By Gabe Klein
Mobility is the word on everyone’s lips these days. I was in a number of large cities in the last month and have noticed that my conversations with local business leaders keep shifting towards discussions about the quality of and need for bike and pedestrian infrastructure. 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have expected CEOs to address these topics — they were strictly the purview of smallish, urban bike advocacy groups and of progressive leaders in cities like Portland and San Francisco. But now, even the corporate world can’t ignore the serious returns on investment that these upgrades can generate — both in terms of human health and in terms of capital.
But the topic of bike and pedestrian infrastructure didn’t enter the zeitgeist by accident. This past spring, cities across the country — Atlanta included — woke up to a new reality as hundreds of shared electric scooters seemingly blinked into existence on sidewalks, medians, and empty lots. The urban mobility landscape was transformed overnight.
As someone who’s been heavily engaged in this space for over two decades, it’s gratifying to finally see both companies and cities working to set the bar higher for alternative modes of urban transportation. But the newfound excitement around electric scooters and the infrastructure to accommodate them has also engendered a fair share of tension and friction. Cities are resistant to the “chaos” that seems to be accompanying the launch of shared scooter and bike systems. Some see the scooters in particular as a new danger to pedestrians, or as another unwanted intervention in our lives by Big Tech. But the truth is that these scooters are one piece of the puzzle in putting our society on a new, more sustainable trajectory.
Climate change is real, and it’s happening. This recognition must be accompanied by a sense of urgency in getting people out of cars and onto bikes, trains, buses, and everything in between. But cities have a legitimate mandate to reduce chaos and keep citizens safe as well.
What To Do?
The threat of climate change means that anything below a sense of urgency in getting people out of cars is insufficient. We must take a radical, all-of-the-above approach to restructuring our lives and how we move — and this requires us to engage with any new form of mobility that could bring us closer to the goal of sustainability. However, some find this difficult to square with the fact that city governments have been designed to reduce danger and unpredictability in our urban environments. But the choice we face here is not an exclusive one — we do not need to slow down the adoption of new technologies. We need to speed up our ability to integrate them.
When I was running the Department of Transportation in Washington D.C., and then in Chicago, my constant obsession was safety. We made huge strides in separated, or “protected” bike infrastructure to match the growth of our large, cutting-edge bikeshare systems, Divvy and Capital Bikeshare which launched during my tenure. Near the end of my time in government, I started noticing something unexpected — people were jogging, doing Segway tours, and riding electric skateboards, all in the protected bike lanes. It had, in effect, been democratized — and everyone benefitted. The creation of these safe, slower lanes, where everyone from a rollerblader to a mom and child on a tandem bike felt safe moving, was one of the most important changes I achieved in both cities.
Now, with the exponential growth of electric and shared mobility options, it is becoming clear that there is yet another contender for space in the geography between the street and the sidewalk. And things are, perhaps, starting to get a little crowded.
On a quantitative level, it is a difficult question to answer: between people-filled sidewalks that rightly prioritize humans moving at about 3 or 4 mph and the 2-ton vehicles that barrel down the urban roadway at 25–40 mph, where does the 30 lb vehicle that moves at 10–15 mph fit?
Enter: the “slow” lane
Don’t get me wrong — no one likes a good bike lane better than me, and I ride in one — often with my kids — for safety every chance I get (plus, there is the added benefit of whizzing past cars sitting in traffic). But here in America, our bike lanes are not usually the fully grade-separated, expansive ones found in places like Amsterdam or Copenhagen. While we have spent the last decade retrofitting our cities to be safer for cyclists, we only occasionally implement protected bike lanes. More often, we are left with standard bike lanes that offer physical space but minimal protection, or the “sharrow” that sends a message but offers no real safety at all.
This raises the question: what is the biggest factor in unsafe road conditions? Is it the varied speeds at which different vehicles move? Or is it the differences in size and weight? Knowing this is important in designing the solution to the safety problem.
On local roads, in our neighborhoods and smaller towns, I believe the focus needs to be on promoting shared use by all vehicle types at very reduced speeds. Bike lanes only really become a necessity on larger, arterial-type streets, where separation is needed because of the huge differences in speed. In fact, this recognition has led many cities to lower local speed limits because the findings are so simple: speed kills.
Led by millennials moving to city centers and their baby boomer parents choosing city life as a convenient way to age-in-place, cities are reurbanizing at a rapid clip. As millennials have families and start to raise children, they should not be forced to make the choice of moving to the suburbs for want of a safe street.
The Slow Lane?
So what is a “slow lane” — and why should we embrace a new option? Because if you are an urban resident, your life will be safer with them, and you just don’t know it yet! Modes are changing faster than at any time since the introduction of the Model T (remember OFO?). This means we need streets that are flexible and can support micro and electric mobility, no matter what new device launches next week or the week after.
Imagine your typical four-lane, city-controlled street. Two travel lanes in each direction, a lane of parking on each side, and no bike lane in sight. Planners often look at these streets as being prime for a “road diet” with a reversible lane inserted in the middle and two travel lanes removed. In a slow lane, or mobility lane, or whatever name we come up with, we take the travel lane adjacent to the parking lane and slim it down to 8–9 feet (vs. its current 10–14 feet). The middle lanes, on either side of the double yellow stripe, remain at standard width. In addition to slimming the outside travel lane, the addition of thermoplastic markings communicates that this is a “slow lane” with a 15 mph speed limit that prioritizes non-cars.
This does not obviate the need for protected, and ideally, grade separated infrastructure for bikes and micromobility; instead, this is a more immediate bridge, a retrofit now, and when we rebuild the street (every 15–30 years…) we should build the gold standard in infrastructure as they do in the Netherlands.
Check out this before-and-after example of 14th Street NW, in my hometown of Washington D.C., with a slow lane modeled.
Reprioritizing cars on our streets is another big part of the rethink we need. I believe that cars should be allowed in these slow lanes as this is key to fast adoption — but they should be given the lowest priority. This is a model that works — just check out the “Fietstraat” in the Netherlands. It keeps everyone safe, as the most dangerous thing on a sidewalk is now a pedestrian staring at their phone. Too often, we prioritize speed, when the real metric we should be focusing on is the safe throughput of people in a city. Getting this right will mean a more viable business for bike and scooter companies, and a boost in our fight against climate change.
While this is the beginning of a conversation, there is no reason cities can’t start installing slow lanes now on locally controlled streets — and quickly. The simple requirements of paint and thermoplastic markings are already in use in every city. It’s time to accelerate how we rethink our streets, because climate change doesn’t have a speed limit.