Bike to Work Month is just around the corner and SvR is hosting the design firm Commute Challenge for the A/E industry. If your firm has riders interested in some friendly competition and a chance to get their hands on the coveted Golden Helmet please contact Jessica Strain at email@example.com. Firm and rider details are required by the 29th of this month to be included. New faces (and firms) are always welcome!!
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.
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.
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.
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
- Early US cycletrack design efforts need to increase the effort to not just separate bikes from cars, but also pedestrians.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Maintain awareness of risks associated with vertical design elements too close to the cycle track and user.
Part Two: What Separates Us is Our Separated Bike Lanes In our last post we began to explore some of the ways that Copenhagen’s bike culture differs from the United State’s and how, if we are to “Copenhagenize” our bicycle culture—something that many, though not all, local cyclists desire—certain assumptions will need to be re-thought.
One of the most difficult values to rectify in bringing Danish practice to the U.S. is that American cyclists must follow the same traffic laws as automobiles…in fact, US bicyclists have fought to establish and defend these laws for decades.
For example, in Copenhagen bicyclists are required to use cycletracks wherever they exist, and citations are a real possibility for those who choose to ride in traffic with the cars and buses – to ride as U.S. laws allow. Left turns from most cycletracks require waiting two signal cycles – one to cross the street moving straight ahead, and then across the street to the left on the next signal. Moving to the left turn lane to make a turn on the next available signal is illegal.
To their credit, Copenhagen’s civic authorities are keenly aware of the limitations and dangers associated with separated right-side bike facilities. The city has done a thorough job of adding bike boxes in advance of stop lines, introducing advance green cycles at major intersections – green for bikes first, then transit, and finally general traffic.
More recently, the City has added flashing in-pavement lights extending through intersections to alert right turning motorists of the presence of riders in the cycle track. It’s impressive technology, to be sure – and necessary due to the vulnerabilities of bicyclists riding in that particular location on the right of way.
Law & Culture
This system works in Denmark for a number of reasons – most relating to Danish culture generally and not so much to “bike culture.” As with so many ancient cities in Europe, compact land use patterns are very conducive to cycling, and trip distances for the Danes are generally shorter than for their American counterparts. So, who needs to rush and blow through a light? The Danes will be the first to tell you that they put a huge cultural emphasis on civil obedience and not “standing out” – it’s all about we and not me in Danish society. Accordingly, adhering to rules and regulations that would send US cyclists to the ramparts are perhaps more easily accepted.
So, we are fast, hard riding rugged American individualists and the Danes are subservient sheep? Not really. But their urban form, culture and topography certainly helps the odds for making easy cycling a useful means of getting around. Our cities (and perhaps Seattle in particular) require more effort from the bicyclist, which likely places a limit on the potential population of riders, and perhaps creates more of an identity of our cyclists as, well, cyclists.
Does this mean there is no place for cycle tracks in Seattle?
Our trail system (300 miles in King County alone) remains an enormously popular place for a broad spectrum of the public to cycle – for perceived safety, lack of hills and a generally pleasant environment. The Burke-Gilman and Sammamish River Trails (and so many others) generate new bicyclists in our region on a constant basis – these users seek the same characteristics in their rides as the Danes experience on their cycle-tracks.
A one-track mind
What made this trip so interesting and timely is that we have heard a growing chorus of local urbanists advocating a similar cycletrack approach for Seattle. US bicycle practice has been built (with strong support from local and national bicycling advocates) upon a foundation that the bicycle is a legal and accepted part of the on-street traffic mix. With that background, solutions mandating the use of separated parallel facilities has been discouraged for years. The Denmark model would seem to fly in the face of such a philosophy, and might stand to antagonize or alienate the very urban constituency that has fought for bike lanes, better access to transit, regional trails and other bicycle infrastructure.
If we look both at the design characteristics of Danish facilities and the real-world realities of cycling in the US (and Seattle) then some lessons emerge that point the way:
- The Danes have emphasized cycle-tracks on their busiest arterials, and spent accordingly on the technological fixes in these locations. The Seattle Bicycle Master Plan identifies a number of similar streets here “for future study.” Many of these corridors (such as Westlake Ave between Fremont and South Lake Union) are flat arterials that wouldn’t involve any loss of parking spaces. In fact, the busier the street, the better the benefit of the trade-off between “vehicular freedom” and the desire to encourage new riders.
- If installed, new cycle tracks should focus on areas of high residential or employment density, good to excellent transit access, and, if possible, areas with a surplus of available on-street parking – as there will almost certainly be issues with merchants over the loss of what they often consider a critical resource.
- Whatever we do, we probably can (and certainly must) do a better job of preserving safety and mobility for pedestrians than is the case on many of Copenhagen’s cycle-track corridors. Oddly, it seems that the space for the tracks came equally from the vehicle lanes and sidewalks in a number of locations surprisingly close to downtown. That simply would be unacceptable in Seattle.
Done properly, cycle-tracks can serve close-in urban neighborhoods (Eastlake, South Lake Union, portions of Capitol Hill) and areas served by high capacity transit (Rainier Valley, 12th Avenue E., the Bel-Red corridor on the Eastside) to encourage new bicyclists without stripping the rights of existing riders. There is still a place for bike lanes, sharrows and (eventually) bike boulevards, but, after Copenhagen, I am convinced that cycle tracks can and should be a tool in our kit for expanding the benefits of bicycling to a larger portion of the public.
Finally, for a little fun, check out this wonderful video from Portland explaining their cycletrack: