Protected Bike Lanes

Protected Bike Lanes: Encouraging the Concerned Rider

Community Cycles has been working to get protected bike lanes installed in Boulder. What is a protected bike lane? And why do we feel it’s important to get more of them in our community?

For many reasons–economic, environmental, health and livability–we want to see as many people as possible biking. Studies show that more than half of all trips are less than three miles, a distance easily covered in 20 minutes by bicycle. Yet in the U.S., 65 percent of  all trips under one mile are my by auto. That’s a 7-minute ride! So why do people choose to drive? There are many reasons, including habit, ease, and easily available parking. But one big reason is that many people don’t feel safe on a bike.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably someone who rides a bike and feels pretty comfortable on our city’s bike lanes. Yet would you let your 8-year-old kid ride a bike next to you on Valmont? Or 30th Street? Or Folsom? Would your 80-year-old great-aunt be at ease with 35 mile-per-hour traffic passing by within 3 feet? Or with navigating snow pushed from the general-use lanes into the bike lanes in winter?

Research indicates that less than 10% of all people are “enthused and confident” riders who are adept and reasonably comfortable riding in lanes on busy streets separated from traffic by only a stripe of paint. Some other fraction–maybe 30%–would never ride a bike because of impairment, health, or just plain attitude. The remaining 60% are our target audience for increasing the number of cyclists. These people are persuadable, and might bike in good weather if they feel it is convenient, easy, and above all, safe.

This is where protected bicycle lanes come in. A protected bicycle lane provides some kind of physical buffer between car and bicycle traffic. The lane is still part of the street right-of-way (between the gutters), as opposed to a path that is at a different grade than the street surface, or a cycletrack, which is like a bike lane but elevated above the road. Protected bike lanes improve bicycle safety, and more importantly increase the feeling of safety for people riding.

Boulder has begun experimenting with protected bike lanes as part of their “Living Laboratory” test program. They want to see how people like the protected lanes, and what issues arise regarding snow removal and how people biking and driving interpret the signs and other markings. The first protected lanes (other than the 13th Street counter-flow bike lanes) were installed on Baseline east of 30th Street. This test is pretty innocuous, since Baseline is an enormously wide road and there were already very comfortable, spacious bike lanes separated from traffic by an expansive painted buffer zone. So many people feel the lanes here don’t make much difference for bike riders. However, this installation lets the city try things out and get familiar with the materials and maintenance that are needed. We hope that in the near future the cement parking blocks are replaced by an attractive planted buffer that will make the lanes more aesthetically appealing than they are now.

The other place Boulder is trying out protected lanes is on University Avenue west of Broadway to 9th St. In this case, cars are used to provide the physical buffer protecting people on bikes. The car parking has been moved from the curb to a “floating” parking lane, and the bike lane now passes between the parked cars and the curb. This works at this location because there are very few driveways, so bike riders get a continuous strip of protected bike lane without having to worry about cars pulling out into their path.

We hope these protected lanes are just the start. We feel that they are far superior to the along-street paths (such as along 28th St. in front of Target) where cars consistently intrude into riders’ paths without looking. But right now there are just these very discontinuous segments of protected bike lanes, and they are only test installations. Until the city builds complete network of protected lanes that directly and comfortably take people from where they live to where they work, shop, eat, and play, most of the 60% of people who want to bike but are worried about safety will remain skeptical. We need to accelerate the installation of these lanes and make them the standard for every arterial street.

Some people don’t like changes to University because it removed a handful of parking spaces, visually narrows the car lanes, or makes it hard to (illegally) U-turn. We think these arguments are specious. Make sure your voice is heard! Go to the InspireBoulder web site and let the city know how you feel about the lanes. Or write an e-mail to the city council (mailto:council@bouldercolorado.gov )or Transportation Advisory Board (mailto:tab@bouldercolorado.gov) and tell t hem what you think of protected bike lanes.

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