In praise of bike paths

Bicycle trails may have failed so far in L.A., but Angelenos shouldn’t give up on physically separated bike facilities so easily.

Photo by Payton Chung.

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This is a rather belated response to a couple of posts by Enci Box over at Streetsblog L.A. that lay out a pretty persuasive case that her city did a poor job in planning out its bicycle trails. But what I found a little worrisome were the seeming generalizations she drew about “segregated” cycling facilities. This was made all the worse by a seeming conflation of different types of physically separated cycling facilities, namely bicycle trails and cycle tracks. The former are paved paths completely separated from the roads, usually built along pre-existing rights-of-way from public transit lines or defunct railroad tracks. The latter are physically separated bicycle lanes that run parallel to roads either on the asphalt with the cars or up on the sidewalk with the pedestrians.

Now there are a lot of problems with bicycle trails, and most of them, as Enci has nicely laid out, have to do with negligence in upkeep and police presence to ensure safety along them. But problems such as these are easily fixed with a little cash (albeit less easily these days). The question she ultimately raises, though, is whether or not these trails are worth the money, especially when the trails are for “recreation,” not transportation, meaning they don’t go anywhere anybody needs to go. The astonishing numbers she pulls are a $4.2 million price tag for the 1.8-mile long San Fernando Road Bike Path, compared to bike lanes that cost only $5,000 to $50,000 (“depending on the condition of the pavement, the need to remove and repaint the lane lines, the need to adjust signalization, and other factors”).

So far so good, but then we get into some tricky territory when she claims that “Many studies have been done in Holland, Germany, Denmark and even in the U.S., that suggest that segregating cyclists actually increases accident rates.” Really? I’ve heard the opposite. But perhaps more important is that what we’re talking about in all those countries are not bicycle trails like the ones she’s describing in Los Angeles, but cycle tracks.

But even if we look past that for a second, I’m really not inclined to give much weight to studies from the 1980s mentioned in the Wikipedia post she approvingly quotes or studies that don’t take into account the myriad variables of bicycle safety such as the intensely anti-bicycle Helsinki study.

To give a quick example: One possible reason that the study shows bicyclists having fewer accidents in Helsinki when sharing the road with is that the cycle tracks were built along high-volume routes next to fast-moving automobile traffic, whereas when a cyclist is integrating with traffic, it is on a quiet side street (as is often the case in European cities). If all those cyclists along the high-volume routes were forced to integrate with the fast moving traffic across the median, you better believe there’d be a spike in accident rates.

And since she allows the anecdotal, I too have spent much time cycling in German cities and I have to say I have never felt so safe or comfortable on a bicycle in my life than when I was on one of the many on-sidewalk cycle tracks.

But let me give you what should be the most relevant data to the current question: the recently constructed cycle track along 9th Avenue in Manhattan. The 9th Ave track has been an unqualified success, showing:

  • a 36% reduction in pedestrian-related injuries;
  • a 50% reduction in injuries from all crashes;
  • a 41% reduction in the total number of crashes; and
  • an 80% reduction in sidewalk cycling, all of which occurred despite
  • a 57% increase in cycling traffic on that corridor.

Those are huge numbers, significant enough to allow for the quick conversion of neighboring 8th Avenue to a similar configuration. Indeed, cycle tracks have become a central element of New York City’s bicycle master plan because they have proved to be so safe. And the whole 9th Ave project cost $500,000 to plan, design, and install, much much less than the San Fernando trail.

What it comes down to is that in areas where there is high-volume, high-speed automobile traffic, cycle tracks are a necessary safety feature for cyclists, as they can’t hope to integrate into such traffic safely. These arterials are often the most direct route from A to B, meaning they need to be available to cyclists as well as cars if we’re at all serious about posing cycling as a legit transportation option.

None of this is to say that L.A. didn’t completely screw up with their bicycle trails, but it also doesn’t mean that it should give up on physically separated cycling facilities. In fact, all of the complaints Enci registers against the existing bicycle lanes in the city would be addressed through well designed cycle tracks: eliminating the risk of dooring, concerns over unsafe passing distance, proximity to fast-moving traffic, and the possibility of double-parking. So get up, Los Angeles, brush yourself off and get back in the game.

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Tags: new york cityinfrastructurelos angelesbuilt environmentbike lanesportlandbike safety

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