Debate intensifies over bike-ped issues

Disagreement over how to make communities more bike-friendly — without detracting from pedestrian life — cropped up in June when more than 1,100 people gathered for CNU’s 19th annual congress.

“CNU is 10 years behind on bikeway planning and design,” Mike Lydon, principal in the Street Plans Collaborative, declared during the June 1-4 gathering in Madison, Wisconsin. “Bikeway design is a rapidly advancing field,” Lydon emphasized, and he urged new urbanists to become much better versed in it.

DeWayne Carver, a planner with Hall Planning & Engineering in Tallahassee, Florida, responded with skepticism to some methods proposed by bike advocates. In particular, the idea of laying out new communities with roads that are wider — to accommodate bike lanes — may make those corridors less comfortable for pedestrians, Carver warned.

Biking was the focus of five separate sessions in the congress, reflecting the rapid growth of bike initiatives around the country. Cities from New York to Portland, Oregon, are installing “cycle tracks,” “bike boulevards,” and other facilities aimed at increasing the number of people traveling on two (non-motorized) wheels. Yet Lydon, in his CNU presentation and in later elaboration for New Urban News, said many traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) have not kept up with bike planning’s advances.

Among his contentions:

• “The deficiencies are most pronounced in greenfield development .... In the TNDs I’ve visited and studied, they tend to have several, or at least a few, connections to a main arterial road, but the connectivity through the site to other neighborhoods tends to be very limited.” It’s hard for cyclists in these mostly suburban communities to reach much of the region conveniently and safely. The main roadway rarely has any bikeway infrastructure to link to.

• Wayfinding is lacking. “Primary bike routes and destinations need to be made transparent in and through neighborhoods. ... If I bike to a new neighborhood that I am not intimately familiar with,” Lydon pointed out, “I’m going to want to know which street to take that will be comfortable, direct, and get me to a destination within or on the other side of the neighborhood.” Often directional clues are absent.

There is too much reliance on “sharrows— markings on the pavement reminding motorists that they must share portions of the road with cyclists. “Sharrows are an important treatment, and seem to be widely accepted by us new urbanists, but they will not attract” the many people who worry about riding next to fast-moving motor vehicles, said Lydon, a former DPZ employee whose Street Plans Collaborative has offices in New York and Miami.

• “New Urbanists often just copy-paste bike parking ratio standards from other sources, and those sources are not the best — most sources tie bike parking to car parking. The two should be unbundled so that if car parking requirements are reduced in the future, this does not negatively impact the supply of bike parking when it may be needed most.” The need for intelligent bike parking oversight is most crucial in downtowns.

• “The base SmartCode oversimplifies the available types of bikeways (Bike Routes, Bike Lanes, Bike Trails)” and “makes little distinction between existing and retrofit conditions.” Lydon said he and others wrote a SmartCode bike module to address several such issues, but are just now getting the opportunity to calibrate it in El Paso, Texas, and Fitchburg, Wisconsin. “It’s much more difficult to calibrate the module after the Code has been adopted,” he observed.

In many new urban communities, even the bike racks are out of date, according to Lydon. “Comb racks,” containing a series of vertical metal dividers to which you’re supposed to lock your bike, are awkward when compared to “inverted U-racks,” he explained.

A contrasting view

Carver, from his perspective as a planner of TNDs, found several ideas and techniques from the realm of bike advocacy troubling. Among them:

• Roads that are widened to provide a 5-foot bike lane on each side. Adding a total of 10 feet to a street’s width can reduce the street’s sense of enclosure. That, in turn, can make the street less appealing, especially to pedestrians.

• The idea of “cutting off the grid” at certain points to prevent vehicular traffic from making cyclists uncomfortable. Carver believes the grid is a valuable tool that should generally be allowed to prevail. He praised the City of Madison for generally not including traffic diverters in its bike boulevard system.

• Removal of on-street parking so that the parking lane can be converted into a bike lane. Carver said that on some arterial roads in Madison where on-street parking had been replaced by bike lanes, he discovered that the building entrances facing the street no longer functioned; the operators had closed them, forcing people to use a back door — to the detriment of pedestrian convenience and sidewalk character and potentially sacrificing urbanism to cycling.

Carver argued that a tight-grained urban structure often can make a conspicuous bike “infrastructure” less necessary — by reducing the speed of motor vehicles. In Madison’s core, he noted, “the grid of modest two-way streets and small blocks worked effectively to evenly distribute traffic and manage traffic speeds — about 15-20 mph on the streets I measured with my pocket radar. The beautiful downtown square moved traffic at a stately pace, so that cyclists of varying abilities were able to circulate among the cars, trucks, and buses with no difficulty.”

Special routes for cyclists have become more of a necessity outside Madison’s core — in post-World War II areas with wide roadways and faster traffic, Carver observed.

One of the biggest concerns is the conflict between bicyclists and motorists at intersections. Carver suggested that Madison, probably because its downtown is a narrow area squeezed between two lakes, has ended up with a heavy flow of bikers on a bike path along a railroad and the waterfront. The high volume of cyclists on that route causes motorists to yield.

The lesson to be learned, he said, is that “when we must cross our street network with paths in our TND neighborhoods ..., we need to ensure that these paths generate as much bicycle traffic as possible.”

Reaching the ‘concerned’ majority

Tim Blumenthal, president of the Bikes Belong Coalition, pointed to the “20BY2020” campaign, whose aim is to have 20 percent of all the trips in Madison made by bicycle by the year 2020. That would be nearly six times the percentage of trips now powered by pedaling.

Blumenthal emphasized that spending on biking improvements results in “many benefits for little money — bicycling is a very cheap date.”

He divided the American population into four classes when it comes to biking:

• 1 percent describe themselves as “fearless.”
• 6 percent call themselves “enthusiastic and confident.”
• 60 percent are “interested but concerned” about their vulnerability.
• 33 percent say “no way, no-how” to biking.

The challenge, Blumenthal said, is to making biking appeal to the big “interested but concerned” contingent.

Lydon emphasized the importance of context when trying to create safe, inviting conditions. What’s appropriate in a TND or a new town center may not be right in an old, built-up city, he noted. “In New York, a bikeway facility will change from block to block,” he said. Context is key.

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