Do You Want More Bicyclists in Your City? Then, It’s Time to Install a Network of Cycle Tracks

By Kai Bates IMCL Urban Design Consultant

As more and more cities throughout North America come to terms with growing threats such as obesity and climate change, many are looking for ways to address these problems. While the issues can be confronted in various ways, one of the quickest and cheapest approaches is to encourage bicycling.

However, while increasing bicycling is a goal shared by numerous cities, few understand the best way to do so. Unfortunately, North America, particularly the U.S., has an unfortunate history with bicycling that has resulted in major setbacks for cyclists. In the 1970s, the vehicular cycling movement took hold. This movement, which was led by hardcore bicycling advocates at the time, held that bicyclists should ride on the roads and behave the same as any other vehicle. As John Pucher and Ralph Buehler point out in “Cycling for a Few or for Everyone”:

In the vehicular cycling model, cyclists must constantly evaluate traffic, looking back, signaling, adjusting lateral position and speed, sometimes blocking a lane and sometimes yielding, always trying to fit into the ‘dance’ that is traffic. Research shows that most people feel very unsafe engaging in this kind of dance, in which a single mistake could be fatal. Children as well as many women and elders are excluded. While some people, especially young men, may find the challenge stimulating, it is stressful and unpleasant for the vast majority. It is no wonder that the model of vehicular cycling, which the USA has followed de facto for the past forty years, has led to extremely low levels of bicycling use.

According to Charles Montgomery in Happy City, in the 1980s the vehicular cyclists played a major role in the inclusion of bicycle lanes in the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is essentially the traffic engineering bible. Even though riding in bicycle lanes is slightly better than riding directly in the middle of the road, this still only felt comfortable for a very small segment of the population. Portland Bureau of Transportation Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller famously called such riders “strong & fearless” and “enthused & confident”, and, according to his research, they make up only 8% of bicyclists. This type of infrastructure that only catered to a small segment of the population has kept even the most bicycle-friendly cities in the U.S. stuck with 6% or less ridership for decades.

Would you want to ride here? – Bike lanes in Carlisle, PA.

In recent years, people in North America have started to question the vehicular cycling model, perhaps as a result of increasing gas prices, increased traffic congestion despite decades of road building, or simply just because of a rise in stories, images, and videos about places like Copenhagen, Denmark, where nearly 40% the citizens commute by bicycle! Many have been wondering what needs to be done so that they, too, can ride their bikes to school, work, or the grocery store like people in Copenhagen and many other European cities do. This is especially important for children, for whom safe biking to school and in their neighborhood can help them achieve the one hour per day of exercise they need to prevent obesity.

The answer is: cycle tracks.

Cycle tracks, or separated bike lanes, are lanes dedicated to bicyclists that are within the right-of way and separated from traffic by a physical barrier. The barrier can take several forms, including bollards, raised paving, medians, or vehicle parking. The cycle tracks can also be one-way on both sides of the road or bi-directional on one side of the road.

Does this look better? – Cycle track along Dunsmuir Street in Vancouver, BC.

In “Making Cycling Irresistible”, Pucher and Buehler show that the establishment of cycle tracks is especially important to increase ridership among children, seniors, women, and the disabled. According to Geller, it is people in these groups who are “interested but concerned” when it comes to biking on roads and they consist of a whopping 60% of cyclists!

After many years of installing cycle tracks throughout Europe, cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Münster, Freiburg, Groningen, and many more have attracted exactly these types of riders and have achieved bicycle ridership rates of 30-50%.

Here’s an excellent video summarizing what I’m talking about:

As the above video shows, some North American cities, such as Montreal and New York City, have been developing cycle tracks in the past five or so years. In 2012, even Chicago joined the growing number of North American cities (see Vancouver, BC; Washington, DC; and Seattle for example) adding cycle tracks. In fact, it was recently reported that Chicago is set to build 100 miles of cycle tracks by 2015! At the end of 2013, PeopleForBikes even put together a list of America’s 10 best protected bike lanes of 2013, only the second such list that the group has produced.

And, so far, it looks like all of these efforts are paying off. In New York City, installation of cycle tracks along Prospect Park West led to a tripling in the number of cyclists and dramatic reductions in speeding and bicyclist injuries. In Vancouver, BC, researchers found that bicycling increased 40% between 2008 and 2011 after several cycle tracks were installed in the downtown. For a long list of statistics on biking and cycle tracks, go here.

Or, how about this? – Cycle track along E. Broadway in Long Beach, CA.

Even though progress has been made, there is still a lot to do to get complete networks of cycle track installed in North American cities so that we, too, can have large numbers of people riding bikes comfortably.

So, now that I’ve gotten you all excited about cycle tracks, you may be asking yourself, “how can I get cycle tracks built in my city?” Here are some ideas:

Make Sure Your City Has a Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator. A Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator is a person on city staff who is dedicated to and focused on bicycle and pedestrian issues. The League of American Bicyclists says that a Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator is a critical part of creating a bicycle-friendly community and they have found that cities with such dedicated staff have better bicycle infrastructure and higher ridership rates.

Educate Yourself and Others. It’s crucial that bicycling advocates understand what it will take to get people riding in their city. They need to understand all of the types of bicycle facilities, including best practices, so that they can effectively communicate with city staff, particularly planners and engineers. It’s also important that advocates understand the bicyclist’s role within the transportation system and the city overall. Advocates need to ensure that bicycling integrates well into the city and that it is part of an overall transportation network that gets people to where they want to go efficiently, affordably, easily, and sustainably. One of the best guides for advocates to familiarize themselves with is the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Urban Bikeway Design Guide.

Show Others What a Cycle Track Looks Like. The best way to convince people of the benefits and advantages of cycle tracks is to show them what they look like and how they function. In addition to using photos, videos, renderings, and study tours (budget permitting), advocates can work together to implement demonstration projects or temporary interventions of cycle tracks. For inspiration, check out what these people in Minneapolis did for just $600.