Atlantic Cities
Urban Wonk

The Evolution of the Bike Lane

The Evolution of the Bike Lane
Flickr/Elvert Barnes

Cities in the U.S., including Washington, D.C., where I live, are making significant investments in bicycling infrastructure. Two categories that have appeared just in the last decade, for example, are bicycle sharing and urban bike stations where cyclists can store bikes and get repairs. Bike lanes, or painted stripes marking bicycle travel space on roadways, have been around longer, but some of the new ones are much more sophisticated than what we had ten or twenty years ago.

In particular, one new generation of bike lanes is called “cycle tracks,” comprising bike lanes that are on the roadway but physically separated from motor vehicle traffic. We have one on 15th Street NW right in front of my office (see photos, taken a few blocks north). It is immensely popular as a bike commuting route.  Advanced cycle tracks even have their own traffic signals. The D.C.-based advocacy blog WashCycle says that cycle tracks “increase ridership by 18-20 percent compared to 5-7 percent for [conventional, non-separated] bike lanes.”

15th and P Streets, NW, Washington, D.C. Image courtesy Flickr user Elvert Barnes

I used the cycle tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street two weeks ago on my rain-soaked trek home from Climate Ride and was glad to have them. If I were a bike commuter, I would use them frequently.

There is a legitimate debate among cyclists about the efficacy of separated bike lanes compared to full recognition and respect of bicycles as vehicles entitled to use the same roadways as motor vehicles. I’ll confess to a bit of personal ambivalence about it all, especially outside of dense downtown areas. What we tend to call “bike trails,” for example, are actually multiple-use trails where an experienced cyclist must share space with pedestrians, dog walkers, baby strollers with nannies on cell phones, small children on their first, zigzag bike rides, and the like. I generally find cars more predictable and roadways safer for the pace I like to ride. Especially when cars are likely to be turning, I’d rather be in the main roadway where I am more visible. 

For an interesting back-and-forth on this set of issues, see the comments on this blog post. I think both sides have a point. For myself, many of my complaints about bike facilities are reduced significantly when it is clear that they are bike-only spaces and used mainly by adults. I think cycle tracks and lanes may be more useful than not in heavily congested areas with good traffic signals.

There’s a terrific summary of D.C.’s experience with new bike facilities here, and this short video from Portland makes a great case for the new generation of bike tracks and lanes:

For a more serious sort of cycle track, perhaps the world's most famous, see this photo of Fabian Cancellara.

Top image courtesy Flickr user Elvert Barnes

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

Kaid Benfield is special counsel for urban solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Law, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and author of several books on cities, smart growth and sprawl. All posts »

Join the Discussion