By Dom Nozzi, AICP
Are bike lanes always a good idea? In all parts of a city? Even in a town center?
Sometimes, yes. In striving for transportation choice, bike lanes are often an important way to achieve that objective. Particularly when a hostile, high-speed, four- or six-lane highway runs through the town center.
On the other hand, while I have been a lifelong bicycle commuter and have always been an enthusiastic supporter of improving conditions for bicycling, there are important reasons why bike lanes are inappropriate in a town center. They can be, as new urbanists would say, a “transect violation.”
A crucial message in my books and speeches these days is that cities are dying from gigantism. In my view, in other words, the biggest problem in town center design for most all US cities is that spaces are way too big (building setbacks, road widths, surface parking lot sizes, distances from origin to destination, etc.). By far, the most important urban design task for American town
centers to engage in is setting about to shrink the size of over-sized spaces – particularly space allocated to cars.
How do we reverse the gigantism disease in town centers? A “road diet,” where travel lanes are removed from an over-sized road, is an excellent opportunity to reduce sizes to a more human, quality scale.
I am, at times, heartbroken by the squandered opportunity to shrink the size of spaces. It is unforgivable for a city which takes the much-needed step to road diet a street to throw away that golden chance to achieve a more human-scaled street.
The Pedestrian Is the Design Imperative
My broken record message for town centers: The pedestrian is the design imperative. Not bicyclists. Not motorists. Not buses. Not the handicapped.
The quality of life of a town center is directly related to the quality of the pedestrian environment. If your goal is to improve safety, transportation choice, lovability, and overall quality of life, maximizing pedestrian quality comes first and foremost. Only after the
community has achieved as much as it can to promote a quality pedestrian environment should it consider improving conditions for other forms of travel. And in no case should improvements to other forms of travel be detrimental to pedestrians.
Providing for bicycling in a town center is an excellent example of how this essential rule of not harming pedestrian needs can be violated.
A common thought is that a road diet provides an opportunity to install bike lanes on that street. However, doing so can deliver a number of unintended consequences. If a community opts to install bike lanes to help bicyclists in a town center, pedestrian needs are usually degraded in a number of important ways. Which can make the installation of bike lanes a big mistake.
Why Bike Lanes in a Town Center Can Be a Problem
Bike lanes increase average car speeds because of how wide they make the street feel to motorists, and because they reduce the feeling of “friction” for motorists.
By installing bike lanes, the engineers are commonly not able to reduce the curb-to-curb distance of a road-dieted street. The distance therefore remains too wide, and an opportunity to create a modest, human-scaled distance is squandered.
By installing bike lanes, the engineers are usually able to find less room to install more than a trivial number of added on-street parking. And there is very little that is more important to pedestrian quality (not to mention the health of small retail shops) than the installation of on-street parking.
Bike lanes reduce motorist attentiveness by reducing friction. Eighty percent of all crashes are due to inattentive motorists.
Note that town centers typically have a traditional connected grid street system, which means that cyclists not comfortable with sharing a low-speed street lane with cars (on the road-dieted street) can easily use a parallel street on both sides of the dieted street.
Ideally, a high quality design for a town center street will be delivering such a narrow, friction-rich (that is, an interesting and modestly-sized space) cross-section that motorists would be obligated to drive very slowly and very attentively. That makes for a very safe experience for bicyclists to share the lane.
I would not expect all bicyclists to be comfortable sharing the lane with cars on a low-speed street (again, those less skilled can commonly use parallel streets), but let us not forget: the pedestrian is the design imperative in a town center. Not bikes.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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