Ask any advocate for bicycling in the United States about important recent advancements in bike infrastructure, and you’re sure to hear about the rise of cycle tracks (also called variously “protected bike lanes” and “separated bike lanes”). From New York to Seattle and many places in between, cycle tracks have achieved notoriety due to their visibility and also for their near-universal success. Seville, Spain, for example, made a major investment in a full network of cycle tracks and saw a massive boom in the number of people riding bikes. Closer to home, U.S. and Canadian cities of all sizes have experienced significant and sustained increases in bike ridership on newly-installed cycle tracks.
Given all the recent fanfare, you might be surprised to know that cycle tracks have a much older history in the United States. That history reveals major fault lines that continue to influence transportation policy and have interesting connections with some of the themes we talk about here at Strong Towns.
A Brief History
Our story begins In the early 1970s, when the United States and other industrialized nations were rocked by severe petroleum shortages. As fuel became scarce and costs skyrocketed, more and more people explored transportation options besides private automotive vehicles. Due at least in part to the circumstances surrounding the oil crisis, bicycling saw something of a renaissance as a serious mode of transportation. As numbers increased, officials at all levels of government moved to provide more adequate facilities.
The pressure for guidance on safety improvements for people on bicycles led the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) — a partnership of state transportation agencies that develops roadway standards and has enormous influence over transportation policy — to give serious consideration to bicycle facilities for the first time in their history. By 1974, AASHTO had developed the first edition of the AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities (Bike Guide), which brings us to their first statement on cycle tracks. It may surprise many of you to learn that AASHTO—and, by extension, federal, state, and local transportation officials across the United States—gave their stamp of approval to cycle tracks and so-called "protected intersection designs" in the very first edition of the Bike Guide.
It doesn’t require unusual powers of observation to note that cycle tracks didn’t catch on in the United States in the wake of the 1974 Bike Guide. There’s no single explanation for this, but one powerful influence was undoubtedly the rise of an ideology commonly called "vehicular cycling". Based on principles set forth by a California man named John Forester, vehicular cycling was a movement that mounted fierce opposition to cycle tracks and virtually any other form of bicycle-specific infrastructure. There’s a lot of history that we can’t cover here, but I’ll try to be fair in summarizing the essence of the vehicular cycling movement:
Building bicycle facilities as part of the roadway effectively redefines bicyclists as obstacles to be removed from motor vehicle traffic. (Of note, some jurisdictions had laws on the books forcing bicyclists to use bicycle facilities if they existed.)
Dedicated bicycle facilities are unsafe.
Dedicated facilities, especially those designed to accommodate children or inexperienced bicyclists, create a public perception that bicycles are not a serious form of transportation. Furthermore, their design often hinders travel for more experienced bicyclists who prefer faster speeds.
Mr. Forester was a tireless champion of these ideals. He and other like-minded advocates used their positions within advocacy organizations (as well as within local, state, and federal institutions) to undermine the guidelines of the 1974 Bike Guide. They found a receptive audience among traffic engineers and officials, many of whom were wary of expending resources to build high quality bike infrastructure.
So when AASHTO published an updated Bike Guide in 1981 it looked very different from the 1974 document. Not only were cycle tracks dropped as a recommended facility, but they had actually been prohibited!
There have been (and continue to be) bitter disagreements between vehicular cyclists and other bike advocates over dedicated bike facilities, especially cycle tracks. Improved safety research and a slew of highly successful cycle track installations around the country have done much to turn the tide in favor of dedicated facilities.
For our purposes, it doesn’t actually matter whether the claims made by vehicular cyclists are true. What interests me is what these differing opinions reveal about the overall state of confusion around public rights of way.
In a certain sense, vehicular cyclists have a point. The idea of streets as the sole province of motor vehicles is relatively new to human experience. Prior to the rise of the automobile, streets functioned more like public parks than the noxious, dangerous places they are today. It would have been shocking to suggest to your great-great-grandparents that streets were the sole province of the almighty automobile. In that sense, cycle tracks and other bicycle-specific facilities are a capitulation to the idea that streets are for cars except in isolated locations where other users are granted explicit access.
On the other hand, the presence of motor vehicles represents a clear hazard to the health and safety of other road users not likewise enclosed in the giant metal boxes we call cars. If the purpose of a road is to facilitate movement, there’s a certain logic to dividing road users into like groups and treating them differently.
As with so many issues our cities face, the opposing sides appear to be fighting over the answers to the wrong question. If we start from the premise that the purpose of the public right of way is to provide fast, unimpeded movement through a neighborhood or city while also unlocking development potential on the land around it — the way we think of it under our the Growth Ponzi scheme mentality — the dispute makes sense. However, if we reframe our thinking to focus on city streets as platforms for building wealth we can have an entirely different conversation.
A Strong Town might use cycle tracks as part of a safe and connected bike network, but it will have first carefully considered how to employ public right of way in a way that adds value to the land around it. In other words, a Strong Town would ask: is this a street or a road? It is our inability to adequately define the core purpose of the public right of way that has led to the disastrous state of bicycling in the United States today.
In light of this, I propose the following heuristics:
Cycle tracks are an appropriate (and even encouraged) accommodation for people on bicycles in a road environment.
Dedicated bicycle facilities are generally inappropriate on a street.
Roads exist to connect one productive place to another at high speed and with unimpeded flow. In this context, separation eliminates safety conflicts from mixing incompatible road uses and maintains the free flow of all people through the corridor. If you’re connecting people on bikes from one place to another, a separate facility such as a cycle track along a high speed road is a reasonable option.
In contrast, streets are valuable for the wealth they generate on the land around them — wealth that is degraded by the presence of lots of cars moving at high speeds. A street done right is, by nature, slow and safe. This is because people outside of cars — the indicator species of a successful place — are not comfortable around fast moving vehicles. The way to make people on bikes feel comfortable on a street is to make it more street-like by slowing cars down and making the space more inviting for people not driving. Separation on a street broadcasts the wrong message about the purpose of that space.
It is possible that some of our cities may have built high quality, connected networks of cycle tracks had AASHTO kept them as a viable option after the 1974 Bike Guide. I find it equally plausible that our loftier visions for comprehensive separated bike networks would have dissipated regardless. No amount of physical separation from cars can overcome the vast distances many Americans must travel to reach even basic daily needs. The implicit and explicit subsidies for “free” parking are sufficient to ensure driving is the default option in most places, and green paint and bollards were never a match for the inexorable decline of neighborhoods on the wrong side of the suburban Ponzi scheme.
Our collective failure to make the bicycle a viable transportation option for most Americans says more about our confused approach to city management than it does about a movement to rid the world of bike lanes. A city that wants to be great for bicycling must first do some soul searching about the nature of its public ways. And then, most likely, they'll need to #slowthecars.
* I’d like to thank Bill Schultheiss, Rebecca Sanders, and Jennifer Toole, three of my colleagues whose recent paper, presented at this month’s Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, provided much of the historical background for this article. You can read a version of the paper here. (See session titled: “A Historical Perspective on the AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities and the Impact of the Vehicular Cycling Movement”.)
(Top photo source: Paul Krueger)