How American Cities Are Making the Transition to Protected Bike Lanes

Eastern Cesar Chavez Street. Photo: ##

Of all her trips pedaling around during her San Francisco visit, one of Martha Roskowski’s most harrowing was the stretch between the SFMTA building at Market Street and Van Ness Avenue to a venue at Folsom and Second Streets, where she was slated to speak about making cities more bike-friendly. “It was my little moment of, ‘Oh my god I’m late,’ and ‘I’m going to die,'” she said.

Downtown San Francisco is “still a pretty scary place to ride a bike,” said Roskowski. “I mean, if you have local knowledge, and if you’ve got the map, and you know exactly where to cut through, you can navigate this city. But we really need to do better in our cities. We can do better.”

Martha Roskowski. Photo: ## Maus/Bike Portland##

Roskowski is the director of the Bikes Belong Foundation’s Green Lane Project, an effort to facilitate partnerships between six American cities implementing protected bike lanes. The project’s goal, she says, is to give these cities a boost by sharing best planning practices and research on the benefits of protected bike lanes. In short, the idea is to help “good” bicycling cities become “great,” she said.

At a forum last night hosted by the SF Bicycle Coalition, Roskowski shared her thoughts on San Francisco’s progress compared with the five other Green Lane cities: Austin, Memphis, Portland, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Praising the SFMTA’s recently-released Draft Bicycle Strategy, she noted San Francisco’s grand vision, which is hampered by time-consuming planning processes and a lack of commitment to fund bicycling.

“I think of all of our cities, you guys have the potential to really change the course of this city,” said Roskowski. “If you’re willing to stand up and say, ‘Yes we will do it.’ It will take some money — in the grand scheme of money, it is not astronomical amounts. If you look at the Bicycle Strategy, and you look at what the investment would take to get to the Amsterdam/Copenhagen level, it’s a drop in the bucket of the ‘great big spending’ of the city. It’s really a question of priorities, and we the people drive the priorities of our communities.”

That sentiment was echoed by SFMTA board member Joél Ramos at the forum. During his study trip to Copenhagen last year, funded by Bikes Belong, Ramos described the striking sight of an elderly couple bicycling arm-in-arm in a protected bikeway on a major thoroughfare. “We can completely change the paradigm of the cycling experience with these cycle tracks,” he said.

Planners from the six Green Lane cities toured New York City’s best bike lane projects last fall.

But with protected bike lanes in the United States virtually unheard of until the last few years, advocates and transportation planners have had very little homegrown research to convince policymakers and the public of the benefits of protected bike lanes — from safer streets, to improved health, to more vibrant communities.

For SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum, “It’s been a whole different conversation than it was, say, five years ago, when you were trying to compare against something like Amsterdam, and it sounds so dreamy and far away.”

“These designs are so new,” said Roskowski, “we’re just starting to get the data back. And there’s a lot of hunger for the data because a lot of times, these conversations are fairly emotional when you start talking about changing how streets work.”

“You can’t change people’s minds with data if they’re coming from a really emotional place, but it helps shift the conversation sometimes to a different place,” she added. “And it helps decision makers and people who are more data-driven to sort through the emotion and say, okay, well here’s what we’re hearing, but here’s what the research is showing.”

As cities like New York, Chicago, and SF create more bike-friendly streets, the data will also help officials and planners in other cities make the case for the kind of street designs that are still considered “experimental” by engineering bibles like the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. As part of that effort, the Green Lane project is helping to promote the Urban Bikeway Design Guide released in 2011 by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which includes engineering standards for a greater variety of bikeway designs than the old-school manuals.

“It’s just now that we’re seeing the data come from places like New York and such,” said Shahum. “So it’s going to build from here, I think, to be able to say, not only does it look great, and feel great, but it’s working: the numbers are showing the economic growth, the decrease in injuries and collisions, the increase in ridership.”

In “a couple decades,” she added, “we’re going to see true health statistics going up. We’re going to see a healthier population, and we’re going to see a more mobile population.”

  • mike

    Though the most negative comment Martha made about SF is highlighted in the posting above, she had a lot of great information about the progress being made here and showed a stat that SF had built more separated bikeways per square mile in 2012 than any of the other cities, incl NYC, Chicago, and Portland, by a factor of at least 2.

  • voltairesmistress

    Very interesting article.  I hadn’t really thought about how confusing and harrowing navigating San Francisco on a bike can be to a visitor.  We really do need to make things safer and more self-evident.  I had the same experience trying to plan a commuting bike trip through Hayward.  I don’t know that town and could not figure out the best bike routes to take, even with Googlemaps.  Some of the routes chosen looked far too busy and big and fast.  Anyway, I never ended up taking that ride, because the person I was to meet got hit by a car in a Hayward intersection!  She’s fine, btw, but it underlined for me how far we have to go making bicycling and walking safe and self evident here in the Bay Area.

  • Mike Klaas

    Sf has been building protected bike lanes, but only where it doesn’t really matter, like cargo way and GG park. Not sure why they’re doing that when biking downtown is nearly impossible

  • I really liked her presentation. She had lots of good answers to many bicycling issues–you could tell she’s been riding and advocating for bicycling a long time. I think the Green Lane Project’s strategy, to get protected bike lanes going in six specific (yet all highly different) cities and then showcase the impact is a smart one. Also smart to fund trips for local politicians and city traffic engineers to visit the Netherlands and Denmark so they can witness first-hand how different traffic designs do create different mode share results.

  • Justin

    It’s because there was plenty of room in GG Park and Cargo Way to put in the protected lanes, so nobody lost anything. The City could claim it is “bike-friendly”, the bike coalition could “applaud” the City, and drivers could still drive and park wherever they please. 

    Downtown, there is no extra space for token improvements, because it is mostly dedicated to and clogged with private automobiles. Repurposing the space for better uses requires removing traffic lanes and parking spots, which are still required for the average San Franciscan to get around. Most SF households own cars and use them for short trips, which means they expect driving to be a relatively cheap and easy choice, that there will be wide open roads and a parking spot at the other end. As long as the City continues to subsidize that, people will scream and yell if anything is taken away. 

  • I wonder if the experience of cycling in the Eastern Cesar Chavez Street cycle track (pictured above) would change any if the actual cycle track were a foot or two wider by narrowing the width of the buffer. I understand that wide buffers are required to achieve a greater sense of subjective safety and comfort but I think the US hasn’t experimented enough with the effects of wider bikeways. Seldom do we make bikeways wider than 7ft for one direction travel. Would creating 8 or 9ft wide bike lanes and cycle tracks encourage more leisurely, social cycling if riding two abreast were more comfortably accommodating while still allowing faster cyclists to overtake?

    If someone knows of cities in the US that have experimented with bikeway width – either nowadays or back in the 70’s when all guides were made – I’d love to hear about it.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I’d love to see a picture of that facility in wet weather.  You can paint a gutter, but it’s still a gutter.

  • ride it like you stole it

    Protected bike lanes don’t matter on:
    – Fell St
    – Cesar Chavez
    – Division
    – Market
    – Alemany
    – Laguna Honda Boulevard
    – San Jose Ave in the Cut and, yes,
    – JFK Drive, in a park setting?

    And protected lanes are being implemented or designed on Oak St, 2nd St, and Masonic Ave, to name a few. I think those matter.

  • Drops0fmercury

    Most bike lanes are poorly maintained. The cover photo clearly depicts what those lanes look like, and I’d rather ride with the flow of traffic, OUT OF THE GUTTER, in-between lanes… 

    I ride with as much awareness of my surroundings from city to city that I haven’t been hit by a car in the past 6 years that I’ve been riding.

    Painting and sectioning off portions of the rode will only narrow the lanes and make it harder for faster riders to pass through and may as well increase the number of collisions between cyclists. I’m not an asshole that rides 25+ when other pedestrians are around, but  I don’t like approaching other cyclists or pedestrians in the same lane. I avoid them as much as riding with traffic because while I stay in a straight line when I ride and ALWAYS look back before changing any direction, I’ve experienced too many times where others vere to left or right and calling out “coming on your left” even spooks them to the point of turning to the left.

    If SF wants protected green lanes, that’s okay, just so long as it doesn’t prevent me or other cyclists from riding with traffic or pin liability to the riders who choose not to use them which may as well create a huge issue between motorists and cyclists where the motorist may as well say, “Stay in your fucking green lane asshole!”

  • Gregski

    Well stated, Drops. Traffic engineers will tell you that one of the most dangerous circumstances is vehicles travelling at different speeds in close proximity. Room to maneuver, overtake and escape is a danger-reducing feature. Every surface traveler makes choices based on trade-offs between danger and utility, especially the utility of time efficiency. If a side effect of bike-lane restriction is to reduce travel speeds to below 10mph then the utility advantage of cycling, compared to other modes, will be diminished and cycling will be a less attractive option to many.

  •  tru dat. The buffer zone is better pavement. The soft hit posts won’t stop a car from running over you when it really comes down to it. I honestly liked it better before the soft hit posts went up. This is especially true headed Eastbound getting towards Pennsylvania. The soft hit posts prevent you from merging early into the left hand turn lane onto Pennslyvania.

    If the posts were on the outside of the buffer it would be better, and remove them closer to intersections.

  •  When there are so many cyclists in these lanes that it becomes impossible to pass, that will be a very good problem to have. At that point, we can start asking for one entire wide travel lane.

    For now that’s not even a problem on Valencia. It would be a problem on Market except the traffic lights make passing superfluous.



  • Jl

    That’s an AWFUL LOT of empty, wasted, scarce, precious pavement allocaTED to ONE lonely cyclist.


  • Jimgribble

    Please continue to advocate for these protected lanes!



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