap to design or that no one has ever been hurt in them; every type of intersection sees some injuries.

But when 96 percent of people using the lanes report them to be safer, cities should take note.

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21 thoughts on Protected Bike Lanes Make the “Interested But Concerned” Feel Safer Biking

  1. “I belong to the suicide cult of Vehicular Cycling.” … 100% (of the 4% of “bicycle drivers” who did not feel any safer in the protected bike lane but instead resented being “herded into separated but equal facilities”)

  2. I dont know about suicide cult exactly, but vehicular cycling is the exact opposite of the “8 to 80” design philosophy that has made cycling popular in all the places in which it can be said to be popular.

  3. yeah I was joking. I just couldn’t wrap my head around people who don’t feel safer in a protected bike lane. I mean in New York I guess one thing I fear in protected bike lanes is people walking into them unexpectedly but that’s still less dangerous than cars.

  4. Or, maybe 4% of people surveyed have experience with poorly-engineered “protected bike lanes,” and found that they created more risk and bad interactions with cars.

  5. Protected bike lanes generally are a lot safer, and they definitely feel safer. But some of them really aren’t safer, despite feeling safer, because they can make it much more likely that a car doesn’t notice you when making a right turn at an intersection. Or if a car suddenly into a driveway across the protected lane, the “protections” end up meaning you have no place to swerve.

    And of course, on the other end, there are some people who are so scared of biking in traffic at all that they don’t feel safe biking anywhere that they can see cars, whether the protection is well done or not.

  6. they’re probably dentists who recommend sugar-containing gum for their patients who chew gum

  7. Maybe confirmation bias but I see people cycling all the time now that we have a system of bike lanes (mostly unprotected) whereas even 10 years ago it wasn’t even an option I considered. Seriously regretting my old 40-60 minute bus commute that could have been a 25 minute bike commute.

  8. Ah man, I thought you were serious. VC posters are my favorite planning soap opera. I love when the comments get up to 60 and 70 posts. My friend described VC absolutists (the political VC as opposed to just the set of useful techniques) as the Tea Party of bike advocacy. A kernel of a good idea blown up into absolute uselessness.

  9. I don’t feel safer in protected bike lanes that hide me from a driver’s view until they are about to turn right into me. I’m not opposed to well design protected bike lanes but many that have been built are not that!

  10. This is the WRONG metric. PERCEIVED safety is NOT REAL safety but time and time again those advocating for protected bike lanes use this surrogate metric as a substitute for measuring REAL safety. Again, I’m not against well designed protected bike lanes but I just have to laugh when PERCEIVED safety is used to try and prove REAL safety which it does not.

    The statistical overreach is made by the study when it starts asking questions that lead to statements like this, “88 percent of those people said THE PROTECTED LANES WERE SAFER” (emphasis mine) or “96 percent of people using the lanes report them to be safer.” This is a measure of the users FEELINGS which I admit is important but NO WAY a measure of TRUE safety.

    Most people FEEL that driving in a car is safer than flying in a commercial aircraft but the empirical proven statistcal reality has proven this to be FALSE time and time again.

    I’m just sayin’. 😉

  11. This should help show politicians what the population wants. We’ve seen studies on the actual safety of protected bike lanes for a long time, now we’re seeing that they are popular too. It’s been hard for cyclists, engineers, and drivers to get used to this idea, but is positive to hear the growing support for it. The people have spoken, and to encourage more people to take this safer form of transportation, we need more protected bike lanes.

  12. @marcotico – John Forester is part of the American Dream Coalition, along with car and highway lobbyists:

    The Tea Party has embraced this point of view and pays for these speakers, though I think they usually get Wendell Cox or Randal O’Toole. The upshot is that they all present a message of not spending money on things other than car infrastructure.

  13. The bigger issue for the VC people is that it provokes anger among drivers when they ride in the street instead of the bike lane. And they think the couple minutes it might sometimes save for them to stay in the street is more important that getting mode share above 1%. A bunch of old farts that need to die off or be crippled by old age so we don’t have to hear their shit anymore.

  14. No, Andy. If you read the actual literature (and I’m talking about the literature either in Dutch or coming out of the Netherlands, where they might know a thing or two about bike infra safety) you will find out that the requirements for “subjective safety”–this is their term for perceived safety–are actually more stringent than the requirements needed to meet a reasonable requirement of statistical (“real”) safety. In fact, the facilities needed to meet the latter are fairly easy to install, which is why cities around the country have already installed them. Meeting the former, by contrast, requires an even greater degree of modal separation, because the perception of safety is largely biking far away from speeding cars.

    TL;DR Perceived safety is absolutely the right metric to use to build demand.

  15. It’s more than just confirmation bias. Providing infrastructure for a mode–even if it just simple infrastructure–incentivizes using that mode.

  16. The issue you describe is one of intersection treatments, which are frankly the Next Great Frontier when it comes to bike safety. In countries with more advanced cycling infrastructures, intersections are generally designed in a manner that continues the driver-biker separation all the way through any potential conflict.

  17. This is an intersection design problem–and our early treatments are exactly as (not) safe as you’re perceiving them to be.

  18. “Subjective safety” is fine. I’m not saying that it is a total non-metric but it does not REPLACE actual safety. There are way too many American cycletracks that I’m finding that have serious safety concerns due to poor design but naive cyclists won’t know any better. I think the Dutch have done a great job of doing both because they are a country of cyclists. Here in the US we have engineers and politicians guiding bikeway designs that haven’t been on a bike in decades! Not always, but all too often.

    PLUS, the Dutch have a totally different road design (driving in the Netherlands was incredibly difficult due to road width and all the traffic calming) and they have strict liability. Both have an impact on cyclist safety that must also contribute to cycletrack safety. I doubt either on a Dutch scale will be coming to the US anytime soon.

  19. It’s not quite as cut-and-dry as you describe. Before the “Stop the Child Murders” protests, Dutch transportation engineering was quite as autocentric as its European–and yes, American–counterparts. In the late ’70s, nobody had built any bike infrastructure of any kind for at least a generation (probably more). Preserved in the Dutch urban cores, there are remnants of their experimental phase, including, yes, intersection treatments now common here but fallen out of favor at least by the mid-1980s there, and poorly-designed bike lanes and early cycle tracks. Amsterdam remains one of the least bicycle-friendly places in the Netherlands (itself saying something) for precisely this reason.

    But my point is, the infrastructure didn’t fall from the sky there; we fail to take heed of their mistakes; we’re playing a catch-up game. Enormous changes to Dutch transportation engineering and litigation had to be made, and–even for a small country–those changes took almost a generation in and of themselves. Unraveling (the separation of principal car and bike routes, such that the bike route is more direct) doesn’t seem to have become commonplace until the late 1980s; pervasive road-calming as an engineering strategy is considerably more recent than that.

    The interesting thing is, though, that when the bike-infra investment went from scooching bike lanes onto busy streets and to cycle tracks, unraveling, and so forth–that seems to have occurred when subjective safety (i.e. perceived safety) became the principal assessment metric of Dutch bike infrastructure.

  20. Steve, I totally agree with you but I still see too many cycle-tracks being built today that have clear and obvious safety flaws AND I hear cyclists (yes, people who are in cycling clubs and ride regularly) complaining about how annoying and flat out DANGEROUS some of the facilities are. When I tell them that I am a bike/ped planner they practically want to rip my head off until I tell them I totally share their concerns.

    I feel that separated facilities have gotten better in the cities that pioneered them but some other cities are just getting too radical in their designs. Of particularly concern are two-way cycle-tracks on two-way streets where traffic volumes are light and street and driveway crossing are numerous. In these scenarios conventional bike lanes would work just fine for even children but for some reason two-way cycle-tracks have been built instead. I see experienced cyclists rightfully avoiding these types of facilities.

    If experienced cyclists are avoiding and complaining about facility’s safety short-comings, I consider that an obvious design FAILURE! Yes, “safety in numbers” might make up for the obvious engineering shortcomings but I’m not happy with that and I don’t think the profession should be too.

    I still hold Davis California as the Gold Standard that all bike planners NEED to look at. They have been planning for bikes there for decades and have gotten it really damn close to perfect. The fact that they have no school buses and hundreds of kids ride to school on their bikes is proof to me that they are doing something VERY right.

  21. It sounds to me that the streets themselves are poorly designed, with or without cycling facilities…I suspect speeding is a problem too? The fix, then, will require more than just work on the bike infrastructure.

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