Copenhagen III: Do we Dane?

Part Three:  Bringing the lessons back home What makes cycle track development so interesting and timely is that we have heard a growing chorus of local urbanists advocating a similar cycle track approach for Seattle bicyclists.  In our earlier posts, we looked at Danish practice and later at the challenges of translating that practice to our transportation system.

Without question, one of the primary challenges in "Copenhagenizing" our bicycle transportation system is cultural – Danish and American bicyclists have distinctly different notions of their place in traffic.  While the Danes have placed bicycle transportation on a higher plane than automobiles with relative ease, they have done so with the assistance of both a very cooperative terrain and urban form, and a population of bicyclists not as vested in having the same rights and access to streets as our advocates have sought for many years.

Challenging Assumptions

If we accept that moving our bicycling share of trips from less than 4% to a more Danish 33%, then many values are going to be challenged throughout our community.  Getting to 33% means reaching a lot of people who are currently unwilling or unable to ride, and particularly those who see urban bicycling as not worth the perceived effort or risk.  If we can address some of the design concerns listed below, the cycletrack may very well serve a major role in re-shaping Seattle for a vastly greater number of bicyclists.

Traffic Counter

What is an appropriate design speed, and what will US bicyclists tolerate and/or demand?

Without question, the Copenhagen cycle system operates with significantly slower user speeds than we see here in Seattle or in other American cities.  ("Green Wave" streets with optimized signal timing for bicyclists in Denmark are set for a 20kph – 12mph – speed, while the 85th percentile speed on the Burke Gilman Trail has hovered around 17-18 mph for years). Certainly, land use and trip distance is a major factor in how citizens use the Danish system; on the billiard table-flat network of Copenhagen, it is not necessary to have a fancy bike or to exert oneself unnecessarily to get around.  Trips are short in time and distance, and the bike is merely a convenient tool to be used in daily life, not a symbol of what makes the user a unique individual.  Our cyclists have to ride farther and (in this city) over significant terrain, making the financial and perhaps emotional investment more significant here.  If trip distances are short and the end of trip facilities convenient, then it may be possible to convince new users that a slower but shorter trip with low cost and high convenience by bike is more attractive than cars or even public transit.

Urban Cycling in the Snow

How long must a facility be to be considered effective?

A similar issue for us in Seattle to the design speed question is the degree to which a cycle track network must be established to develop a constituency that sustains and motivates future implementation efforts.  The Danish started on the busiest streets with high population and employment densities – a wise move for us, as it will point the way to facility development on the very streets which most intimidate potential new bicyclists (and which don’t currently accommodate our experienced bicyclists). What remains to be determined is the length of a corridor needed to provide the desired continuity of a trip for these targeted riders – while facility characteristics can be expected the change over the course of a journey, continuity is generally considered desirable.

How will the loss of existing routes be seen by the types of commuters and other bicyclists we see today?

The development of cycle tracks (and the necessary legal framework to govern their operation) may well antagonize a number of the bicyclists who currently use Seattle streets as cycle networks, and who may view Copenhagen’s rules for cycle tracks to be a step backwards from long-held beliefs that bicycles are an equal partner in traffic.  Bicycle advocacy organizations have maintained a concern that mandatory bicycle facility-use rules will create in motorists a belief that bicyclists never really belong on roads.  Again, placing cycle tracks on corridors that do not currently accommodate formal bike facilities (bike lanes) may offset some of this concern, but the cost in disruption to existing norms of use on these streets makes their location as the FIRST cycle track in the city somewhat problematic.

Can a variety of facilities be developed in a pattern that serves existing populations while reaching out to new users who would potentially be attracted to a slower, separated facility?

Ultimately, cycle tracks will become (as they have in Copenhagen and other European cities) one tool among many that can be deployed in an effort to expand the utility of bicycle travel to new and larger populations of users.  There are bike lanes and sharrows and separated trails in Denmark, too, and finding the right combination and integration of these devices has a demonstrable potential to increase our already-growing population of bicyclists.

Lessons (to be) Learned

  1. Early US cycletrack design efforts need to increase the effort to not just separate bikes from cars, but also pedestrians.
  2. We need to determine if the preferred design is a two-way track on one side of the street, or a pair of one-way facilities running with other traffic - there are access and conflict issues associated with both types of facilities that will require consideration before implementation on US streets
  3. The ability to implement new bicycle facility types should increase with civic commitment to a “complete streets” approach to capital improvement projects, thus addressing the whole of the street and user demands in an integrated design effort.
  4. Additional effort and attention must be placed on the effectiveness of signalization and channelization protocols designed to address “right hooks” and other bike/car, bike/transit, and bike pedestrian conflicts typically associated with separated facilities.
  5. Maintain awareness of risks associated with vertical design elements too close to the cycle track and user.