Ride Boldly!

Bikes, bicycling, and road safety.

Bicycle Facilities, Best Practices & Reluctant Cyclists


Share the Road SignI’ve previously written about the challenge of getting the 60% of would-be cyclists who are “Interested but Concerned” onto bicycles more frequently and as users of bicycles for transport. I’ve also written about the design issues associated with bicycle facilities and challenges of bike lanes.

Following the publication of a (flawed) study about cycletracks, many people are talking about the building of segregated bicycle facilities again. To recap the study, a limited study in Montreal found that cyclists using the city’s cycletracks experienced fewer accidents than those using nearby streets. The flaw in the study is that it fails to account for the “safety in numbers” effect, via which motorists are trained to look for cyclists by there being a greater number of them, or an expectation of where they will be.

The League of American Bicyclists often rewards communities who build special facilities, as it is nearly impossible to achieve a Bicycle Friendly Community status without such facilities. The facilities are rarely evaluated for their adherence to AASHTO design standards, however. This is actually somewhat in conflict with a published League position paper:

Special bicycle facilities have sometimes been viewed as the only way to provide improved access and mobility for bicycle traffic. These facilities have sometimes been developed in the absence of, or as a substitute for (1) programs for the development or improvement of the road network to accommodate bicycle traffic safely, and (2) efforts to educate the public about vehicular cycling.

In many instances, special bicycle facilities have been poorly designed, inadequately maintained or unnecessary. The problems posed by these facilities have been aggravated in many locations by laws which require the use of these facilities, however unsafe, when they are parallel to an existing road.

Since 1981, the bicycle facilities design standards of the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) have been reasonably good, although not by themselves sufficient to guarantee a good facility. Some bicycle facilities built after that date have not met those standards.

It’s pretty hard to dispute that bicycle facilities help encourage the “Interested But Concerned” 60% to bicycle more. Unfortunately, many facilities actively guide those less experienced cyclists into danger. These dangers emerge due to poor intersection design, placement near parking zones, and sidepaths that have them ride counter to dominant traffic flow.

Getting these 60% out via these facilities also has another effect: These riders believe the facilities are where they “belong” as cyclists, and so also take that attitude into their own time in a car. Other motorists — the 32% who will not ride, regardless — also typically believe this. Thus, the facilities feed on themselves.

Some would argue that this is okay, because it gets butts in bikes, and embrace a vision of putting facilities everywhere to deal with the issue that existing facilities don’t go everywhere. On the other hand, it perpetuates poor design and bad practices, and is an expensive alternative to better cyclist and motorist education — the latter of which would reach a higher proportion of road users. Many studies have shown that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles. The perception of many that cyclists should be using lanes and segregated facilities isn’t rooted in science, but in fear. European city models don’t necessarily translate well into the United States for many reasons relating to how urban areas were built (and rebuilt) and underlying cultural issues (as most of Europe has never had the “car culture” of the more sprawling US).

Under most state laws, roads are bicycle facilities. We need to find ways to empower the 60% of reluctant cyclists to feel safe on these facilities, and we need to educate drivers not to be jerks. Additional segregated facilities need to be developed based on context — because, yeah, there are some routes on which they make lots of sense — and not based on a knee-jerk belief that they are “safer” or “better.” Segregating cyclists as a matter of policy doesn’t productively further a goal of having bicycling be considered a transport mode, and not a cute little way to get around for hipsters, hippies and people who just aren’t cool enough to have cars.

Photo by Richard Masoner, via Flickr/Creative Commons

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Author: julie

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005. She is a past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. She has 2 children and 4 bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations.

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