How to Make Protected Bike Lanes More Effective

Tim Hibbard is a bike commuter and advocate based in Greenville, SC. The following article is republished from his blog with permission.

The path people actually take vs. the steps that were built. (Image courtesy of Tim Hibbard)

The path people actually take vs. the steps that were built. (Image courtesy of Tim Hibbard)

The city park behind our place has a stream that runs through it. It has embankments on either side and there are a few natural places to cross the stream to get to the other side. One of these crossing places has stepping stones across the stream and it is where most kids get across. The embankment is fairly steep and at some point, steps were added to make it easier to get down and cross the stream. However, the steps don’t lead directly to the stepping stones and are never used. A natural new path down the embankment has been stamped down over time by people taking the more direct route to the stepping stones.

When talking about protected bike lanes, there's a natural debate about where to install them: Should they go where there is already bike traffic, therefore making the route even safer and encouraging more bike traffic? Or should planners ignore established routes because they must be good enough if people are already using them, and instead create new biking corridors and strengthen the entire network?

In my teenage years, we lived in a house in the center of the block. To get to my school, I needed to walk up 1/2 block up the hill to get to the main road that went to my school. My neighborhood didn’t have fences, so I could also cut through my backyard and traverse the side yard between our back neighbors. This shortcut was strictly prohibited by my parents, but…it saved me walking 150 feet (literally – I measured on Google Maps), which takes about 30 seconds.

I took that shortcut every time.

Because it was the shortest distance between two points. That how people operate. People do not like zigging and zagging if there is a more direct route. That is why route calculation algorithms take into consideration the number of turns. That is why the steps down the embankment in the park are pointless. Those steps should be moved to where the people already are.

Photo by Nathan Wilkes

Photo by Nathan Wilkes

Protected bike lanes should go where people are already biking

If people are already biking on a road, they have decided it is a good route. Either it is the shortest distance, or it is pleasant to ride because of the surrounding nature, or the hills are tame, or simply to avoid a specific intersection. They have decided that is the best route for them and their bike ride should be made better for them.

Strava allows cities to purchased data about a region to see where people are biking. The data is exhaustive (and anonymized) and shows exactly how a city is navigated by bicycles. City planners need to use this information to make established routes better for the citizens by adding protected bike lanes.

The big payoff of a protected bike lane is safety.

People that are interested but concerned about biking are going to feel safer in a protected bike lane. Find what is already being used and make it safer. The end result will be more people biking—using one of the most affordable and economically beneficial modes of transit—and that is the ultimate goal.

The Need for Visibility

Another argument for strengthening existing bike infrastructure on well-used bike routes is visibility. One problem in Greenville is that many residents don't view biking as a valid form of transportation. Sure, folks will go on the Swamp Rabbit Trail on the weekend, but bike to work, or to get groceries? No thanks!

One of the main reasons people don’t consider biking in their daily lives is because they don’t see anybody else doing it. And who can blame them? In South Carolina, biking mode share is pitifully low.

Protected bike lanes need to be added to roads that already have bikers on them. The effect will be more bikers and increased visibility. With increased visibility will come increased normalization and acceptance of bikers. And the net result is going to be more people choosing to bike because it seems like a valid option.

In summary, I think the best location for new protected bike lanes is on roads that are already well traveled by bikes. This will make good routes better and more likely to be used, and will have the greatest visibility impact on the citizens of Greenville.

(Top photo source: Paul Krueger)

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