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How cities can get drivers biking

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(Read caption) A cyclist pedals along the Kinzie Protected Bike Lane in Chicago last year. Protected bike paths separate bicyclists from car traffic by posts or other dividers. They make biking safer, ease congestion, and provide a host of other benefits to cities.

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You can glimpse the future right now in forward-looking American cities – a few blocks here, a mile there, where people riding bicycles are protected from rushing cars and trucks.

Chicago’s Kinzie Street, just north of downtown, offers a good picture of this transportation transformation. New bike lanes are marked with bright green paint and separated from motor traffic by a series of plastic posts. This means bicyclists glide through the busy area in the safety of their own space on the road. Pedestrians are thankful that bikes no longer seek refuge on the sidewalks, and many drivers appreciate the clear, orderly delineation about where bikes and cars belong.  

“Most of all this is a safety project,” notes Chicago’s Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein. “We saw bikes go up from a 22 percent share of traffic to 52 percent of traffic on the street with only a negligible change in motorists’ time, but a drop in their speeds. That makes everyone safer.”

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Klein heralds this new style of bike lane as one way to improve urban mobility in an era of budget shortfalls. “They’re dirt cheap to build compared to road projects.”

“The Kinzie project was discombobulating to the public when it first went in,” notes Alderman Margaret Laurino, chair of the city council’s Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Committee. “Business owners had questions. But now people understand it and we’re ready to do more.”

“Protected bike lanes are not just for diehard bicyclists – they offer a level of safety and confidence for less experienced riders,” adds Rey Colón, a Chicago alderman who first saw how well these innovations work on a trip to Seville, Spain.

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel campaigned on the promise of building 100 miles of these “green lanes” over the next four years to heighten the city’s appeal to new businesses. After the protected bike lane opened on Kinzie Street last year, more were installed on Jackson Boulevard and 18th Street on the city’s Near West Side. Thirteen more miles are planned this summer throughout the city. (The Chicago suburb of Evanston just announced plans to install protected bike lanes on one of its busy streets.)

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People on bikes everywhere feel more safe and comfortable on busy streets with a physical barrier between them and motor vehicles. In some places it’s a plastic post or line of parked cars. In others it’s a curb, planter, or slightly elevated bike lanes. But no matter what separates people on bikes from people in cars, the results are hefty increases in the number and variety of people bicycling.

“We’ve seen biking almost triple on parts of 15th Street NW since installing a protected bike lane last year,” reports Jim Sebastian, Active Transportation Project Manager for the District of Columbia. “And we’re seeing different kinds of cyclists beyond the Lycra crowd. People in business suits, high heels, families out for a ride, more younger and older people.”

This particular bike lane – one of more than 50 protected bikeways built recently in at least 20 cities from New York to Minneapolis to Long Beach, Calif. – is richly symbolic for Americans. It follows 15th Sreet NW to the White House.

“This is what cities of the future are doing to attract businesses and young people,” notes Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “People don’t want to drive all the time; they want a choice.”

The Green Lane Project, an initiative to showcase these next-generation transportation improvements, was launched on May 31 in six US cities: Chicago, Washington, D.C., Memphis, Austin, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore. The effort is coordinated by the Bikes Belong Foundation. Advisers to the project include New York City Department of Transportation (which has already pioneered five miles of protected lanes on six streets), the National Association of City Transportation Officials, and the League of American Bicyclists. Major funders include Volkswagen of America, SRAM, Interbike, the Taiwan Bicycle Exporters Association, and the Bikes Belong Coalition.

The name “green lane” was chosen not only to draw attention to the typical color of protected bike lanes but also to highlight their potential in improving the urban environment and saving on transportation costs. “Green lanes are not just a color on the street. They are paths to better cities,” the project’s website explains, adding that more people on bikes eases congestion and boosts residents’ health, sense of community, and economic opportunities.

The project will connect elected officials, city planners, traffic engineers, bike advocates, and citizens in these six cities to share experiences, trade data, and swap ideas, says Project Director Martha Roskowski. Until this year she ran GO Boulder, the alternative transportation effort at the city of Boulder, Colo., which built its first protected bike lane in the early 1990s.

“For cities, green lanes are like finding a whole new drawer of tools in your toolbox,” Roskowski notes. “Our mission is to expand the knowledge on how to use these tools. How to get them on the ground. How to fine tune them. How to make them work best.”

Five years ago, these designs were barely on the horizon in the US although they’ve been standard in Europe for decades. “Today, cities across the country are looking to green lanes to tame busy streets and connect missing links in the bicycling network,” she says. She points to the 2011 publication of a design guide by the National Association of City Transportation Officials as a key factor creating momentum for green lanes. “The guide shows cities how to combine existing, approved design elements in new ways to create these spaces,” says Roskowski.

"The idea is to create the kind of bike networks that will attract the 60 percent of all Americans who say they would bike more if they felt safer,” says Randy Neufeld, a longtime bike advocate in Chicago who as Director of the SRAM Cycling Fund helped start the Green Lane Project. “It’s about helping people from 8 to 80 to feel safe biking on city streets.”

The six Green Lane Project cities will receive technical assistance and support, backed by targeted grants to help carry out their plans. Other cities around the country will soon be able to tap into a comprehensive resource center of data, documentation, and best practices compiled by the project.

Protected bike lanes are often accompanied by other safety improvements – paint that marks bicyclists’ path through intersections; designated spaces at stoplights that give two-wheel traffic a slight head start; and traffic signals dedicated to people on bikes. All these measures reduce car/bike collisions by making people on bikes more visible and clearly assigning priority at intersections. In addition, many cities around the country are also building buffered bike lanes, where wide patches of paint rather than physical barriers separate bicyclists from cars and trucks. 

The proliferation of new bike-sharing systems – where people can conveniently rent bikes at on-street stations with a credit card and return them to another station near their destination – creates new demand for green lanes by getting more riders on the streets. Bike share is now running full bore in Washington, Denver, Boston, Minneapolis, Chattanooga, and Miami Beach – and coming soon to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities. Roskowski notes that the recent rise of bike sharing and protected bike lanes are linked. “Bikeshare puts new people on bikes who want safer, more comfortable place to ride.”

The United States has witnessed a boom in bicycling over the past 15 years, proving that bikes aren’t just for kids and recreational riders anymore. They are an essential component of 21st-century transportation systems that can cut congestion on crowded streets, save money in transportation budgets, improve traffic safety, and reduce pollution.

The number of Americans commuting to work by bike has climbed 43 percent since 2000, according to census figures. And numbers are even higher in places making their streets more accommodating for bicyclists. New York City, Boston, Seattle, and Minneapolis-St. Paul have all doubled the number of people on bikes over the past five years. In Portland, Oregon, 6 percent of all commuters travel to work by bike – an achievement matched by smaller cities such as Gainesville, Fla.; Madison, Wis.; and Cambridge, Mass. – and surpassed in Boulder, Colo. (10 percent) and Davis, Calif. (22 percent).

Yet overall, America still lags behind many Western nations in embracing bikes as a form of transportation. Only 1 percent of all trips nationally are made by people on bicycles today (up from 0.43 percent a few years ago). There are many explanations – some practical, some philosophical– for why most Americans bike infrequently. 

The sprawling layout of many cities and suburbs is one obvious cause. The decline of physical activity among many Americans, even kids, is a likely contributing factor. Some observers point to automobiles’ long reign as a status symbol. Others suggest that many Americans view bicycling as a white, upper-middle class hobby, not as a form of transportation for average families. However, a recent study found that 21 percent of all bike trips in the US are made by people of color.

Many cities are paying particular attention to make sure that low-income and minority communities – where many families don’t own cars and others are financially strapped by the rising costs of operating one – have access to state-of-the-art biking facilities. With a 63 percent African-American population, Memphis was selected as one of the six Green Lane cities in part because of Mayor AC Wharton Jr.’s strong support for biking as essential – not a frill – for a city with one of the highest diabetes rates in the country and where 15 percent of households have no access to a car.    

Danny Solis – a Latino alderman representing a district on Chicago’s West Side with a high percentage of Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans – says good bike lanes are important to improving public safety and economic vitality in lower-income communities: “It increases interaction between neighbors, which is a boost for businesses and keeps the gangbangers away.” 

Encouraging more people to ride bikes offers substantial rewards for all Americans, whether they ride a bike or not, by using streets more efficiently to move people and offering an economical choices in transportation as well as addressing looming problems such as the obesity epidemic and volatile fuel prices. And it gets even better from there – the more people ride, the more benefits we’ll all see.

Of course, any proposal to reconfigure the streets – even in modest ways – can stir opposition. It’s true that in some cases, carving out space for people on bikes means reducing parking spaces or travel lanes for cars. In other designs, parking and travel lanes stay the same as existing bike lanes are upgraded with the addition of bollards, or parking is rearranged so that bike lanes run adjacent to the curb,.

A follow-up study tracking the 15th Street Green Lanes in Washington found that 78 percent of people living nearby view the project as a neighborhood amenity. And in New York City, protected bike lanes sparked a heated debate in recent years when politically well-connected figures lobbied to rip them out. But a slew of opinion polls showed that most city residents approved of the changes, even if they themselves did not ride bikes, and the lanes stayed.

Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak acknowledges a “bikelash” is possible when Green Lanes are first introduced in a community, but notes that in this era of shrinking municipal budgets, “We need to get more use from all the streets we already have. It really is the idea that bikes belong.”

It’s not Utopian to think that the United States could become a world leader in bicycling. Americans are an enterprising people, who are capable of almost anything when we apply our ingenuity and technical expertise toward a goal. Who says we can’t match Germany (where 10 percent of all trips are made by bike), Denmark (18 percent), or even the Netherlands (27 percent), all of which are wealthy nations like us where most people own cars.

Protected bike lanes, commonplace throughout Europe and Asia, are a big part of how we accomplish this. Making people feel safer on the streets was how the Netherlands’ engineered a 100 percent increase in bicycling since the 1970s, as well as Germany’s even more dramatic rise from 2 to 10 percent of all trips over the past 15 years. Even a city like Seville, Spain, where almost no one biked a few years ago now boasts a 6-7 percent bike mode share thanks to a network of protected bike lanes built since 2007.  

In the United States, we tend to view bicyclists as a unique breed willing to brave city traffic. Bicyclists in Europe are considered no different than anyone else. In the Netherlands, for example, 55 percent of all riders are women, compared to about 25 percent here. Dutch bicyclists over 55 ride at comparable rates to the rest of the population, which is far different than here. And 55 percent of school-age children in the Netherlands ride to school on a regular basis. In the US only 16 percent of kids either bike or walk regularly, down from 42 percent in 1969.

The ultimate goal of the Green Lane Project is to make bicycling feel as normal to Americans as shopping for groceries or walking the dog.

• Jay Walljasper, a YES! Magazine contributing editor and author of "The Great Neighborhood Book" and "All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons," chronicles urban life for a variety of publications. His website: www.JayWalljasper.com.

This article originally appeared in YES! Magazine.

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