Building a Better Bike Lane


This weekend’s Wall Street Journal has an massive, full-page report on bike friendly cities in Europe. Initially the arguments for more biking were mostly about health and congestion, but in the last year concern for the environment has become an important factor compelling people to travel by bicycle:

Flat, compact and temperate, the Netherlands and Denmark have long been havens for bikers. In Amsterdam, 40% of commuters get to work by bike. In Copenhagen, more than a third of workers pedal to their offices. But as concern about global warming intensifies — the European Union is already under emissions caps and tougher restrictions are expected — the two cities are leading a fresh assault on car culture. A major thrust is a host of aggressive new measures designed to shift bike commuting into higher gear, including increased prison time for bike thieves and the construction of new parking facilities that can hold up to 10,000 bikes. 

The new measures in Amsterdam and Copenhagen add to an infrastructure
that has already made biking an integral part of life. People haul
groceries in saddle bags or on handlebars and tote their children in
multiple bike seats. Companies have indoor bike parking, changing rooms
and on-site bikes for employees to take to meetings. Subways have bike
cars and ramps next to the stairs.

The rest of Europe is paying close attention. Officials from London, Munich and Zurich (plus a handful from the U.S.) have visited Amsterdam’s transportation department for advice on developing bicycle-friendly infrastructure and policies.

Officials from some American cities have made pilgrimages to Amsterdam. But in the U.S., bike commuters face more challenges, including strong opposition from some small businesses, car owners and parking-garage owners to any proposals to remove parking, shrink driving lanes or reduce speed limits. Some argue that limiting car usage would hurt business. "We haven’t made the tough decisions yet," says Sam Adams, city commissioner of Portland, Ore., who visited Amsterdam in 2005. There has been some movement. Last month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a proposal to add a congestion charge on cars and increase the number of bicycle paths in the city. It would also require commercial buildings to have indoor parking facilities for bikes.

Photo: Aaron Naparstek

  • ddartley

    “strong opposition . . . to any proposals to remove parking, shrink driving lanes or reduce speed limits.”

    A bike lane in or near the *center* of a wide, NYC-style, one-way avenue would not “remove parking,” nor would it require the City to “reduce speed LIMITS” (although I suggest it would reduce SPEEDS of cars, even without changing the speed limit on the books). It’s a winner, I tell you.

  • ddartley,

    maybe this isn’t the appropriate place, but i’m interested in hearing about your center lane bike lane concept.

    how would this work?

    wouldn’t making a left or right hand turn on a bicycle from the center lane be more difficult?

    wouldn’t motorists have to cross the bike lane to change lanes when moving to the opposite side of the street?

  • ddartley

    Why, Mike, I’m perfectly delighted that you ask. I’ll e-mail you pictures, but in fact you ask two very pithy questions which relate to two essential elements of the design, and I’ll answer you here.

    1. Cyclists at ALL points of intersections would get a green light several seconds before surrounding cars so they could turn or proceed safely before cars begin competing with them.

    (So in fact, it’s not just a simple bike lane redesign, it would require new traffic lights or other controls.)

    2. Yes, motorists would be allowed to cross the lane as needed, but not travel in it. My observations of motorist behavior on Manhattan’s avenues makes me think that’s not as unrealistic as it might sound.

  • Here’s a good case, in case you haven’t seen….wink wink…

  • ddartley

    Physically separated lanes are wonderful, and I’ve watched that film and am extremely impressed; I just worry that in some instances physically separated lanes are not feasible, and worse, that if the city built some physically separated lanes, they wouldn’t be big enough (or would be subjected to some other unforeseen trivialization), and they’d expend all the city’s current political will to give something to cyclists. This is not a knock on the amazing work on physically-separated lanes by Clarence and others that Streetsblog has featured; I just think a center lane is another scenario that deserves some consideration.

  • ddartley

    Mike K.–the contact link on your site’s not working. Some place I can e-mail you pics of the lane? You could get me at david [dot] dartley [at] gmail.

  • steve

    Maybe it’s just the weather. . . but it really seems like there is a lot more biking going on. Took 6 trips in Midtown and uptown today and it seemed like more often than not there were 2 or more bicyclists per block (even putting aside the apparent delivery folk). I don’t remember it being like that last spring. It’s a shame that transpo mode measurement is so infrequent and crude.

  • I noticed that as well, Steve. Sitting outside at Union and 6th in Brooklyn the other evening at about 6pm I was struck by the number of cyclists coming home from work. Seemed far more than I ever remembered.

  • jk

    The 2030 plan puts bike use at 0.5% of all trips. This is based on the 1997 NYMTC household travel survey of 11000 some people. This seems low, but who really knows? Even 15 years ago, TA found 10% of vehicles in the Villages were bikes, Midtown 8%.

    Getting a better handle on bike use is very important if we are to measure changes and figure out what kind of injury and death rates NYC cyclists suffer. Currently it’s hard to have a goal of doubling cycling when we dont know how many people ride. Maybe the best goals would be seasonal corridor goals rather than overall numbers. (For instance, 15% of vehicles on 5th Ave in the Slope) One thing for sure is that the city should be counting cycling trips within neighborhoods, not just to the CBD — which are longer, harder trips.

  • harvey

    jk – i agree – that is a good idea. i’ll pass it on to some DOT contacts. but i think they are already expanding their bike and ped counts from what i understand.

  • ddartley

    I second that as well. A desire to quicken neighborhood errands must be one of the most common motives for city people to buy a bike. Should indeed be thought about by planners and such.

  • separated bike lanes ** next to the curb ** would also not require taking any space from parked or moving cars. this is the design that has been working for many years in germany and the netherlands, and more recently in montreal. feels immeasurably safer than our current (designed-to-aid-vehicular-homicide) model.

  • P


    I’d like to see injury statistics but my understanding is that a bike lane separated from traffic by a row of parked cars helps prevent a type of accident that rarely occurs: the motorist overtaking the cyclist. However, it appears to me that it would greatly worsen the much more common types of accidents at the intersection because the cyclists will be hidden from view by the SUVs.

    I agree that it may feel safer to have a steel buffer between you and traffic but perceptions of safety can be deceiving. (as is brilliantly noted in the Malcom Gladwell piece on SUVs that was posted on a recent thread)

  • Steve

    P’s right on the importance of visibility and turning conflicts but there are ways to deal with it. You can install a raised island in place of the last three to five parking spaces before the intersection, which would resolve the visibility problem. The island could be used for embarking/disembarking taxi/bus passengers (designate the island a taxi stand or bus stop). This would replace the motorist-bicyclist conflicts with new pedestrian-bicyclists ones, but I think those could be managed more easily. In any event the use of the island for taxi and bus passengers might help justify/camoflauge the removal of the parking spaces.

  • ddartley

    a center bike lane would prevent pedestrian conflicts AND car conflicts.

  • P


    If done in conjunction with MuniMetering there may not even be a lost of spaces considering its increased efficiency.

    On a different note: as they roll out MuniMetering, Bloomberg and the DOT should take the opportunity to give every block a loading zone. The # of spaces will be a wash but the LOS on the street should go up as double parking decrease: everyone’s a winner!

  • harvey

    I can’t help thinking that this center bike lane concept is a total bust. May be that reflects its radical difference from all current designs in the standard planning tools, and my lack of familiarity with it. But I can’t see that design working on all but a very few streets, mostly in Manhattan (though ddartley basically admitted that himself). Cars are constantly shifting lanes on those wide one-way avenues, to get around double-parked cars, buses, slow-moving vehicles, etc. And they often need to get from one side of the road to another. Never mind the acrobatics that taxis do when they see someone hailing on the opposite side. Plus, riding in the middle of a busy high-speed avenue doesn’t seem likely to win many converts among those already intimidated by NYC biking.

  • harvey

    Oh, and also, those bikers riding in the center will be more likely to want to move to the side when they have to make a turn, rather than take advantage of this lead green time that ddartley described. Also, what do you do when you have the green light and you want to make a turn? You have to merge with traffic anyway, and the lead green time doesn’t benefit you unless you hit a red light where you want to turn.

  • Not sure I see why it’s so complicated. When you want to make a turn you just stop and wait for the light to change so that you can proceed with crosstown traffic.

    Paris now has a few of these center median bus/bike/taxi lanes and while I didn’t really delve into how they function for bikes, they are far and away the best BRT lanes in the city right now.

  • alan

    I think the center bike lane would work very well, but only if a) traffic is made 2 ways on avenues and b) the left turn is banned on avenues altogether. I think this would also serve to calm traffic, since it would be impossible for motorists to treat the avenues as highways during off-peak traffic hours. Banning the left turn would force drivers to drive around the block, rather than making stupid, high speed turns while shifting over several lanes. It also would serve to keep them from turning into cyclists using the center bike lane.

    Now, there may be a price to pay environmentally, since traffic patterns would become more convoluted without having a left turn (thus burning more fuel). However, I think that making it much more difficult to drive in NYC would help to convince these people to use public transit…

  • alan

    Also, a center lane would DEFINITELY need to be physically separated (perhaps raised) from the street to keep drivers away.

  • harvey

    Aaron – I was assuming the lane was not physically separated, just a striped lane in the middle of the road, which is how ddartley described it I think. If it were physically separated, how would vehicles (or bikes for that matter) get from one side of it to the other?

    Also, if you want to turn you stop at a green light and wait for it to turn red: 1, who’s going to do that? 2, if you do, how will you feel about standing in the middle of a high-speed avenue while 2000-lb vehicles rush past you on both sides, and, possibly, bear down on you from behind? How long do you think it will take for one of these patiently waiting bicyclists standing prone in the center of a moving avenue to get hit at a very high speed?

  • ddartley

    Harvey, sure enough, while out riding yesterday I thought of the very same possible shortcoming you describe above. Probably at the same time you were writing your comment, if you believe in that Jungian stuff.

    Yeah, I don’t know what to say about that. I wish the design was unassailable, but I must admit it could be 1)annoying and 2)possibly scary to stand in a lane between car lanes waiting for the light to turn red AND THEN turn green again.

    I suppose it really is a sort of “bike highway,” not for lots of turning and neighborhood exploring, but to provide a safe place for cyclists to drive THROUGH to a distant destination, like so many cars do in our city. The reason I’m attached to the design is because that’s how I ride–mainly as a commuter. And it is, undoubtably, safer to ride *in a straight line,* and visibly. That’s what this kind of dedicated lane would provide.

    I suppose the solution to the “waiting to turn” problem is a bit chaotic, or, unfortunately, better suited to the courageous: If ALL lanes have a green, and a cyclist in between moving car lanes wants to turn off, they can a)wait, as already discussed, or b)just cut across the one or two car lanes as needed, cautiously. Scenario “b” does not introduce any more chaos to the picture than what currently exists. (Of course, I was aiming higher than that, but maybe “design team streetsblog” will fix it.)

  • ddartley

    Oh, and right, as far as I can imagine, the center lane could NOT be physically separated. I do think that if it were wide, a solid color, and marked, alternatingly, “FIRE AND [bike picture] ONLY” and “NO CARS EXCEPT X-ING,” motorists would generally behave properly. I ought to talk to some fire truck drivers to see what they think…

  • Harvey,

    I’m thinking that to really make this work then you’ve got to convert some of Manhattan’s one-way avenues back into two ways and create center medians that function as bus/bike lanes running right down the middle in each direction.

    I don’t think that this is Dartley’s plan, however. I’m just riffing…

  • alan


    I really think the only way this thing would work is if the center bike lane was at least raised 4 inches from the ground. Otherwise, motorists will monopolize the space to pass other vehicles.

    It doesn’t necessarily need to be walled off with jersey barriers (which may pose to be a problem with fire trucks and ambulances)…

  • ddartley

    Alan-I have faith in the non-physical separation because of the one and only way motorists DON’T abuse current class II lanes–they may park in them, turn in them, etc., but they generally don’t DRIVE in them.

    I wouldn’t want to see a center lane elevated, because that would be dangerous to negotiate for cyclists–hitting a bump straight on is okay, but angling into one, like a cyclist would with an elevated center lane, can cause wipe-outs.

  • Steve

    A 4″ raised pathway in the middle would not last long. DOT repaves by dumping new stuff on top of the old stuff. Only the truck routes get scraped and repaved, because of what the trucks do the roadway. The curbs are completely gone on many city streets that do not allow trucks, such as 5th and Park.

    I could see implementing dartley’s central lane concept on Park Ave. by putting a buffered bike lane in the place of the current left lanes of both the northbound and southbound roadways. Cars could still have what are now the center and right lanes of each roadway, but would be kept out of the left lanes with a row of highly attractive plastic bollards, each of which was mounted at the top with a photo of a Revolutionary War hero or other suitably historical personage. Then you would have a two-way Class I bike lane more or less up the middle of middle of Manhattan to complement the Greenways along the sides. Install similar bollard-protected Class I lanes river-to-river on 125th Street, 72nd Street, 42nd Street and Houston Street (without the median in the middle, of course), and you would have the bulk of an arterial Class I network for Manhattan.

  • Thanks for all of this, it may come in very very useful in a Toronto campaign to push for a long bike lane beside the Bloor/Danforth subway to make a living legacy for a climate/bike activist tooker gomberg. Painting lines on the street is very cheap, but we too have major difficulties with how the lines do and often don’t work,though I won’t defend all cyclists, just biking.

  • Have a look at the situation for cyclists in Kyoto, Japan where I enjoyed 10 glorious years as a cyclist.

    I’m currently living in Christchurch in New Zealand where the restrictive conditions for cyclists
    inspired me to write this description of cycling in Kyoto to bring about an awareness that urban utility cycling is already well established in environments,societies and economies very similar to our own.

    Alan Preston.

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