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San Francisco is doubling the rate at which the city builds protected bike lanes after several high-profile cyclist deaths.
Brock Keeling

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Bike lanes need barriers, not just paint

Cities shouldn’t let their cyclists get run over

Usually, when I write about bikes, it’s a lighthearted story about the joys of pedal-propelled travel, or how fun it is to ride with kids. But lately, all I’m thinking about when I write about bikes is how we can get as many people out of cars and into zero-emission transportation modes, as fast—and as safely—as possible.

It’s a good time for mayors to ask themselves the same tough questions about why there aren’t more people riding bikes (or other small, wheeled devices) in their cities—especially when they’ve made such goals part of their climate commitments.

The answer is almost always the same: there’s not a safe, separated network of bike lanes to help get people where they want to go.

In the spring of 2019, bike advocates across the country placed red cups along routes that cities had demarcated as “bike lanes,” but where even the most experienced cyclists still felt unsafe. The highly visible red cups—sometimes clear plastic cups filled with red Gatorade or, in some cases, ripe tomatoes—were inevitably crushed by vehicles driving too closely to the lanes.

The idea was attributed to advocate Dave Salovesh, who was killed by a speeding driver while riding his bike in Washington D.C., in April, on a street that had been slated to receive safety improvements.

A recent study confirms the red cup experiment is necessary: Drivers pass cyclists about 1.25 feet closer when they’re in painted bike lanes compared to streets with no bike infrastructure, according to a study that examined 18,500 occasions of cars passing bikes on roads.

“We know that vehicles driving closely to cyclists increase how unsafe people feel when riding bikes, and acts as a strong barrier to increasing cycling participation,” said study author Dr. Ben Beck, who conducts emergency and trauma research at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “The focus of on-road cycling infrastructure needs to be on providing infrastructure that separates cyclists from motor vehicles by a physical barrier.”

A white stripe on a road will also not make someone who is hesitant more likely to ride a bike, which is why some cities have moved past the idea that “paint is protection.”

Cambridge, Massachusetts recently passed a law that all streets undergoing construction must add protected bike lanes. Just this week, legislation was introduced in both New York City and Washington D.C. that would make safety improvements mandatory as well. And in San Francisco, also this week, Mayor London Breed pledged to build 20 miles of protected lanes over the next two years, doubling the current rate.

Many other cities—although few in the U.S.—have already deemed “sharrows” or painted lanes unacceptable, pledging to only build what’s called “AAA” bike infrastructure, or infrastructure for “all ages and abilities.” This would mean anyone could ride anywhere using only protected lanes, separated paths, or quiet neighborhood streets.

There’s a growing environmental need to increase cycling in cities: In the past month, New York City and Los Angeles proposed their own Green New Deals, with ambitious plans to eliminate emissions by shifting large percentages of trips to walking, biking, and transit. After the terrifying climate news of the last six months, air pollution at some of the worst levels in decades, and pedestrian deaths ticking back up, it’s clear that we don’t have much time to waste.

That’s why I’m calling for an immediate, actionable plan for cities to get more people on bikes (and scooters), which will reduce emissions, improve air quality, and reduce traffic deaths: Summer lanes. Say it with me: Summer lanes. One more time: Summer lanes!

Summer lanes is a nationwide, city-led effort to get more bike-curious people out of their cars and onto zero-emission modes of transportation. If you prefer to drive, or you need to use a car, you don’t have to worry—summer lanes won’t change how you get around. But if you’ve been wanting to try biking, and are too scared to attempt it, summer lanes are for you!

How do summer lanes work? It’s easy! To show that cities are listening to people who want safer places to ride, leaders will promise to protect their unprotected bike lanes by June 21, the first day of summer. The only rule is that the summer lanes must create a network—so in some cases it might require not only protecting the existing painted lanes, but also connecting gaps in infrastructure and getting riders to popular destinations.

How to protect these bike lanes by the start of summer is up to the city. Plastic bollards or “flex posts” can go up over a weekend, as some of the recent safety interventions in San Francisco have shown. Washington D.C. is experimenting with concrete curbs secured with steel posts that can be installed almost as fast as bollards.

For even more of a statement, cities could choose from a variety of hulking concrete barriers engineered to protect people from cars—even the off-the-shelf construction model—and protect an entire vehicular lane.

Creativity is also encouraged. In addition to investing in a new cycling network that doubled the number of bike commuters in five years, Vancouver has the loveliest separated bike infrastructure I’ve seen—giant rectangular planters overflowing with greenery that simply cordon off a lane of traffic. What says summer lanes more than that?

Why summer? Well, that’s obvious: Nicer weather is more pleasant for biking and scooting—or any other type of activity that requires getting around without a climate-controlled vehicle. Longer days with more sunlight mean safer rides before and after work. School’s out, which eliminates a lot of peak-hour traffic. People are on vacation, and when you're a tourist you’re more likely to engage with non-car modes perceived to be fun.

In addition—and this is a big one—gas prices are expected to skyrocket this summer. Instead of forcing residents into their even pricier fossil-fuel powered cars as a default, shouldn’t cities be offering an alternative that can help people save money, improve air quality, and work towards aggressive climate goals?

Plus, this will be the first summer that a lot of U.S. cities will have dockless scooters and bikes on their streets—tens of thousands of new zero-emission vehicles for the sharing. Recent data from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) shows that ridership on these modes doubled the number of trips taken on traditional docked bike share from the year before. It seems like providing more safe places to ride could easily raise those ridership figures even higher.

More infrastructure for bikes could bring crash rates down overall. Another recent study from University of Colorado at Denver engineers that surveyed 12 U.S. cycling cities showed that the presence of protected bike lanes made the street safer for all users. “This research has boiled it down for city planners,” said co-author Nicholas Ferenchak. “Create cycling facilities, and you’ll see the impact.”

Where should summer lanes go? Transportation leaders need only search the #RedCupProject hashtag in their cities to see where advocates are demanding to make their rides safer and less stressful. But summer lanes could also be implemented in busy tourist areas, adjacent to parks, or other places that have higher non-car traffic volumes due to warmer temperatures.

What will summer lanes cost? Please: Summer lanes will save cities money. Cars kill about as many people as gun violence. More people develop chronic health problems from vehicular emissions than smoking. Adding bike lanes has been proven to reduce traffic congestion. Making it safer for people to ride bikes in your city is an investment in your city’s public health.

But my parking! If there’s street parking you can move it temporarily. Cities close off a handful of parking spaces for construction projects and special events all the time and the world doesn’t end. In most cases, by simply protecting parts of streets that have already been marked with lanes, summer lanes would not necessarily have a major impact on vehicular patterns. Although—wouldn’t summer lanes be even more amazing if they did?

There’s a lot of discussion about how dockless-scooter and bike companies should be responsible for providing data to cities. Well, here’s one good reason to share it. If cities worked closely with these companies to study micromobility usage patterns, it would be immediately clear which streets are most in need of summer lanes.

Certain companies like Uber and Lyft can offer even more insight. In addition to sharing route data from their bike and scooter fleets, these companies could make recommendations for where the most ride-hailing pick-ups and drop-offs are occurring. So cities could see not only where micromobility is being used the most, they could also show where street parking for cars is less necessary.

Voila—a super summer lane created, where there wasn’t even a bike lane before!

As open streets events coast to coast confirm, there’s a latent demand for more non-car transportation, and if cities make it safe, people will ride, even if it’s only temporary. But there’s also proof that temporary bike lanes can foment sustained, lasting change. In fact, using pop-up lanes is encouraged by the advocacy group People for Bikes as part of its annual city ratings to increase ridership. Piloting permanent bike lane projects with planters and bollards is also recommended by Smart Growth America, which recently released its list of the cities with the best complete streets policies in the U.S. Plus, more bike infrastructure can also boost transit ridership, something most transportation agencies would welcome.

If cities can close a handful of streets a few times a year for fun, why can’t they protect a few lanes to solve a serious crisis?

But that’s the beauty of summer lanes—if everyone hates it, or it doesn't work, fine, cities can say it was just for the summer. Come fall, the lanes can go back to whatever they looked like before. But I have a hunch that once people realize how easy it is to create fast, flexible, fun places for more people to ride, these lanes will last long past September.

Tell your mayor you demand summer lanes.

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