Separated bicycle lanes are steadily increasing in number, though every design detail counts.
By G. Ryan Smith, ASLA
In cities across the country where newly striped bike lanes are seemingly rolling out by the week, separated bike lanes would seem to be the holy grail. By giving cyclists their very own part of the public realm, they practically embody the exceptionalist case for bicycle infrastructure—a demonstrable victory of cyclists over the potentially deadly hazards of motorists who will never learn to be more careful behind the wheel. But separated bicycle lanes, also called cycle tracks or green lanes, are a considerable investment. The price per linear foot of recent projects has run between $120 for simpler installations with flexible posts to $2,000 for elaborately integrated systems. If properly done, they can greatly enhance the active transportation metabolism of a city. If not done right, they can seem pointless.
Landscape architects are only getting started in the design of separated bicycle lanes, also known as cycle tracks or green lanes, but so is everyone else. There are 270 cycle tracks in the United States as of this year, up from 78 in 2011, according to the advocacy group People for Bikes. Cycle tracks are more common in Europe than in this country.
Cycle tracks have their fans and their skeptics, given their significant variations on traditional bicycle lane designs. Bicycle lanes have only a stripe of paint as separation from motor vehicle traffic. A cycle track has a wider buffer that includes a built vertical barrier that runs or repeats along the course of the lane. This barrier can be a small post, a bollard, or a concrete wall, planter, or parking lane. It can incorporate elements of green infrastructure.
“They don’t make sense if you’re just going to do, say, one block,” says Elizabeth Gilliam, ASLA, a landscape architect at Toole Design Group, which has completed numerous designs and studies for bicycle networks, including a cycle track along 15th Street NW in Washington, D.C. “And I wouldn’t recommend having one block be a bicycle lane and the next block a separated lane,” she says, because if riders aren’t comfortable in a bike lane, “then going from one to another is not ideal.”
Advocates of cycle tracks say the tracks improve bicycle safety and increase bicyclist numbers, but there is not much data to examine such claims—although existing data seems to support them. In theory, cycle tracks increase bicycle ridership by creating a safer, lower-stress environment when compared to streets that have traditional bicycle lanes or no bicycle-specific facilities.
Although bicycling remains a secondary form of transportation for most Americans when compared to motor vehicles, a fair part of the population engages in bicycling at least occasionally. A study by the Breakaway Research Group for People for Bikes, conducted in late 2014, found that 103.7 million Americans, or 34 percent of the population, rode a bike in the previous year. Of those riders, 54 percent rode only twice a month or less, but 53 percent said they would like to ride more often. Fifty-two percent worry about being hit by a car, and 46 percent said they would be more likely to ride if bicycles were physically separated from cars.
Many cities and towns, concerned about congestion and pollution from motor vehicles, find separated bike lanes an enticing possibility. Their effectiveness in increasing bicycle ridership, however, is not well established. Early results suggest that cycle tracks can help improve ridership, although perhaps not to the degree that some advocates claim. A 2014 report commissioned by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities evaluated eight sites in five cities. It found bicycle ridership rose between 21 percent and 171 percent after the installation of a separated bike lane; the largest increases were at locations with two-way lanes. Of the total riders, it was found on average that most would have made the same bicycle trip either on another route (24 percent) or the same route (65 percent). A smaller portion of riders (10 percent) would have made the trip using another mode, and 1 percent would not have made the trip at all. The results indicate a slight increase in total bicycle ridership. The study was limited to the first year after implementation, though, and long-term effects have yet to be studied.
Safety has also been underanalyzed in this country. A 2014 crash analysis commissioned by the Federal Highway Administration was conducted by the University of North Carolina, Sam Schwartz Engineering, and Kittelson & Associates on bicycle volume and crash data at 17 sites in seven states plus the District of Columbia. In most instances, bicycle crashes increased after the installation of a separated bicycle lane. But once the numbers were adjusted for the increase in the number of bicyclists also brought about by the cycle track, the number of crashes per number of riders fell everywhere except one site in Washington, D.C.
Several Canadian studies have also linked cycle tracks to safety improvements, but they are criticized for neglecting to study intersections thoroughly. Intersection design is a critical element in safety because at intersections, bicyclists and motor vehicles can cross paths, greatly increasing the possibility of collisions. The barriers that separate bicyclists from traffic can also obscure visibility at intersections. Critics say that the sense of separation may increase the perception of safety for bicyclists, giving them a false sense of security through intersections where they are more exposed. The details of exactly how an intersection is designed can make a difference in terms of safety.
“A protected intersection with median islands is the ideal design, which basically gives everybody a sense of where they belong and eliminates conflicts,” Gilliam says. “And the visibility is key for cars, from a safety standpoint.” She says that intersections should force cars to turn at a tighter radius than they would otherwise to slow their movement, which makes the street safer for everyone.
Safety can increase where an additional signal is added solely for bicyclists. The Western Avenue Separated Bike Lane in Cambridge, Massachusetts, uses bicycle signals along with raised side street crossings. The raised bicycle lane also uses pervious paving to aid in stormwater management.
Support for cycle tracks or bicycle facilities is hardly universal. There appear to be no organized groups opposing cycle tracks nationally, but local opposition to specific projects crops up frequently, often owing to the potential loss of parking or vehicular travel lanes. The parking issues, at least, can sometimes be addressed by designing parking as part of the cycle track. Some opposition may relate to a lack of familiarity with or understanding of the proposed project, which can be addressed by public meetings and temporary demonstration installations.
Opposition frequently comes from dedicated bicycle riders, those experienced, high-speed cyclists who are already on the roadways, often commuting. In their case, the prospect of attracting new, more casual riders is less than desirable, because those riders are likely to be slower and less experienced, which will ultimately slow them down more than if they were riding in a vehicular or traditional bicycle lane. In those cases, however, seasoned riders still have the option of riding in vehicular lanes to maintain their preferred speeds; the presence of a cycle track doesn’t preclude the use of a vehicular lane.
Not every location is well-suited to a cycle track. One basic factor for consideration is the availability of space in the right-of-way; in some cases, the right-of-way may be too narrow to allow for a separated bicycle lane. Length and connectivity are also crucial. Relatively short projects may not attract riders who are unwilling to ride in traffic, and separated lanes should connect to larger bicycling networks.
Context makes a big difference. Bike lanes through older, dense urban cores can provide a richer experience along the route and are more likely to tie into existing bicycle networks, but space available for cycle tracks may be limited. In newer cities and suburbs that are big on building roadways, the connection to bicycle networks may be weaker, but the amount of available right-of-way space may be more plentiful.
Landscape architects aren’t necessarily involved in every transportation project, and engineers are often either the lead designers or are heavily involved in the design process. For landscape architects engaged in cycle track design, the involvement can entail planning, conceptual design, public input, construction documents, and implementation. One of the key differences landscape architects can make in the planning and design of cycle tracks is to steer the process away from thinking about them in strictly utilitarian terms—solely providing a means of conveyance—into thinking about them in terms of placemaking, and even as potential green infrastructure or economic development.
Tom Tavella, FASLA, a principal of Alta Planning + Design, a firm that specializes in bicycle infrastructure, says: “If you get enough buffer in there and you’re able to do some planting or green infrastructure, it helps slow down that traffic in terms of car speed. And there’s also a lot of opportunity to bring in some of the community’s assets and character.” Tavella, who is also a former president of ASLA, adds: “Some people think of it as point A to B and that’s it, and it’s like no, we’re creating places and spaces and experiences. So it’s really a way to make a special place for people to experience. And I think that’s why I love doing them more than anything else, because you can really change a community when you do it.”
In San Marcos, California, part of the redevelopment of Armorlite Drive, a light industrial corridor along a commuter rail line next to Palomar College, is slated to turn the roadway from a street with no bicycle or pedestrian facilities into a Complete Street with a separated bicycle lane. The project, which is currently under construction, includes bioswales for runoff control and structural soils for a tree-lined buffer that will create a sense of an inviting, enclosed space and shade riders and pedestrians from the sun. And while the current project is short, spanning less than 500 feet, it’s planned to be the first segment of several in the area. Just as crucially, it not only connects the corridor to the college but is also a short walk to a transit station that connects riders to the rest of the San Diego region’s Metropolitan Transit System.
“Armorlite Drive, before this project started, was a whole bunch of warehouses. And it was just an asphalt street with no curbs, even. It is absolutely a turnaround from what it was before…treeless, big blank walls, and so forth,” says John Holloway, ASLA, of KTU+A Planning + Landscape Architecture in San Diego, which led the project from conception through construction. “Our take on it is, that street…is going to feel more like a layered park and less like a thoroughfare. When you’re there, it doesn’t feel like just a passageway through a large amount of high-density housing.”
G. Ryan Smith, ASLA, is a planner and landscape designer in Goshen, Indiana.
Credits: Alta Planning + Design.