When I hear someone say, “bike lane,” I always ask them to clarify exactly what they mean. Are they referring to a street with a bicycle painted on the ground every few blocks? Or are they referring to a lane that’s actually separated from car traffic? It’s important to make the distinction, because there’s a gamut of bike lanes, and not all are created equal.
What’s the crème de la crème of bike lanes? The protected bike lane.
A protected bike lane is a bike lane that has a physical barrier between bikes and cars, and I think we can all agree that a physical barrier is a bit more comforting than a line of paint. If you’re a cyclist, I’d even wager that you feel safer when riding in a protected bike lane, and probably even choose protected bike lanes over other routes, given the fact that protected bike lanes have been shown to cut cycling injuries in half.
But what about people that don’t ride? Do they have the same view of protected bike lanes? Do they see them as a safe haven for cycling, and therefore feel more encouraged to ride?
It’s easy to assume that the answer to this question is yes, but as it turns out, we don’t need to assume it anymore; a new study proves it.
In fact, it’s the first major academic study of protected bike lanes in the United States. While there have been many protected bike lane studies in the past, they mostly rely on data from other countries, whose bike culture and street design are often quite different than our own.
Portland State University’s National Institute of Transportation and Communities took a look at protected bike lanes in five major U.S. cities. Analyzing the data, the research team saw that there was a very clear trend: when protected bike lanes are added to a street, more people bike there.
How many more people? In the first year of adding protected bike lanes, there was an average 75% increase in bike traffic. Even the streets that already had protected bike lanes installed saw an increase in bike riders over the course of the study.
What’s telling is that these increases either matched or exceeded citywide bike growth overall, meaning that even in places where biking is already on the rise, biking in areas with protected bike lanes rose even more.
What kind of cyclists are protected bike lanes bringing in? According to the study, about 25% of the cyclists using the bike lanes are users that are coming from other modes of transportation; the other 75% are cyclists that are switching their route to take advantage of the protected lanes. In other words, protected bike lanes are encouraging more people to ride.
This study encourages even more research, specifically on the impacts to the non-cycling community that might be persuaded to trade four wheels for two. “We’re seeing people who already bike shifting the routes that they’re taking; we’re seeing a small amount of new cycling,” Jennifer Dill, a PSU scholar who co-authored the study, told Streetsblog. “One thing that we don’t know from this or any other research out there is how long it takes for people to really start changing their travel modes.”
Definitive research will take a few more years, but as Streetsblog pointed out, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that we can use to get excited about the full potential of protected bike lanes, particularly as it relates to getting more people to ride.
“Washington DC, one of the first U.S. cities to start installing buffered and protected bike lanes — and also one of the cities that’s had the most success at getting its commuters to switch from cars to bicycles — now has several years of data on two of its routes. They’ve seen ridership grow much faster than the citywide average, year after year after year.”
Will protected bike lanes be the way of the cycling future in the United States? We’ll have to wait and see, but things looks promising, and now all you cyclists out there have the academic proof you need to back up your “more protected bike lanes are a good thing!” argument.
Photo Credit: nPaul Krueger