In many North American cities, there is much talk about improving and increasing bike lanes and bike ridership. All movement forward, however, can stall at the implementation stage. Here are 3 tips to jump start bike infrastructure in cities where it has stalled.
Most cities now have at least some bike lanes, typically the painted lanes or ‘sharrows’ that indicate cars and bikes should share a lane. Meanwhile, they struggle with finding the political will and public understanding to take more significant strides forward.
Safe cycling, we have seen in Europe and are increasingly seeing in forward-thinking cities, depends on separated bike lanes. Pedestrians, cars, and bikes do not mix well (an exception being narrow streets engineered to permit only the slowest vehicle movement). Yet cities get caught up in the years of planning, and the millions of dollars in capital expenditures, required to implement separated lanes. The result, unfortunately, is often status-quo streets and a regular round of promises to biking advocates that the 10 or 15 or 20 year plan will include bike lanes.
It need not be so.
3 steps will help move cities forward. Now.
No, paint doesn’t protect cyclists. Any car can drive over a line of paint anytime. The rationale for a vigorous program of painting, though, is in creating awareness and momentum.
In cities where bike lanes are just two lines of white paint, I dare say that most car drivers cross the bike lanes totally unaware. Whether making a right turn across a bike lane or pulling out from a parking spot (see #3 below on parking changes), cars assume the right-of-way.
Use paint to pump up awareness. Paint lanes a solid colour at the points where they start and end, and at intersections or areas like driveways where vehicles are entering from the side.
Ideally, a paint program can be accompanied by a public awareness campaign. Engage your local police force, downtown businesses and bike advocates to collaborate on some street-corner education, teaching motorists and cyclists alike about how to signal and cross lanes. Remind cars turning right to do that oft-forgotten right shoulder check to see if a bike has come up in the adjacent bike lane.
Such awareness-building requires, as a minimum, that bike lanes be clearly visible, especially at intersections. In most cities, most of the time, lanes are simply not visible.
The two great benefits of an aggressive program of bike lane pilots: getting new riders to try out routes, and building public awareness.
A side benefit, of course, is that a good pilot truly tests what works and what doesn’t. While engineers like to work within design standards, almost every street situation is a unique case. Pilot projects do real world testing on the real ground of urban streets.
Often, a pilot will show that we have excess capacity dedicated to cars: four lanes, in many cases, where two function well. The pilot shows what car congestion would or would not occur with a permanent change, and gives bike riders a chance to try out a safer, protected environment.
In our car-oriented society, we regularly tolerate street disruptions for paving, lane painting, or underground infrastructure repairs. Why not create a system of roving bike lane pilots, using the simple tools of a few barricades, pylons, and public education signage?
Let’s put those construction barriers, pylons and planters to creative use. Plan a series of bike lane pilots throughout the city.
While permanent, attractive dividers are ideal, there are quicker, cheaper options. Plastic bollards. Moveable planters. Low construction detour curbing. Or, perhaps my favourite: a row of parked cars.
Move the row of parallel-parked cars from their cozy spot at the curb and place them between the bike lane and the moving traffic lanes.
Start with what you have available while working on that 3, 5 or 10 year plan to bring out the heavy equipment and create permanent changes. Temporary dividers combined with our #1 and #2 suggestions of highly visible Paint and Pilot projects once again contribute to real world testing of design features. There is nothing more disappointing to cycle advocates and citizens who simply want a safe biking environment to show up when a new, expensive, bike infrastructure project opens only to fine that minor design details were fumbled. Sure, national and international design standards exist but they are not a be-all and end-all: local input can almost always tweak designs to make them even better.
3 Steps: not the whole answer, but a start
Will the pursuit of these interim steps postpone development of the ideal, comprehensive, network of separated bike lanes? Quite the contrary. By jump starting bike ridership with Paint, Pilots and Dividers, cities will help create both an appetite for cycling and a broader awareness that good cycling infrastructure is the new normal on urban streets.
As a recent post on StreetsBlog noted, ‘One-Day Plazas and Bike Lanes Can Change a City Forever.’ It’s all about showing how real change can work, right now.
illustrations courtesy of Tanya Gatsby, Drawing Out Ideas