SPUR Talk: Protected Bike Lanes Must Become the New Normal

A protected intersection in Chicago. Photo: Chicago Department of Transportation (Bike Program)/Brian Almdale
A protected intersection in Chicago. Photo: Chicago Department of Transportation (Bike Program)/Brian Almdale

Urban planners, at least when it comes to bikeway design, are still trying to undo the damage caused by vehicular cyclists in the 1970s and 80s, explained Bill Schultheiss, a traffic engineer who specializes in bike design and a member of the Bicycle Technical Committee and the Pedestrian Task Force of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD), with the Toole Design Group. “There was a fear that cyclists would no longer be able to ride in the streets and would be relegated to sidewalks,” he added. “To this day, that has discouraged protected bike lanes in the [road engineering] guidance.”

Schultheiss, part of a panel on protected bike lanes at SPUR Oakland this afternoon, said it also led to a culture of victim blaming. “When bikes are hit, we don’t want to accept it was bad roadway design,” he said. “So whenever you read in the newspaper about a cyclist getting hit, you always see references to whether they were wearing a helmet, drunk, wearing dark clothes–putting all the onus for safety onto the cyclist.”

He talked about how countries that have the highest bike use, and the best safety records, also have very low helmet use. “Look at behaviors of people, look at moms and families, they’re not riding on streets with children on [paint-only] bike lanes in a high speed environment.”

Countries with high cycling rates also have low rates of fatalities per distance biked. Graph: International Transport Forum via Amsterdamize
Countries with high cycling rates also have low rates of fatalities per distance biked. Graph: International Transport Forum via Amsterdamize

“In America we have very low rates of cycling but an outrageous number of people getting injured and killed,” he said.

He showed a video of himself riding down a street in Seattle in a conventional American bike lane, positioned between parked cars and a lane of traffic stopped at a red light. As he rides along in the bike lane, he passes a truck. But when the light turns green, and the truck starts moving, he ends up approaching the intersection in the truck’s blind spot. “Going through the intersection you shoot through a canyon [of cars and trucks]. I’m suddenly riding next to a dump truck.” He explained that he had to be very wary, keeping a close eye on the truck’s front wheel to make sure it was not going to turn right. Failure to notice if the wheel starts to turn, and failure to react quickly enough, can be the difference between life and death. “It’s very unsettling; for someone who’s new to cycling it’s intimidating.”

SPUR's Arielle Fleisher moderated a panel on bike lane design with Ryan Russo, Mike Sallaberry, and Bill Schultheiss. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
SPUR’s Arielle Fleisher moderated a panel on bike lane design with Ryan Russo, Mike Sallaberry, and Bill Schultheiss. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

It’s intimidating and dangerous. Schultheiss said that roads where people are afraid to cycle usually, albeit not universally, have the highest collision rates. And if we want women and families to ride, as they do in the Netherlands and other nations, we have to improve actual safety–not just perception, he said. “The strong healthy male is not the default bike rider anymore–we have to change who the design user is.”

That, of course, means adapting European-style protected bike lanes and intersections. “We’ve muddied the waters for forty years telling people to ‘take the lane’ and that ‘bikes are vehicles,'” he said. “On streets where the speed limit is more than 30 mph, where there are more than 6,000 cars a day, you have to protect cyclists.”

But just saying protected bike lanes are the answer isn’t all there is to it, he added–and some protected bike lanes are better than others. Fortunately, Dutch traffic engineers and others have decades of experience figuring this out. “There’s lots of research … Generally one-way bike lanes are safer than two-way when they’re protected, although protected bike lanes are always safer than unprotected.”

He’s also not a big fan of Danish-style mixing zones, the kind Bay Area residents are probably familiar with. This is where the protected bike lane ends at the intersection, and bikes are supposed to jostle for position with right-turning cars.

A Danish-style mixing zone in SoMa. Cars are supposed to stop behind the white “shark teeth” yield markings until bicyclists have cleared the intersection–but they don’t. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Cars are supposed to yield to bikes at these intersections, but they don’t.

“The cyclist is in the blind spot,” explained Schultheiss, who was skeptical that mixing zones were ever created with bicycle safety in mind. “This type of bikeway design is [meant] to maintain a higher level of service as a priority. It can work at slow speeds, but the aggressor is going to win. And the aggressor is the motorist.”

The right answer, he said, is to do away with the mixing zone and maintain bike protection clear across the intersection. “You’ve got to change the intersection geometry to slow cars down, because drivers are used to turning fast. By the time the driver reaches the point where they [might] hit a cyclist or pedestrian, their speed should be nearly zero miles per hour.”

A protected intersection in Davis, CA. Photo: Pinterest.
A protected intersection in Davis, CA. Protected intersections change the geometry, get cyclists out of motorist’s blind spot, and force cars to make much slower turns. Photo: Pinterest.

Also presenting on the panel was Mike Sallaberry, Project Manager for SFMTA’s Livable Streets division, who had some real-world prescriptions for getting better infrastructure installed. But first he had a confession. “I started out riding with the mentality of a vehicular cyclist, maybe out of necessity and out of survival in the city.” But as part of Vision Zero and the city’s efforts to make cycling safer in SoMa and elsewhere, the push now is to install protected bike lanes as quickly as possible. He showed photos of 7th and 8th streets, which, until recently, had four high-speed lanes where cyclists had to ride between fast-moving traffic and parked cars. “We put in a large buffered bike lane, but people were just driving down it and parking in it. It just wasn’t working out.” Despite the dangerous conditions, there were still some 250 cyclists per peak hour on each of the streets. Sallaberry showed how all of that changed a few months ago when parking protected bike lanes were installed.

A long stretch of 7th Street's parking protected bike lane is now open for business.
A long stretch of 7th Street’s parking protected bike lane is now open for business.

“7th street now has a seven-foot [parking-protected] lane and a buffer for people getting in and out of their cars. We set it up so the painted buffer could be replaced by a raised curb. Those projects were completed in ten months, but would have normally taken three to five years,” he explained.

There were lots of reasons for this, notably the Mayor’s Executive Directive, which required the unusually fast implementation. But Sallaberry said it also required some innovations that will be applied moving forward. For example, they installed bus-boarding islands differently. “Instead of digging into the base, we said: let’s just pour the concrete on top of the asphalt. So we were able to build islands at one-quarter the cost in one tenth of the time, for about $60,000. It took a weekend to build it.”

He also recommends using a phased approach. He showed, for example, a picture of a temporary hotel loading zone. “We use khaki paint for a hotel drop off,” he said. “That way we can paint it, reassure everyone that we can fix it later, and get the problems worked out before we make it into concrete.” He also said they are altering their approach to outreach–instead of telling neighbors they would like to do a street improvement, they do outreach around safety improvements–which are not up for debate. Instead, the outreach addresses local concerns within the context of making the street safer. He added that this is another advantage of phasing in paint and other temporary measures first. “With an impermanence of design and intermediate design elements, you can use a light touch … with paint you can reassure the public that you can tweak and modify it later.”

By using paint first (seen here on 2nd Street in SF) neighbors can be acclimated and designs tested before (literally) concrete changes go in. Image: SFMTA
By using paint first (seen here on 2nd Street in SF) neighbors can be acclimated and designs tested literally before they are set in concrete. Image: SFMTA

Sallaberry also extolled SFMTA’s first protected intersection at 9th and Division in SoMa and the “Better Market Street” plan, which will ban private automobiles (except taxis) and create protected bike lanes throughout downtown.

Last to speak was Ryan Russo, head of Oakland’s newly formed Department of Transportation, and a veteran of New York City’s DOT. Russo talked about the incredible pace at which New York built infrastructure under the Bloomberg Administration. He recalled how in 2007, the city started with one protected bike lane. “It was a point-eight mile experiment on 9th Avenue; we didn’t ask the fire department,” he mentioned, referencing San Francisco’s delays with protected bike lanes due to fire department objections.

Chart of NY's bike lane improvements. Image: NYDOT
Chart of NY’s bike lane improvements. Image: NYDOT

New York continued to roll out more protected infrastructure in Brooklyn, in Queens, on 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. They’re also continuing to innovate. “We stripe the bike lane through the intersection and do all the things the manuals say you shouldn’t do,” he said, adding that New York is adding yellow flashing signals to remind motorists to yield before turning across bike and pedestrian crossings. Of course, as Streetsblog NYC notes, the 2nd Avenue bike lane, and others in the Big Apple, still have their share of issues.

Although we're very happy to have Ryan Russo in Oakland, New York still has work to do too, as seen here with a frequently blocked 2nd Avenue bike lane. Photo: Macartney Morris
We’re happy to have Ryan Russo in Oakland. But it should be noted that New York is not Utrecht and still has plenty of its own work to do, as seen here with a frequently blocked 2nd Avenue bike lane. Photo: Macartney Morris

Russo is hoping to speed up Oakland’s efforts to install more protected bike lanes. Grand and Harrison, part of the Lakeside Green Streets Project, will be getting a Dutch-style protected intersection. Telegraph’s protected lanes will be extended and improved. Fruitvale Avenue has ongoing improvements too. But one of the issues for Oakland and other cities is that the time frame for projects is so long–up to ten years–that updated design guidelines often overtake what’s currently being planned and installed. That’s what happened with Lake Merritt’s relatively new striped but completely unprotected bike lane, which got a barrier–on the wrong side.

This relatively new bike lane around Lake Merritt has a barrier--on the wrong side thanks to outdated design guidelines. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
This relatively new bike lane around Lake Merritt has a barrier–on the wrong side thanks to outdated design guidelines. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Russo said he is working on change orders to avoid repeating that mistake. Oakland is already showing an ability to become more nimble than it once was about fixing dangerous road conditions.

A diagram of the Harrison-Grand Intersection in Oakland. Image: City of Oakland
A diagram of the Harrison-Grand Intersection in Oakland. Image: City of Oakland

The bottom line, however, is that cities must cast off the notion that bikes should be treated like small automobiles, rather than vulnerable users. That’s why on all but the calmest streets the bike lane should be next to the sidewalk and protected from traffic by a curb or similar barrier. That, of course, also means working with the disabled and making sure the bike space and pedestrian spaces are clearly defined. But if done right, that can make things safer for everyone, since the bike space creates an added buffer between pedestrians and speeding cars. “Pedestrians and cyclists are in the same family,” said Sallaberry.

For more events like these, visit SPUR’s events page.

  • Corvus Corax

    I am daring to allow myself to feel somewhat hopeful.

  • The Davis “Dutch-style” intersection is a failure. Please don’t use it as an example.

  • xplosneer

    Agreed, the Davis intersection was extremely bad.

    The intersection
    1) is extremely wide and not pedestrian friendly
    2) has bike lanes in the street and on the sidewalk
    2a) The bike lanes in the street make it very easy to use them as an extension of the turn lane, increasing the effective turn radius
    2b) They also result in an increased crosswalk distance of course
    3) the bike area on the sidewalk going away from the intersection is not marked out,
    4) the curb cuts onto the sidewalk are too small, too sharp of a turn, are unmarked and hidden by bushes
    5) no bike signal phasing.

    Streetsblog, don’t use it.

  • Dave Campbell

    In defense of the Danes, who may have gotten a bad rap at yesterday’s talk, mixing zones in Copenhagen are a design based on compromise, not the preferred design, which is separation up to the intersection. In fact, because Copenhagen was starting to get this rap, they published a bikeway design guide in 2014, to make clear their preference for separation.

  • Dave Campbell

    Davis’ Dutch intersection is less than ideal not because of the Dutch, but rather because of the Americans– traffic engineers in Davis who ‘americanized’ a fully Dutch intersection design presented to them during planning. Davis engineers did this to move more car traffic, not to adapt Dutch design elements to American context nor Davis’ goals to increase walking and bicycling.

  • Davd, Explos: You got it. (My “-style” referred was a cynical reference to a term the traffic dept actually uses here in Davis to describe it — and there’s never been a full public apology for this nonsense, nor any hint of an intention to fix it.)

  • joechoj

    I love the graphic up top. Three changes, IMO, would make this design ideal:

    1. Dashed green bike lanes through intersections mimicking the white ped crosswalks. After all, this is the conventional marking for bike lanes crossed by auto traffic, and would be a clearer signal to all where bikes belong in the intersection.
    2. Raised crosswalks, reinforcing that pedestrians have ultimate right-of-way, and bikes & cars must slow at intersections. To be clear, pedestrians wouldn’t step down to street level until the end of the bike-protecting curbs. (This would also seriously curb high-speed red-light running, as you’d be killing your suspension to do so.)
    3. The bike lane at top would be curbside, protected by the lane of parked cars.

  • joechoj

    Change of subject: I LOVE the Grand/Harrison mockup – it’s a huge step forward for Oakland. Any idea of implementation date? (And any idea why parking protection can’t be extended on the southbound bike lane past the cathedral?)

  • I agree on all the points except of the bicyclist positioning. There’s a multi-use path through the intersection and since it’s technically a two-way facility, this intersection becomes one too.

  • Dave Erickson

    It is heartening that the prevailing attitude is
    changing away from ‘take the lane’ and ‘bikes are vehicles’, and changing toward
    protected bike lanes, or at least bike lanes of any type. A 200 pound bicycle (combined
    weight of bicycle and rider) going 8 MPH is not the same thing as a 4000 pound car
    going 60 MPH. ‘Take the lane’ barely works for experienced, strong cyclists on slow
    to moderately fast roads, and doesn’t work at all in most other situations, especially
    for children cyclists. The people who are advocating that bicyclists ‘take the
    lane’ are necessarily advocating that 8–year-old Johnny riding his bike to
    school should ‘take the lane’ (even though most of them probably aren’t smart enough
    to realize that is what they are advocatiing). However there are still a lot of
    bicyclists who advocate the ‘take the lane’ philosophy, and are actually opposed
    to bike lanes, but fortunately they are becoming a minority.

  • This would be good to include!

  • xplosneer

    This is true, good catch!

    Though they should have designed the bike lane on that side wider to allow for 2 way traffic as a result, and created a bike signal facing the other way so they know when the right turn lane does not have a green light.

  • Yea, as already noted, the intersection is a massive failure on many fronts. Hopefully, it gets fixed sooner rather than later.

  • In my experience, most of the vehicular cycling advocates that I interact with don’t really feel that it is a viable or teachable skill for little Johnny when he’s eight. They usually want kids to be at least pre-teen before trying to even attempt to teach them and then only if they’re “advanced”. Meanwhile, the average Dutch kid is riding to school without parents at age eight.

  • “That, of course, also means working with the disabled and making sure the bike space and pedestrian spaces are clearly defined.”
    Rereading that bit, I realize this is (of course) about disabled *pedestrians* who may not realize they’re on a bike lane, but for a moment there I thought this was about ensuring people on trikes, handbikes, mobility scooters etc can also use the cycle infrastructure with ease (as well as parents with box bikes, tag-alongs, trailers, etc).
    I hope these cities do both…!!

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    In Dutch cities, many people in mobility scooters use the bike lanes which gives people using them much more freedom of movement then they would otherwise have. Mobility scooters can’t really go very far or fast on sidewalks. Imagine trying to drive a mobility scooter up the narrow 6′ sidewalks on Polk street; you couldn’t get anywhere, nor would most mobility scooter riders want to ride in unprotected bike lanes zigzagging in and around traffic. That’s one of the huge benefits of protected bike lanes is that they can be used by mobility scooters.

  • Nice addition to my comment 🙂 Which reminds me I should’ve included this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSGx3HSjKDo

  • Alan

    Thank you, I always felt that the vehicular cyclists were a bit crazy and I’m glad to see that public opinion is coming down on the side of enabling cyclists of various skill and comfort levels.

  • J

    Just to be clear, Ryan Russo specifically and personally opposed protected intersections in NYC, and said so publicly at conferences. Hopefully he has changed his mind by now, but he’s not known for pushing the envelope on best practice design.

  • HappyHighwayman

    How about just enforcing bike lanes, like now?

  • Blackcatprowliii

    I always thought “protected bike laners” crazy. It will take years to undo the damage done. : )

  • Blackcatprowliii

    The underwhelming proposals by “newurbanists/smartgrowthists/copenhagenists” that endanger everyone, enrich a few, & will, ultimately, not be good for bicyclists or anyone else, will be fiercely fought. Every proposal starts with attacks on existing cyclists, often uses polls & surveys featuring 100% noncyclists to decide what cyclists need, is an excuse not to spend the money correctly, tries to unsafely fit more people on less road, & pushes an agenda based on other people’s customs, topographies & habits, while doing everything possible to stop any alternative being implemented. This safety excuse is bull. It is a cheap way to benefit just a few with no real safety improvement. Injuries & deaths have gone up since these proposals have started being implemented. The view is flawed, the implementation is flawed, & the agenda is corrupt crony capitalism, a blatant connection between activist groups, businesses & governments. It is time for a new decentralized leftlibertarian federalism that is not the present corrupt systems of left & right.


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