Story by Dana Henry, Traffic Safety Store
Here’s an interesting social experiment: What happens when a group of activists put tall, hand-built planters along the edge of a bike lane on a major thoroughfare?
That project — constructed in three hours by volunteers for $600 — happened late summer of 2013 on Minnehaha Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hundreds of people came out to ride the newly guarded lane. They weren’t just scruffy millenials either. They were over forty, under ten, and parents pulling babies in trailers.
Those are the people who would be bicycling. According to a 2012 study by Portland State University, over half of residents in the cycle-friendly region of Portland, Oregon are “interested but concerned” about using a bike for errands and short trips. Their biggest obstacle: They’re afraid to ride with cars.
Protected bike lanes (sometimes called cycletracks) — like the one demonstrated on Minnehaha Ave — put a physical barrier between cyclists and vehicles. Not only does this reduce accidents, but transportation planners believe cycletracks encourage new cyclists — potentially lots of them.
U.S. cities are finally catching on. In the past three years, the number of protected bike lanes in the U.S. jumped from forty to over a hundred. That number doubled in 2013 and Portland, Oregon and New York City weren’t the only adopters. Memphis, Tennessee, San Antonio, Texas, and several other middle-of-the-country cities are also developing miles of urban cycle track.
The trend is propelled by the Green Lane Project, a national program assisting municipal governments with the implementation of protected bike lanes — dubbed “green lanes” due to their distinct painted surface. Officials from selected cities receive study trips to the Netherlands, design consultations, seed grants, and support with media and public relations. Version 1.0 launched in 2012 — the first class was New York City, Washington D.C., Portland, OR, Memphis, TN, Austin, TX and Chicago. This week Green Lane announced the second class — Atlanta, GA, Boston, MA, Denver, CO, Indianapolis, IN, Pittsburgh, PA and Seattle, WA.
People for Bikes (formerly Bike Belong), the organization behind Green Lane, is a U.S cycling industry coalition formed in 1999. Unlike the typical not-for-profit model — which relies on corporations and wealthy donors — People for Bikes is funded through a portion of revenues from bicycle manufacturers, suppliers, and shops (Green Lane receives some additional support from charities). Their function is to make bicycling in the U.S. safer and more convenient so more people do it. If you’ve bought a new bike or had one serviced in the past fifteen years, you’ve probably contributed.
Until now, the coalition has largely focused on building political clout by lobbying for federal legislation, working with local legislators and activists, and contributing charitable funds to national advocacy groups like the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, the League of American Bicyclists, and the International Mountain Bicycling Association. They still do that critical work, but they’ve added Green Lane as a “new model for advocacy” — the program isn’t working to convince cities what’s best for bicycling, they’re helping them do it.
It’s one indication a paradigm shift is underway for U.S. transportation. The grassroots network of cycling advocates has matured into a national movement, uniting communities throughout the country. There’s a growing number of neighborhood workshops, bicycle clubs, cycling celebrations, awareness campaigns and city supported bike share programs. Now local governments are actively looking to retrofit streets in ways that give a larger and more diverse population the opportunity to ride. Continued momentum could thrust bicycling into the mainstream.
A New Era For U.S. Cities
If you want to understand how pervasive the protected bike lane movement could become, take a look at Green Lane’s applicant records: In 2012, when the program launched, forty-three cities applied. That was without a major marketing campaign. Two years later, the program’s second round racked up over a hundred letters of interest and sixty-four applications from places like Lincoln Nebraska, Fayetteville, Arkansas, Tucson, Arizona, and cities in Texas and Oklahoma.
Safety is not the most compelling argument. According to the Federal Highway Administration’s Pedestrian and Bicycling Information Center, cycling accounts for less than two percent of all highway deaths. Furthermore, as the number of cycle-commuters doubled between 2001 and 2010, cycling fatalities declined by fourteen percent, which means the accident ratio has fallen tremendously.
That’s not to discount the significant safety advantages (a 2012 study by the American Journal of Public Health found streets with protected bike lanes had a ninety percent reduced injury rate compared to a fifty percent reduced rate from unprotected bike lanes). Still, it’s important to remember that current bike commuters, who make up less than two percent of the modal share, are not the main target. For the most part, they know what to look out for — opening car doors, broken glass and stray construction staples, drivers who don’t look before turning or ignore the bike lane symbol.
But imagine how city streets look to a novice who hasn’t been on a bike since they were a kid. A bold twenty-something might make the attempt, but a retired city worker or a mother of three probably won’t. That mother, furthermore, isn’t going to teach her kids to negotiate moving traffic — and cycling as a kid, the Portland State study indicates, is the gateway to cycling as an adult.
“A conventional bike lane is just five inches of white paint,” says Zach Vanderkooy, International Programs Manager of the Green Lane Project. “There’s a growing realization [among city governments] that if you really want to attract more people to ride bikes, then you need something more than that.”
Advocates, environmentalists, and new urbanists have been touting the advantages of cycling for decades, so why are governments suddenly listening?
There’s no doubt the growing cycling culture is exerting some political force. People for Bikes maintains two lobbying firms in D.C. and League of American Cyclists regularly drafts legislation. Most medium to large cities now have local cycling coalitions and have increased — in some cases doubled — ridership in the past decade.
The growing constituency is also expanding into new income brackets. Street fashion blogs like New York Cycle Chic and Cycling Style Boston demonstrate cycling’s hip status among young urbanites who tend to be well educated and work in technical or creative fields. This coveted talent pool can opt to work as contractors or telecommuters so cities have to give them a reason to live there. Attractive cycling facilities are a highly-visible and symbolically-progressive amenity.
There’s also something urgent. According to the INRIX Traffic Score Card, several U.S. cities already suffer an additional thirty minutes of average commute time during rush hour. That’s expected to get worse as metro areas continue to develop. In order to maintain population growth, cities will need to diffuse vehicle traffic, which is a major leverage point for the cycling community: If more and more people are curious about bicycling, now’s the time to seriously consider adding protected lanes and bike shares. It’s a much cheaper — and seemingly more effective — alternative to building more streets and overpasses.
“[The interest in cycling facilities] is a reflection of a new era in cities where they are having to figure out how to do more with less,” says Vanderkooy. “It’s no longer the bicyclist going to their cities and saying ‘please do more for bikes.’ The cities themselves are becoming the drivers — that’s really a rational response to some very serious problems.
How Fast Can Cities Change?
Not every city received an injection of enthusiastic mellenials during the aughts. In those cases, cycling infrastructure is increasingly viewed as a gateway to revitalization. What’s remarkable is how quickly that thinking becomes practice.
Memphis, Tennessee — a member of Green Lane’s inaugural class — is a good case study. In 2008 and 2010, Bicycle.com named Memphis one of the country’s worst cities for cycling. That same year, Forbes listed the city third in America’s 20 most miserable cities — the photo was a web of overpasses.
At 324 square miles, with a population of 655,000, Memphis is sprawling. The city has a little over 2,000 people per square mile. New York City, by comparison, has almost 27,500 people per square mile. Detroit has 5,000. Memphis is also underfunded. In 2010 they had some of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
When A.C. Wharton took Mayor’s office in 2009, he pledged to add fifty-five miles of cycling facilities. By the end of 2010, he hired the city’s first bicycle/pedestrian coordinator, Kyle Wagenschutz, a dedicated cycling advocate with a masters degree in regional planning. Wagenschutz was just twenty-seven but served on local and state cycling committees and as director of Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop.
At the time, Memphis had exactly one mile of unprotected bike lane. A little more than three years later, they’ve added thirty-five miles of bike lanes and are on their way to completing fifteen miles of protected bike lanes.
The changes prompted Bicycle.com to rename Memphis, “America’s most improved bike city.” Whether by coincidence or not, Memphis is no longer on the Forbes list.
“Driving a car in Memphis is convenient,” Wagenschutz says. “We don’t have a congestion problem. We’re a big city and it takes fifteen minutes to get across by car. But as culture is changing that’s not really a lifestyle people are drawn to anymore. We’re trying to promote better growth by providing amenities people can’t get in the suburbs.”
In late February, the city broke ground on the Hampline, a two mile crosstown stretch connecting the city’s two large public parks — Shelby Farms Greenline and Overton Park— and miles of lush, off-road trails. Estimated at $4.5 million, the Hampline will serve as the centerpiece of Memphis’s rebranding efforts. It’s designed with bike-inclusive traffic signals, planted gardens, public art, and an advanced stormwater management system.
Memphis has wide roads so adding protected bike lanes doesn’t require structural modification. The city’s biggest advantage, however, might be the steadfast position of their local government. Despite initial resistance from local businesses (many who later changed their mind), the mayor consistently sided with bicycle advocates, citing public studies that indicate bike lanes are a “first step” towards reinvigorating struggling downtown areas.
“The mayor recognized early in his campaign that these kind of livability issues, quality of life issues, were really important,” says Wagenschutz. “He sees it not just in terms of recreation and health, but also as economic development and getting competitive in the modern economy.”
That’s where the Green Lane Project comes in. Wharton might be especially committed, but public officials are increasingly coming out in favor of bicycling. That doesn’t mean they know what cyclists need. According to Vanderkooy, taking officials on study-trips to Northern Europe proved instrumental in bridging the gap — many returned to their respective cities ready to support infrastructure changes. That was certainly the case for Memphis.
“We were 30 years behind any other city,” says Wagenshutz. “Do we use design methodologies from the 1970s or should we embrace the most innovative and cutting edge stuff going on today? It was asking some of our staff to jump head first into the unknown. That’s what the Green Lane Project was all about, taking people out of their comfort zones.”
In May of 2013, less than a year after Memphis was selected by the Green Lane Project, Wharton pledged to add fifteen miles of protected bike lanes. Last summer, they completed the first mile on Overton Avenue. The application is not fancy — green paint, flexible delineator posts and redesignated on-street parking that serves as a buffer — but it will allow Memphis to add four to five more miles this year. Minimalist infrastructure, according to Vanderkooy, can serve as a “rough draft.” As cities discover what works, they’re replacing flexible posts with raised concrete curbs and other permanent solutions.
“[The first mile of protected bike lane] didn’t take us very long and it didn’t cost us very much money,” says Wagenshutz. “But it’s a project that probably would not have existed if Mayor Wharton hadn’t made that commitment. He probably wouldn’t have made that commitment had the Green Lane Project not been working with our city officials.
Bikes and Cars Don’t Have To Be Enemies
For decades, bikes have been second class citizens of the street. Nearly every feature of our road network — overpasses, multiple lane highways, speed limits, and traffic signals— is exclusively intended for vehicles. It’s no surprise the bike/ped community developed territorial issues.
“Vehicular Cycling” — the conventional wisdom that cyclists and motorists “fare best when [cyclists] act and are treated as drivers of vehicles” — was articulated in 1973, in the book Effective Cycling, by John Forester, a cyclist and engineer. That year also marked the first oil crisis. Gas prices were spiking and more people were taking up cycling.
In response, the Netherlands integrated “segregated cycling facilities” (i.e. protected bike lanes) into their roadways. Forty years later, the country is home to Amsterdam, the world’s top cycling city with nearly forty percent bike modal share — and just ahead of Copenhagen, which is twenty-six percent bike modal share (source: Eurostat).
Portland, Oregon, by comparison, is six percent and New York City is one percent (source: 2009 Census’ American Community Survey).
Infrastructure isn’t the only factor. The Netherlands also tout bike shares and an education system that teaches young people how to ride. Nonetheless, Dutch streets are the gold standard of multi-modal transit and Forester’s theory is under increasingly harsh criticism for promoting the car-centric development and sprawl so many cities are now trying to reverse. Even The League of American Bicyclists — the advocacy organization that adapted Effective Cycling into a curriculum in 1976 — has modified their position.
“If we want any appreciable number of people to ride, they are not going to do it unless they feel safe,” says Andy Clarke, Executive Director of the League. “Protected bike lanes is a very significant, very visible part of the answer.”
Clarke says his organization never had an epiphany. The lanes themselves are convincing. New York City’s 9th Avenue Bicycle Path and Complete Street, constructed in 2007, was the first in the U.S. example to claim his attention.
“You could suddenly relax and not have to be on such close guard,” says Clarke. “You could concentrate on riding and see what was going on around you, even talk to someone riding beside you, which you could never do before. It’s great to have that skill to be able to duke it out with traffic, but you don’t want to do that every time you get on a bike. It’s not really fun, and it’s not really pleasurable and that’s what cycling is all about.”
The League still administers Smart Cycling, their vehicular cycling educational program, which currently has 2,000 certified instructors throughout the United States. The curriculum, however, is evolving to include best practices for riding on protected bike lanes — managing intersections, dealing with two-way bike traffic, and staying vigilant about lane conditions.
“We’re not just teaching people a particular way to ride,” says Clarke. “We’re teaching them how to ride in any given situation. You can’t do everything with just protected bike lanes or vehicular cycling. They are not mutually exclusive approaches.”
Nor are cars and bikes automatically at odds. Months after the Green Lane Project helped implement the protected 15th street bike lane in Washington DC — a project the community initially resisted — The District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DCDOT) ran a qualitative survey. The vast majority of users in every category — cyclists, walkers, drivers, and transit operators — reported higher satisfaction. Drivers had an easier time predicting cyclists and pedestrians no longer worried about bikes on the sidewalk.
“It’s chaos that’s really the enemy,” says Vanderkooy. “Good design — good protected bike lanes — really organize the street because every user has a clear defined space.”
Catching Up With Copenhagen
In late 2013, the UK firm New London Architects completed Portland to Portland, a cross-country study on cycle-forward U.S cities. Successful advocacy, the group concluded, doesn’t fight cars, it works to legitimize bikes.
“It is always going to be hard to succeed with dramatic visions of car-free cities,” says the final report. “but there are U.S. champions of real change who eloquently demonstrate that when the objective becomes healthier, safer, livable cities, cycling is a key part of that vision.”
That’s important to keep in mind as governments adopt progressive approaches and resistance trickles down to the hyper-local level. There are lots of misconceptions about cycling facilities. Some affluent communities fear that making their neighborhood more publicly accessible will decrease property value. Businesses worry less vehicle traffic means fewer customers. Motorists are concerned protected bike lanes will hedge on vehicle lanes and force cars to slow down (this is sometimes preferable on crowded urban streets). Some people still don’t recognize a bicycle as anything more than a sophisticated toy.
Although studies consistently prove protected bike lanes increase real estate values, customer volume and help to improve the overall local economy, new infrastructure projects are regularly voted down by neighbors (Minnehaha Avenue was no exception). School classrooms, drivers programs, billboards, and media outlets can be effective for getting the word out, but public awareness efforts, Portland to Portland points out, should also include community and public meetings.
Funding is another issue. While protected bike lanes aren’t expensive, they certainly aren’t free. Wagenshutz estimates design and implementation can costs $30,000 to $100,000 per linear mile — the cost increases if the road needs to be widened.
To address this, some cities are spearheading public-private partnerships. The oh-so-snazzy Hampline in downtown Memphis, for example, received over $75,000 through local crowdfunding and was the most successful IOBY campaign to date.
Finally, for the protected bike movement to become truly transformative, cities need to extend facilities beyond downtown centers and incorporate affordable bike shares. According to the League of American Bicyclist’s study, Where We Ride the city with the most rapidly growing share of cycle commuters isn’t Portland — it’s actually Detroit. That might be because the majority of urban riders still fall into the lowest income brackets. Furthermore, the League’s report The New Majority, Pedaling Toward Equity indicates the interest — and need —for cycling facilities is growing fastest in minority and immigrant communities.
To help all cities — not just the six selected recipients — The Green Lane Project is currently developing a city to city network where officials can share best practices. They’ve also partnered with Portland State University on an evaluation of Green Lane Project 1.0, which is expected to be the most comprehensive study on cycling facilities to date.
“There’s a huge hunger to learn how to build protected bike lanes — more than we even expected,” says Vanderkooy. “Our challenge right now is how do we continue to support leaders and innovators.”