The Case For Separated Bicycle Facilities

By Josh Cohen July 6, 2010

Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, has an excellent article on Slate about the significance of separated bicycle infrastructure. He doesn't offer revolutionary new insight into the subject, but he provides a well-supported overview of different types of infrastructure, their safety benefits for bicyclists, and their effect on the growth of bicycling and cities themselves.

Vanderbilt writes:
But the key, one could argue, is infrastructure ... In the world's top cycling cities, one finds not muscular riders harried and buffeted by passing cars, but all manner of people—young, old, carrying groceries, carrying kids—riding on networks that have been designed for them. In the Netherlands, for example, where no new road is built without a provision for cycles, cyclists ride on paths with a minimum width of 2.5 meters (which must be 1.5 meters from the road), get their own green lights, and find parking (if not always enough) at train stations and even bus stops. And even within the cycling-happy Netherlands, as David Hembrow has noted, the cities that have better infrastructure—and not necessarily the most densely populated ones—have higher cycling rates. And what's the annual cost of the world's best cycling infrastructure? By Hembrow's estimates, is roughly 30 euros for each Dutch citizen—well less than a tank of gasoline.

... One thing that seems clear, however, is that cyclist safety tends to improve as there are more cyclists. And the best way to get more cyclists is to make them feel safer. And the way to make them feel safer is, many planners argue, to provide separate facilities. "I do believe the separate facility is the best," says Jacob Larson, a researcher at McGill University who recently completed a study of Montreal's bicycle infrastructure. "Not only in terms of actual safety performance but in terms of encouraging people who are less likely to ride their bikes. These people shouldn't have to be some kind of breakneck radicals that are really diehards—it should be a clear and safe option, and I think separate facilities give the perception that it is, and often do provide a truly safer alternative."

Though Vanderbilt mostly uses European cities and Portland, OR (of course) as examples , the article is relevant to Seattle. The Seattle Department of Transportation is finalizing plans for the city's first cycle track (a bike lane protected from cars by parked cars and a painted buffer) on Dexter, as well as a two-way cycle track on Broadway in Capitol Hill.

As the city continues its effort to foster the growth of alternative transportation (and reduce its carbon footprint), it will be increasingly important to understand the successful infrastructure of other bicycling cities and consider how they can be adapted to Seattle's streets.

Sharrows and traditional bike lanes can be useful for making bicycling safer, but they're not going to do much to help people get over their fear of urban riding. We need well-designed, smartly executed separated facilities, like the ones Vanderbilt outlines in his piece, in order for bicycling to grow to the significant transportation mode it deserves to be.
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