Protected bike lanes keep cyclists safe while boosting ridership. But though popular in Europe, U.S. cities have been slow to embrace these path-lane hybrids, and one state makes their installation particularly onerous — progressive California.
A new bill sponsored by the California Bicycle Coalition would make the process easier. Slated to reach the senate floor mid-August, AB 1193 takes on an antiquated law that puts state freeway builder Caltrans in charge of bike infrastructure.
According to one study, building a physical barrier between roads and bike lanes could reduce cycling collisions by a staggering 90 percent. Still, cities in California are forced to build at their own risk.
“Technically they’re prohibited,” says California Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Dave Snyder.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t put them in,” he adds. “I’ve hesitated to put it in those terms before but I’m indulging in an over-simplification to make a point.”
In the more complicated explanation, state law is silent. When cities in California build new bike infrastructure they’re bound to a document called the Highway Design Manual, and it lists three permitted types: paths, lanes and routes. It doesn’t classify protected bike lanes, but it does make enough iffy statements to scare litigation-shy municipalities, for example: “Bike paths immediately adjacent to streets and highways are not recommended.”
Some cities decide to build in the gray area. In San Francisco, white markers separate green cycle tracks from the road. San Jose has also been repainting its wide, historically SUV-centric streets. As for the city’s numerous six-foot-wide bike routes, marked by three-foot painted buffers, Hans Larsen, San Jose’s director of transportation, says, “A conservative approach would be that there’s nothing in there that specifically says you can. I would say there’s nothing in there that specifically says you can’t.”
But with opposition brewing even in bike-friendly Seattle, city governments worry about being sued. The main concern is that protected lanes will take up parking spaces and anger nearby businesses. In Long Beach, administrators obtained permission from the Federal Highway Administration for their protected lanes to avoid liability.
“Because it’s not specifically spelled out it depends on what kind of interpretation you take, which depends on the political orientation of your community,” Larsen says.
Oddly, the Design Manual is clearly meant for its namesake: highways. Sometimes highways enter towns and become main streets — then it would make sense for Caltrans and municipal governments to have equal say on street design. But the manual doesn’t just oversee those streets; according to state law, it actually governs all bike infrastructure in both state and city right-of-ways.
Caltrans would not answer factual questions on the reasoning behind this law. In an email, a spokesperson said the department did not comment on pending legislation.
According to Snyder, it’s left over from the ’70s. Back then the state had an interest in bicycle safety — but from the dashboard vantage point of motorists.
It’s meant, he says, to “keep bikes out of the way of cars” rather than fostering “safe, convenient, fast bike travel.”
Larsen offers conjecture that sounds reasonable to anyone who knows Caltrans’ history. When the law was enacted, he believes, California was one massive boomtown and everything — roads, cities, suburbs, exurbs — was built to accommodate freeways. Then, compliance to the design standards put out by highway builders would have made sense.
A harsh report released under the State Smart Transportation Initiative earlier this year calls the agency “peculiar” and “archaic” — one example of a bureaucracy that has not kept pace with the times.
“A built environment that reduces VMT [vehicle miles traveled] is precisely the goal of the state’s landmark climate policy,” the report states. “And it is precisely the opposite of what Caltrans was organized to do.”
The state agency has declared support for other design guidelines, like those of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).
“Caltrans is currently analyzing these guides to identify areas of improvement in our own standards and guidance,” a letter from the agency states. “This will be a focus of the Department over the next year.”
But for now, municipalities are still bound to state guidelines even on their land, making the new bill an issue of cities’ rights.
“Bike infrastructure is always more urgent at the city level,” Snyder says. “It’s important they be able to follow the design standards of their peers.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.