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It will take more than bike lanes to make biking safe

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Cities need to give bikes a dedicated, prominent place on our streets

Photo by cyclotourist

Last night, hundreds of people took to New York’s streets on bikes to send a message to the city: Too many people are dying.

The ride was organized by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives after the death of a prominent bike activist last month. The death was particularly notable because it represented the 15th cyclist killed this year—the same number of cyclists who were killed in the entirety of 2015. Only two weeks later, that number has risen to 17.

The spiking number of traffic deaths highlight another troubling truth: Most of the city’s cycling deaths have occurred in Brooklyn, the place where the largest percentage of New Yorkers are riding bikes. It proves that the idea of critical mass doesn’t really equal safer streets unless the infrastructure rises up to meet its riders.

Many U.S. cities—including New York—are working hard to stripe streets with green lanes and helmeted stick-figure icons. But the problem is that very few cities have managed to build a continuous, protected, highly visible bike network, even if they have a “bike plan” in place.

For all the cycling gains in recent years, transportation planners are still making bike decisions that prioritize cars. Think about where you see people riding in your city. The routes that are set aside for bikes are mostly just small streets that don’t lead directly to business districts. Signage is often sparse. Crossing larger streets is impossible because signals don’t change unless they sense a car at the intersection. And parked cars can block bike lanes entirely.

This patchwork of streets not only makes navigation tough for cyclists, it also leaves huge gaps in cycling networks. Bike lanes simply end, dumping riders into busy streets. Could you imagine a bridge for cars being opened without being finished? These holes create the connectivity issues that leave riders most vulnerable, and more likely to be struck by moving vehicles.

Investments in protected lanes are good. Adding bike sharing is good. But these things alone are not going to get more people on bikes. The reason why most people don’t ride bikes? They don’t feel safe. And most people are never going to feel safe—unless you give bikes a dedicated, prominent place in your city.

This is something that cities making the transition from car-centric to bike-centric are starting to address. Paris has already been building superhighways for bikes as part of a more comprehensive climate plan to banish cars from its streets. Last week it was announced that the city would make an even more important gesture: Turning a prominent riverfront highway into a path for walking and biking. This does more than provide safe passage, it shows that biking is a vital, valued part of Parisian street life.

What U.S. cities need to do is start with a big gesture like this. A really big one. In New York, the idea to turn 14th Street into a car-free zone would be a good start. (Another would be turning all of Broadway into a car-free greenway—hey, a girl can dream.) Vision Zero—the growing initiative to end traffic deaths—provides a good mandate for cities to prioritize these kinds of projects. Imagine taking the most deadly stretch of road for bicyclists in every U.S. city, and converting it into a bike freeway.

It’s true, our car-centric American cities are not Copenhagen, or Amsterdam, or (soon) London, or any place where more than half of the commuters in the city center ride bikes. But these cities weren’t always like this, either. By marginalizing the activities of cyclists, we continue to allow cars to continue traveling fast through overly wide streets and reinforce the fact that bikes don’t belong.

The best way to make biking safer is not to hide our bikes on a “quiet” side street, but to put them on display in the busiest part of the city—a vibrant, active, healthy city.

No single piece of infrastructure is going to suddenly make a city bike-friendly. But we shouldn’t be celebrating the opening of another mile of green-painted lane. We should be celebrating the city that finally allows all its citizens to feel safe on a bike, no matter where they want to go.