Protected Lanes Are a Great Start — Next Goal Is Low-Stress Bike Networks

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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.

For decades, protected bike lanes were a “missing tool” in American street design. Now that this is changing, bikeway design leaders are identifying a new frontier: low-stress grids.

Dan Goodman of the Federal Highway Administration says the federal Department of Transportation is shifting its strategy from emphasizing biking facilities to emphasizing biking networks.

“Separated bike lanes are part of the toolbox that get us to connected networks,” said Dan Goodman of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Human Environment.

Speaking at the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place conference in Pittsburgh, Goodman said a draft 2014-2018 FHWA strategic plan prioritizes, for the first time, the enhancement of pedestrian and bicycle networks instead of just “one-off” facilities.

“We want people to be not just thinking about resurfacing one mile and having the bike lane die, especially if there’s a shared-use path one block away,” Goodman said. “We want to focus on filling those gaps… That’s something that you’ll be hearing us talk about a lot more.”

Under Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, creating connected networks is one of four overarching policy priorities for the U.S. Department of Transportation, he said. (The others are safety, data and performance measures, and equity.)

Martha Roskowski, vice president for local innovation at PeopleForBikes, described “the network” as “where things are going.”

Martha Roskowski, vice president for local innovation at PeopleForBikes and director of the Green Lane Project, on Tuesday.

“Protected bike lanes are just a really convenient tip of the arrow of change,” Roskowksi said. “What we’re really talking about is low-stress networks.”

Linda Bailey, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, emphasized the ways that grids of low-traffic side streets can add to a network.

“I think there’s like a complementary role that these facilities can play,” she said.

Irvine-based bikeway engineer Rock Miller of Stantec said that though it’s true that local streets offer important connections, the key connections in many cities will still always be on bigger streets.

“The low-stress concept works, but when you start looking at a suburban community, you realize that there’s just too many topographical features that you can’t get over,” he said. “You just come back to where you were… having to get it on busy streets.”

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19 thoughts on Protected Lanes Are a Great Start — Next Goal Is Low-Stress Bike Networks

  1. Precisely! If the low-stress facilities don’t connect to each other, they can’t get you to where you need to go.

    NYC, which has shown strong leadership in terms of getting protected lanes built, unfortunately has not yet been able to connect these lanes to each other to create a low-stress network (see green and orange lines in the photo). Hopefully, this is something the Trottenberg DOT will prioritize going forward.

  2. A Research project published by the Mineta Transportation Institute entitled Low-Stress Bicycling and Network Connectivity demonstrates how a network can be created with residential streets, paths and a few connections using cycle tracks on busy streets:

    Ideally a bicycling network should be made using busy streets. Realistically, in a large U.S. city, what you will likely end up with is a lot of disconnected dots and dashes. This study shows how a smaller network can be created mainly using residential streets and a few sections of busy streets to connect them together.

  3. Yes, Low-Stress networks that connect!

    And much as connecting protected cycletracks (*including* at intersections) are key backbones along arterials, we also need to do far better on the other aspects of Low-Stress networks, such as building actual Bike Streets (Autos Allowed As Guests).

    Currently, even North American communities well-known for their Bike Blvds such as Berkeley are still basically just slapping sharrows on BRINOs (Bike Routes in Name Only) without enough of the other accompanying treatments that would make them truly successful shared spaces.

    A truly successful Bike Blvd should never have such wide straightaways such as this one in Berkeley:

    *No visual narrowing

    *No upcoming traffic diversion even on the far horizon

    = invitation to drivers to speed and harass people on bikes who dare not to hug the doorzone.

    In contrast, this street in SF isn’t even designated a bike route yet with its treatments I find it far friendlier to bike on than many of the official sharrowed BRINOs:

    Now *this* example below from the NL is a shared-space Bike Street!

    You know what that above pic kind of reminds me of? Stretches such as this one alongside Caltrain in San Mateo, California:

    There’s a lot of potential both with protected and shared-space treatments to create truly low-stress networks, but you can’t just Put A Sharrow On It:

  4. In San Francisco the top two places I’d like to be able to get to by bike have gaps in the grid that make me less comfortable traveling:

    1. Golden Gate Park from the Mission via Valencia and the Wiggle. There is a few block gap in bike facilities between Valencia and the Wiggle: 17th’s bike lane stops one block short of Sanchez’ sharrows, Church St has a three block gap, 14th St is one way, and riding on Market involves backtracking.

    2. Caltrain at 4th and King: 17th provides an uninterrupted improved route, but goes over a hill, 14th ends suddenly (and is one way), Division needs serious improvement even where there is a buffered bike lane. Anything else involves backtracking.

    Some of this should be possible and maybe even easy to fix. These areas actually have a high density of bike amenities which seem safe to me, they just don’t connect.

    Also, an honorary mention that just came to mind: 24th St BART from anywhere. I’m happy the one block of 16th I ride to get there from Valencia has been repaved, but adding sharrows to this stretch would have been nice. Same with the two blocks of 16th from Folsom.

  5. It is striking how few east-west connections there are–all the more since Manhattan isn’t very wide.

    I wonder if they haven’t yet implemented those because they knew having cycletracks meet would involve some more complex design issues at intersections. I’d love to see NYC do something like a protected intersection right in the middle of Manhattan–would be a powerful statement:

    Extra bonus points for simultaneous green!

  6. One thing they could do without building a protected intersection is build out a Delancey Street bikeway from the Williamsburg Bridge to Allen Street. At Allen they can have the first all-way green for bicycles in North America.

  7. It’s hard to imagine anything “low stress” on the streets of cities like New York, but this is really the right message. A bike lane should connect people to where they want to go, not just be dropped in wherever is convenient. These hard to fix gaps will take a lot of effort from the cycling community. But if you look at the numbers there are a lot more cyclists and a lot less drivers squatting on those spaces. Natural attrition is our friend here.

  8. I think bike helmets in the US are a joke. Very few children ride fast enough to even remotely hit their heads on pavement, and I am 38 and have NEVER had a fall, even as a child, where I hit my head (knees yes, head no) and if you are hit by a car, your helmet will do you NO GOOD anyway.

    When I grew up in the US, children never wore helmets, then again hardly any adults biked anywhere either, still few do. (I bike commute to work everyday, but it’s a happy and lonely commute and sometimes with traffic).

  9. This is exactly the direction my city of Tallahassee is taking. The number of busy roads with sharrows painted on them have multiplied over the last couple of years, with absolutely no other changes made to calm traffic in any way. But since the planners have such faith in these little stencils, it must have all the merit in the world! Groningen, Zwolle, Utrecht, Den bosch-you all better watch out because you’re about to have a tough competitor in the next 5 or 10 years.

    But seriously, our planners recently painted sharrows along the outermost lanes of our busiest arterial in the city (Tennessee Street). This is a narrow 6-lane road that carries, on certain stretches, over 50,000 vehicles per day. And somehow, someone got the idea that just slapping these sharrows on this arterial is going to do anything but give everyone the message that it was a waste of money and effort.

    I feared this would happen when I saw the bicycle plan several years ago. It was so vague about the kind of “amenities” to implement as well as the criteria for designating certain streets as being bike friendly. Apparently, they have decided to go with the cheap and just slap sharrows all over the place. Honestly, at this point maybe they should just go all out and put them on every road in the city. That way we’ll have a nice big experiment to show what that will actually do or not do. And the city can then claim to be a world class cycling city because they’ve done something on every single street.

  10. I’d say it has to do with at least a couple factors…

    1) being able to easily and intuitively find your way somewhere (no unexpected detours due to a bike lane suddenly ending, lack of certainty where to go next due to a dearth of signs/signals for bikes, etc.). This should never happen:

    2) being able to bike in a way where you don’t feel overly threatened by vehicular traffic. This can either mean via separated bike lanes on busier roads or by robust Bike Street/Bike Blvd treatments on shared-street spaces, so you can be fairly confident you can bike without harassment or negligence on the part of drivers.

    This is pretty low-stress:

    So is this:
    (Bike Street: Autos Allowed As Guests)

    3) being able to know you’ll have a fairly safe and easily convenient spot to park your bike upon arrival.

  11. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of bike lanes — even imperfect ones, even sharrows. We should remember that the value of any given bike lane lies not only in that particular lane’s usability but also in its contribution to the aggregate effect. Every bike lane (and all other visible bike infrastructure) serves as a reminder to drivers that bicyclists are out there, that we’re part of the legitimate users of the streets. So even bike lanes that have flaws are nevertheless net positives.

    Still, we should be careful not to imply that the ending of a bike lane leaves a bicyclist stranded. As great as bike lanes are, we must never make it sound like bicyclists can ride only on streets with bike lanes. Don’t forget that the VC nuts dislike bike lanes for precisely this reason — they argue that the presence of bike lanes sends the message that bicyclists may use only those streets which have these lanes; for this reason they consider bike lanes to be a kind of ghettoisation. So when someone implies that a bicyclist is stuck when a bike lane ends, the VC zealots are feeling vindicated in their opposition to bike lanes.

    (I should mention that I don’t totally reject the VC approach; there are definitely occasions when that is the right way to ride, when taking the lane is necessary for short distances. I denounce only the nuts who claim that we all should be taking the lane as a matter of course, and who thereby deny the greatness of bike infrastructure.)

    Ideally, there should be bike lanes on every street. But, we know that this sort of arrangement, much like the Esperantists’ “Fina Venko” (the dream scenario in which everyone speaks Esperanto alongside his/her native language(s)), is never going to happen. So we’re always going to have some streets that don’t have bike lanes. We should encourage bicyclists to use these streets, and not consider them off-limits.

    Sometimes a street without a bike lane is a better bike street than one which has a bike lane. One such New York street that comes to mind is 31st Ave. in western Queens. There is a bike lane on 34th Ave.; but 31st Ave. has more room and makes a continuous route farther eastward, while 34th Ave. is interrupted by its intersection with Northern Blvd. The bike lane should have been placed on 31st Ave. But, bike lane or no bike lane, 31st Ave. is the better choice.

    There are even some relatively large streets that are good for bike-riding, despite their lack of bike lanes. In New York, streets such as Madison Ave., Union Tpke., Coney Island Ave., and Kings Highway are examples of this. Even an inexperienced bicyclist can enjoy a ride on these streets without undue stress.

    Really, there are only very few streets that novice bicyclists just shouldn’t use; a few examples from New York are Atlantic Ave., Pennsylvania Ave., Flatbush Ave., Queens Blvd., Northern Blvd., Bruckner Blvd. There aren’t too many more. We should encourage cycling by telling newbies — truthfully — that they can get practically anywhere by bike, while avoiding only these particularly unfriendly roads.

    As a New Yorker, I am thankful every day for Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan. I love our bike lanes, and I don’t want to lose them; thus I favour protecting them by riding legally and thereby not encouraging our enemies to push for their removal. But I don’t want to project the attitude to newbies that their riding should be limited to streets with bike lanes.

  12. “Sometimes a street without a bike lane is a better bike street than one which has a bike lane.”

    And not only that, sometimes a street without a bike lane that’s not even designated a bike route is better than the sharrowed BRINOs. Some examples below from where I live (SF) of streets that have received such calming that there’s really no need for a bike lane. These two examples aren’t sharrowed or anything, but are nonetheless pleasant and low-stress to bike down:

    It’s really only a comparatively small minority of streets (arterials) that really benefit from robust infrastructure. But oh the difference they can make! Especially when they form the basic latticework to a low-stress network filled in by lots of low-stress shared streets in between.

    If more American cities had these every mile or whatever on their arterial grid (and they met at well-designed protected intersections), imagine how many people would say–hey, I really *can* bike the half mile to go get coffee!×721.jpg

    “Still, we should be careful not to imply that the ending of a bike lane leaves a bicyclist stranded.”

    It doesn’t always mean that, per se, but the point is that it certainly isn’t low-stress for a lot of people. If we’re talking about big modeshare gains amongst the ~60% Interested But Concerned, infrastructure that suddenly ends just doesn’t cut it.

  13. Wow–that first picture. Can you imagine them ever allowing a road to just END like that? With no plan or care for what the cars are supposed to do after? (I can and it involves a cartoon pile-up of cars screeching to a halt and rear-ending each other). Just goes to show how many places will begrudgingly follow the letter of putting in a bike lane without embracing the spirit of making it a legitimate way to get somewhere.

  14. Yeah, exactly! You’ve hit the nail on the head re: begrudgingly following the letter of the bike lane without its wider implications or thought to design for the actual mode. Even when the lane is continuous it’s often not truly designed with much thought in mind as to how people actually bike/drive.

    One of my favorite examples of this is a stretch of road connecting two segments of an otherwise good off-road bike path between San Bruno~South San Francisco. Where the road ends at the re-emergence of the path it bunches into a big cul-de-sac for cars to turn around or park.

    Somewhat hilariously, they very legalistically continued to the letter of the law the bike lane *even as it curves around the cul-de-sac*. Caltrans calls doorzone lanes Class II and they’re very much Second Class, indeed. Despite that huge swath of asphalt on a low-speed/low-traffic road technically bikes are expected to timidly and tediously hug the doorzone lane as they curve around to meet the path.

    In practice, no one does this, of course. This would be an excellent candidate stretch for a true shared space Bike Street.

  15. Metro Nashville has created a map of “easy riding routes” that connect neighborhoods within five miles of downtown. It shows bike lanes, but also uses low-travel high-visibility residential streets. For example, the map to west Nashville uses the beautiful residential street Whitland Avenue instead of the heavily traveled West End Avenue, despite the fact that West End has bike lanes. I hadn’t heard the term “low stress network” before, but that seems to be what they were trying to put together.

  16. Yeah, sharrows on busy streets are a total copout. Even when they’re accompanied by continuous green stripes:

    Sure, it’s better than nothing for the small percentages of people who’ve already decided to bike, but this is not the kind of stuff that’s inviting for the 60%+ Interested but Concerned crowd. Paint and stencils do not a serious bike strategy make. It’s just too far from low-stress, to say the least.

  17. Unfortunately, none of our sharrowed streets even have anything like the green stripe. And while 50,000 + vehicles per day may not be that out of the league (it’s probably just average on a busy road for a large, American city) keep in mind that Tallahassee has a population of less than 200,000. I don’t even see confident riders using this arterial. I’ve maybe seen 4 or 5 people actually ride on that road in my 5 years of living here.

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