Advocacy group PeopleForBikes has just released their list of what they consider to be the top 10 best new bike lanes in the country. They all fall under the category of protected bike lanes — ones in which there is some kind of physical barrier between the people on bikes and the people in cars.
It’s the type of infrastructure that can create the perception of safety, and the reality as well. In countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, protected bike infrastructure is a normal part of street design, and consequently, biking is a normal part of life for people of all ages.
Here’s the list:
1. Polk Street, San Francisco
2. 2nd Avenue, Seattle
3. Riverside Drive, Memphis
4. Rosemead Boulevard, Temple City, California
5. Furness Drive, Austin
6. Broadway, Seattle
7. SW Multnomah Boulevard, Portland, Oregon
8. Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh
9. King Street, Honolulu
10. Broadway, Chicago
Getting cities to look at the transformative impact of protected bike infrastructure is the mission of PeopleForBikes’ Green Lane Project, which takes municipal leaders from cities around the U.S. to see how things are done in the Northern European cities with the highest percentage of people who use bicycles for transportation. Some, but not all, of the examples they highlight this year are in cities that have participated in that program.
The lanes on the list use a variety of strategies to achieve separation from car traffic. Some of them are separated from motor vehicles by parked cars, a style that has proliferated in New York; some by plastic bollards; one, in Seattle, by water-filled blue plastic buffers that one blog refers to as “Smurf turds.” Some are two-way on one-way streets.
Almost none of them, sadly, are very long. The Honolulu lane runs for two miles, but many of the rest are more like a quarter mile or just a few blocks at best.
This is the way things go with protected bike infrastructure in the United States: It is usually implemented piecemeal, with many of the projects billed as pilots or experimental in order to overcome resistance from members of the community who are concerned about interference with car traffic or parking.
The good thing about this strategy is that it can lead to gradual acceptance of the idea and ongoing implementation of more and more lanes that gradually get stitched together into a network that is usable over long stretches by commuters and others who want to ride safely from neighborhood to neighborhood. That is what has happened, to some extent, in New York City.
But there are downsides to installing short stretches of protected cycle lanes, too. They create a strange dissonance for people riding on them: One minute you are pedaling along feeling relaxed and calm, the next your adrenaline shoots back up as you get spit back out into traffic, often without much indication as to where you are supposed to go next. For drivers as well, these little blips of green here and there can be disorienting, because there is no systemic integration into the larger street plan.
As showpieces, small protected lane projects can be wonderful things. But unless there is a follow-up push to create real connections, along with signal changes and incorporation into the larger flow of urban traffic, they risk seeming precious and not utilitarian — like luxury items for display, rather than the hard-working pieces of transportation infrastructure that they can be.
They also can be easily marginalized and dismissed. Just that happened last week in Newark, where New Jersey’s only protected bike lane is slated for demolition after only a short time in the ground. Because it existed in a vacuum, with no connecting infrastructure, it was an easy target for people who said it served no function except to make parking more difficult (although it’s not clear that was even the case).
There’s no easy answer here. Clearly, small-scale pilot bike infrastructure can lead to more connected networks that eventually achieve the ultimate goal of making bicycle transportation a safe and viable option for people of all ages. But if they are not done thoughtfully, with commitment from all levels of government, and as part of a larger strategy that looks at a community’s transportation needs in the big picture, even the prettiest protected lane can end up going nowhere.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.