Streetsmart News. Vol. 19, 2019
Evidence and Insight for Better Transportation
6 reasons to build a protected bicycle lane
By: Henry Miller, Streetsmart Intern

Bicycle system planners have more tools than ever when trying to improve a bike network. After decades of cyclists being squeezed between traffic and parked cars with doors that could open at any moment, many cyclists today have access to a wide variety of shared roads, greenways, bike lanes, and trails. One of the tools essential for building a complete bicycle network is the protected bike lane.

A protected bike lane is a bike lane that is separated from automobile traffic by some kind of physical buffer. They are also known as cycle tracks or separated bike lanes, but it is the protection that they offer cyclists that makes them unique.

The types of protecting buffers that have been used across the country range from easy-to-install and affordable street furniture like plastic posts and planters to more permanent infrastructure such as curbs and elevated grading. One of the cheapest and most popular methods for creating a protected bike lane is to separate cyclists from auto traffic with car parking, which is often buffered with a painted no-bike zone to prevent cyclists from colliding with opening car doors. With this many design options, there is no one definitive look for a protected bike lane, but many of the benefits of these lanes are universal.

  1. They create safer streets for cyclists: The primary function of protected bike lanes is to improve safety for cyclists, and a recent study of 12 major cities found protected bike lane facilities resulted in 44% fewer fatalities. The study also revealed that the built environment was a better predictor of safety than rider demographics or the “safety in numbers” theory. Protected bike lanes improve safety mainly by separating bike traffic from auto traffic, but well-designed lanes can also make it easier for cyclists to share lanes with other cyclists. This can be accomplished through wider lanes (7 feet), which make it easier for cyclists to pass one another, and improved signage and road markings, which can reinforce appropriate behavior.
  2. They create safer streets for pedestrians: Protected bike lanes provide an opportunity to not only improve the experience of cyclists, but other road users as well. Protected bike lanes often narrow streets to car traffic with concrete islands, making it so pedestrians have less distance to cover when crossing the street while also slowing down auto traffic. Protected bike lanes are often provided their own traffic lights, which can slow bike traffic down at critical points where pedestrians are required to cross their path. There are some challenges, however: a poorly designed protected bike lane can cut between transit stations and the sidewalk, increasing chances of a collision between a cyclist and a pedestrian. One way to address this is by raising the pedestrian crossing to raise pedestrian visibility and encourage cyclists to slow down.
  3. They create safer intersections for everyone: In 2017, 43% of bicycle fatalities took place at an intersection. Intersections are often dangerous for cyclists because of their exposure to car traffic traveling in multiple directions. Turning cars are especially dangerous, as drivers may not see cyclists coming from behind at a different speed. By narrowing the street and installing concrete islands, a protected bike lane forces drivers to make tighter turns at reduced speeds, improving their line of sight and reducing the chance of collision. Traffic signals just for bikes are another tool popular with protected bike lane designs that improves intersection safety not only for cyclists, but pedestrians and drivers as well.
  4. They bring in business: Local business owners often treat protected bike lanes with skepticism, as they frequently come at the cost of parking for cars. However, studies have shown that while drivers spend more money per trip, cyclists and pedestrians will visit businesses with better bicycle accessibility more often than drivers. Beyond drawing in customers on bikes, protected bike lanes can also improve a street’s appeal and sense of place through the installation of planters and by reducing car traffic, causing visitors to spend more time in and return more frequently to these areas. In one case in New York City, the introduction of a protected bike lane resulted in a 49% increase in sales.
  5. They can bring equity to a bike system: The safety that comes with protected bike lanes means they draw a larger section of the public than traditional bike lanes, including marginalized populations and less experienced riders. One 2015 report cites several cases where bike infrastructure was used to improve neighborhood livability for marginalized communities, including one in Atlanta where protected bike lanes helped reestablish communal links in a historically black neighborhood. However, protected bike lanes are occasionally perceived as tied to the process of gentrification, and bicycle system planners should be proactive in working with a community when determining where to install a protected bike lane.
  6. They can provide opportunities to improve other aspects of the street: Installing a protected bike lane requires more financial investment and construction than a typical bike lane, but it also provides an opportunity to upgrade other pieces of road infrastructure. Flood resilience and drainage have become more pressing challenges in growing cities and many planners have turned to bioswales, rather than large catchments and sewers, to capture water in the ground before it enters the citywide system. In order to get the most bang for their buck, some cities have been including bioswales and other stormwater management infrastructure in protected bike lane and trail designs, using the buffer space to its fullest potential.
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