Physically protected bikeways have been implemented with great success in cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC. But in California, where such facilities are still considered “experimental” by Caltrans, outdated state standards make it difficult for transportation planners to implement them.
That could change under a state bill called AB 819, which would give California cities more flexibility to implement bikeway designs that are fast becoming the best practices in leading American cities.
“The goal of AB 819 is to free up communities to implement the kind of innovative facilities we’re seeing in use in other parts of the country and in Europe,” said Jim Brown, communications director for the California Bicycle Coalition.
Under current state law, facilities like protected bike lanes and bike boxes — which are not established within Caltrans guidelines — must go through an expensive and time-consuming approval process. Although some have been built in cities like San Francisco and Long Beach, they haven’t come easily.
“Cities can get permission to experiment through Caltrans, but it’s a really long decision process,” said Brown. Using “experimental” designs also leaves planners subject to greater legal liability. “It means that cities are less willing to install facilities that might actually increase bicycle ridership.”
AB 819 would allow planners to use guidelines that have already been developed outside the state, like the Urban Bikeway Design Guide, released last spring by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and approved by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, to help them plan and fund those projects.
But the bill’s reach could be limited by an amendment proposed by the California Association of Bicycle Organizations (CABO), a smaller coalition which argues that using outside guidelines for bikeways could be problematic. Their alternative proposal, which will be considered at a State Assembly Transportation Committee hearing on Monday, would only allow new types of bike facilities to be established under an experimentation process within Caltrans.
“If you want to provide separate facilities for beginning cyclists, or for people who don’t want to ride in traffic, fine,” said CABO President Jim Baross. “Let’s do it right through an experimentation process and a design criteria that comes up that’s safe and actually works.”
A reliance on outside standards, Baross argued, could lead planners to build facilities that are inconsistent and don’t necessarily translate from other states. As an example, he pointed out that drivers in Oregon are taught to yield to bicycle riders passing on the right when making a right turn, whereas California drivers are instructed to merge into the bike lane. That, he said, could create problems within bikeway designs imported from Portland.
But Brown argued that city planners would still ultimately be responsible for the designs they choose, and repeating the work done by transportation planners in cities like New York would be superfluous.
Protected bike lanes have been proven to improve safety for all street users, and they’ve been credited with significant gains in bicycling rates, as more people become comfortable cycling on the street. Roughly twenty miles of on-street protected bike lanes have been implemented in New York in recent years. Traffic injuries have fallen by as much as 35 percent on some routes, and bike counts have soared since the city started using the new designs.
“They have thousands and thousands of people using these facilities every day,” said Brown. “Do we really think that we need to second-guess the judgment of the New York City Department of Transportation?”