How to Improve Your Town’s Bike Network on a Budget

Spencer Gardner is a Strong Towns member and transportation planner based in Madison, WI. Today he's sharing a guest article with his thoughts on low-cost ways to improve bikeability.

The good news is that there is no shortage of low cost ways to make substantive improvements to your city’s bike network.

Let’s get a couple of things straight:

  1. Our cities have no money
  2. More and more people are becoming interested in bicycling
  3. Our cities don’t do a very good job of accommodating people interested in bicycling

#2 is a great thing. More people bicycling means more people are saving money on transportation costs while simultaneously improving their health and making you and me safer on our bikes too. It’s a win-win-win situation.

#1 and #3 are what a life coach would call opportunities. The good news is that there is no shortage of low cost ways to make substantive improvements to your city’s bike network. The bad news is that we have yet to invent a bike network that builds itself: there is work to be done.

I have found that most cities I work in are eager to improve their bicycling infrastructure. This is universal--small towns, large cities, rural areas, sunbelt boomburbs, rust belt neighborhoods--they all want to make bicycling easier, safer, and more comfortable for citizens and visitors. Despite the interest, real improvements are often stymied by the immutable truth that constraints are fundamentally political in nature, not financial. To make an extreme example, you could turn your entire city into a bicycling paradise overnight with no capital expenditures by simply banning all automobiles.

This is especially important when we remember that bicycle networks are a weak link problem: It only takes one bad intersection to ruin an otherwise excellent route. A bike network is only useful when it provides a continuous, low stress connection to places people want to go. Unfortunately, problem areas also tend to be the most prone to inertia and so represent the greatest challenge for those looking to make a change.

I write all of this to emphasize that despite the relatively low cost, progress on creating a culture of comfortable bicycling for all types of people in your city will not occur without strong advocates. So consider yourself enlisted in the cause. I will now arm you with your most powerful weapon: information. What follows are some ideas for making bicycling safer, more comfortable, and more attainable. Examples can be found in communities of all types. While there are certainly higher-cost solutions to the problem, I’ve intentionally emphasized relatively low-cost strategies.

Photo of a bike boulevard and chicane in Berkeley, CA. (Photo by  Payton Chung )

Photo of a bike boulevard and chicane in Berkeley, CA. (Photo by Payton Chung)

Bicycle Boulevards / Neighborhood Greenways

There are many names for what I’ll call bicycle boulevards. Portland is perhaps most famous for theirs, upon which they have built their venerable bicycle network for about the same cost as building a single mile of urban freeway.

The idea is to make targeted improvements along corridors of continuous residential streets with low vehicle speeds and low volumes of traffic. Since these streets are naturally comfortable for bicycling, attention can be given to the few difficult crossings that impede movement. Traffic calming and other tactics can also be used when necessary to further reduce vehicle traffic.

I call these the BRT of bicycle transportation. They are so tantalizing because they are flexible, but this is also their greatest drawback. Since compromises can easily be made, they often are. As an advocate, a bicycle boulevard is a natural first step to approach your city with. But be prepared to contend with the inevitable tendency to water down improvements when fears about traffic and parking impacts threaten the process.

Protected bike lane in Chicago. (Photo by  Chicago Bicycle Program )

Protected bike lane in Chicago. (Photo by Chicago Bicycle Program)

Protected Bike Lanes / Separated Bike Lanes

At first glance this may be out of place in a discussion about low cost bicycle infrastructure, and there are some examples of beautiful, expensive bicycle facilities. But not all separated lanes have to be built of concrete. In fact, most separated lanes in North America began as paint and flexible plastic bollards, and many have remained that way.

Our northern neighbors in Calgary and Edmonton have deployed low cost separated lanes as a way to accommodate increasing numbers of people on bicycles while allowing for tweaks to the network before committing to more permanent construction.

Separated lanes can take various forms but they all consist of some form of physical separation. Plastic bollards and paint are inexpensive materials and can easily be removed. While the end goal is permanence, the ability to tweak an installation or remove it should it prove unpopular is a major selling point for wary politicians.

Crossing island in Seattle. (Photo by  Toole Design Group )

Crossing island in Seattle. (Photo by Toole Design Group)

Painted Crosswalks and Crossing Islands

It is unfortunate that road segments--the connections between intersections--take up more space on a map than the intersections themselves. As a map creator working in bicycle planning I struggle with this reality every day. The reason this matters is that road segments, as the most visible and geographically extensive element of a bicycle network, are actually far less important for the safety and comfort of bicycling than are intersections.

Solutions for making it easier to cross the road are varied and highly dependent on context. A simple painted crosswalk is a good first step. Some have even resorted to clandestine installations when their city ignores them (but be careful). However, paint is often insufficient for making people feel comfortable on busy streets.

Crossing islands effectively cut the road in half so that it can be crossed in stages. They also create friction for vehicles, causing traffic to naturally slow. Although permanent installations can be more expensive, islands can be temporarily tested with cones or other materials before making a commitment.

River Riders bike share in action (Photo from River Riders Facebook)

River Riders bike share in action (Photo from River Riders Facebook)

Bike Share

When most people picture bike share they think of automated stations on crowded street corners in larger cities. Conventional bike share has certainly had a significant impact on bicycling in larger cities, but it is not the only model. I was blown away last year to hear the story of River Riders, a bike share system in Wisconsin Rapids, WI (population 18,000).

For costs numbering in the mere thousands of dollars, the Wood County Health Department managed to develop a system of free bicycles available at four locations throughout the city. The system has brought together a number of community organizations and raised the profile of bicycling in the community. Importantly, the bikes represent freedom for disadvantaged people who don’t own cars or bicycles and are otherwise unable to travel long distances to work or for personal needs.

Design It Right in the First Place

I suppose this goes without saying, but designing the street right in the first place is the cheapest and easiest way to make sure people on bicycles feel comfortable. Reasonable people will differ on whether that means designing a shared road that enforces slow vehicle speeds and social cues, or providing segregated infrastructure. Regardless, baking good design into the street before it is built is an obvious strategy.

As an advocate, do you know the standards for street design in your community? It’s the nooks and crannies of bureaucracy like these where real impact can be made.


I could develop an entire website that provides information about the variety of tools available for making streets better for people on bicycles and on foot. In fact, other people have already done that. Here’s a good one. As an activist, you will need to educate yourself about the possibilities. The reality is that your municipal staff and politicians may feel just as uninformed about the possibilities as you were before you became an advocate.

(Top photo by Payton Chung)

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Spencer Gardner is a transportation planner based in Madison, WI. He spends his spare time chasing his children, riding bikes, doing hobbyist computer programming, and very occasionally writing about urban issues. You can read his thoughts about transportation at