When I started cycling in 1972, there were fewer bicyclists and cars, and roadway design did not explicitly take cyclists’ needs into account. In fact, many of the first bike lanes were little more than white lines on the road, where the surface of the “lane” was literally unusable.
Due to the energy crisis at the time, interest in cycling began to take off, and John Forrester developed the concept of “vehicular cycling.” According to Wikipedia, he became a cycling advocate after being ticketed in Palo Alto for riding in the street instead of a recently legislated separate bikeway. He contested the ticket and won. “Vehicular cycling” simply means “driving your bicycle as if it were a motor vehicle.” All of the tips I have shared regarding lane positioning, signaling, etc., are consistent with this philosophy and have been proven over time by cyclists on the road the world over.
Around the same time, cycling in Europe also took off, and advocates in Northern Europe – particularly the Netherlands and Denmark – took a different tack: experimenting with cycling tracks that were physically separate from the roadway. The movement started slowly, but over time large infrastructure has been developed.
These competing philosophies have both improved cycling safety, but there was a tremendous difference in outcomes – in the U.S., a core group of strong, confident and competent riders thrived, but the number of trips taken by bike remained stuck at approximately 1 percent of all trips made by any mode of transportation. In Europe, the population of cyclists exploded (in the Netherlands, 57 percent of all city trips are now taken by bike).
The bike lanes that evolved in the United States were designed primarily to reduce the risk of a cyclist being hit by a passing car, but statistics show this is rare. The highest percentage of accidents occurs at intersections, and bike lanes do little to prevent them. I remember thinking in the early 1970s that the only thing worse than everyone driving cars in the streets would be everyone riding a bike, because of the chaos it would create.
Over the past decade and a half or so, the European concept has been introduced in the U.S., often over the strong objections of bicycle advocates. Why would they object? Because of the fear that the installation of separate facilities would be used as a rationale to kick them off the road – just as Forrester experienced. In many places today, those objections have been overcome; cyclists haven’t been kicked off the road, and excellent facilities have been installed (even in unlikely places such as on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and in Oklahoma City).
The number of protected bike lanes in the U.S. doubles every two years, and I have read study after study showing that, if properly engineered, everyone benefits, including local businesses along these routes. Fifty percent of trips in the U.S. are less than 3 miles, and the No. 1 reason people give for not using a bike is that they don’t feel safe. Think of how much happier we would all be if 50 percent of cars could be taken off of our roads without causing bicycling chaos.
We are beginning to see a vast increase in the number of protected bike facilities in and around Los Altos, including green lanes and green “bike boxes” at intersections, as well as physically protected or segregated facilities.
Today, the examples of segregated facilities are mainly specialized applications at dangerous intersections. The one on Castro Street in Mountain View, for example, was created to allow students at Graham Middle School to safely navigate the intersection; the row of parked cars buffers the bike lane from passing traffic. The design is not suitable for long routes, however. The cities of Mountain View, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Redwood City just announced the start of planning for a protected North-South Peninsula Bikeway to replace the interim set of interconnected signed streets.
Road riding that uses appropriate skills and protected bicycle facilities both have their place and serve different categories of needs; the one-size-fits-all solution is a false choice. I’m interested in your thoughts and am willing to write more about specifics of bike-facility design in future columns.