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City Biking Moves Into High Gear

Jay Walljasper / May 31 2012

For Release Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jay WalljasperYou can glimpse the future right now in forward-looking American cities — a few blocks here, a mile there where people riding bicycles are protected from rushing cars and trucks.

Chicago’s Kinzie Street, just north of downtown, offers a good picture of this transportation transformation. New bike lanes are marked with bright green paint and separated from motor traffic by a series of plastic posts. This means bicyclists glide through the busy area in the safety of their own space on the road. Pedestrians are thankful that bikes no longer seek refuge on the sidewalks, and many drivers appreciate the clear, orderly delineation about where bikes and cars belong.

“Most of all this is a safety project,” notes Chicago’s Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein. “We saw bikes go up from a 22 percent share of traffic to 52 percent of traffic on the street with only a negligible change in motorists’ time, but a drop in their speeds. That makes everyone safer.”

Klein heralds this new style of bike lane as one way to improve urban mobility in an era of budget shortfalls. “They’re dirt cheap to build compared to road projects.”

“The Kinzie project was discombobulating to the public when it first went in,” notes Alderman Margaret Laurino, chair of the city council’s Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Committee. “Business owners had questions. But now people understand it and we’re ready to do more.”

“Protected bike lanes are not just for diehard bicyclists — they offer a level of safety and confidence for less experienced riders,” adds Rey Colón, a Chicago alderman who first saw how well these innovations work on a trip to Seville, Spain.

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel campaigned on the promise of building 100 miles of these “green lanes” over the next four years to heighten the city’s appeal to new businesses. After the protected bike lane opened on Kinzie Street last year, more were installed on Jackson Boulevard and 18th Street on the city’s Near West Side. Thirteen more miles are planned this summer throughout the city. (The Chicago suburb of Evanston just announced plans to install protected bike lanes on one of its busy streets.)

People on bikes everywhere feel more safe and comfortable on busy streets with a physical barrier between them and motor vehicles. In some places it’s a plastic post or line of parked cars. In others it’s a curb, planter or slightly elevated bike lanes. But no matter what separates people on bikes from people in cars, the results are hefty increases in the number and variety of people bicycling.

“We’ve seen biking almost triple on parts of 15th Street NW since installing a protected bike lane last year,” reports Jim Sebastian, Active Transportation Project Manager for the District of Columbia. “And we’re seeing different kinds of cyclists beyond the Lycra crowd. People in business suits, high heels, families out for a ride, more younger and older people.”

This particular bike lane—one of more than 50 protected bikeways built recently in at least 20 cities from New York to Minneapolis to Long Beach, California—is richly symbolic for Americans. It follows 15th St. Northwest to the White House.

“This is what cities of the future are doing to attract businesses and young people,” notes Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “People don’t want to drive all the time; they want a choice.”

The Green Lane Project, an initiative to showcase these next-generation transportation improvements, was launched this week (May 31) in six U.S. cities: Chicago, Washington D.C., Memphis, Austin, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.*

The name “green lane” was chosen not only to draw attention to the typical color of protected bike lanes but also to highlight their potential in improving the urban environment and saving on transportation costs. “Green lanes are not just a color on the street. They are paths to better cities,” the project’s website explains, adding that more people on bikes eases congestion and boosts residents’ health, sense of community and economic opportunities.

The project will connect elected officials, city planners, traffic engineers, bike advocates and citizens in these six cities to share experiences, trade data and swap ideas, says Project Director Martha Roskowski. Until this year she ran GO Boulder, the alternative transportation effort at the city of Boulder, Colorado, which built its first protected bike lane in the early 1990s.

“The idea is to create the kind of bike networks that will attract the 60 percent of all Americans who say they would bike more if they felt safer,” says Randy Neufeld, a longtime bike advocate in Chicago who as Director of the SRAM Cycling Fund helped start the Green Lane Project.

The proliferation of new bikesharing systems—where people can conveniently rent bikes at on-street stations with a credit card and return them to another station near their destination—creates new demand for green lanes by getting more riders on the streets. Bike share is now running full board in Washington, Denver, Boston, Minneapolis, Chattanooga and Miami Beach and coming soon to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities.

* The Green Lane Project is coordinated by the Bikes Belong Foundation. Advisors to the project include New York City Department of Transportation (which has already pioneered 5 miles of protected lanes on six streets), the National Association of City Transportation Officials and the League of American Bicyclists. Major funders include Volkswagen of America, SRAM, Interbike, the Taiwan Bicycle Exporters Association and the Bikes Belong Coalition.

Citistates Associate Jay Walljasper is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. His website: columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Marc Brenman
    Posted May 31, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Only a tiny percent of Americans commute by bicycle, yet bike lanes take up an inordinate percent of road space. In addition, many bikers feel they are exempted from obeying traffic laws. They are disproportionately white, male, and young. You get sweaty and dirty when you ride a bike to work. So then secure facilities and showers and locker rooms are necessary. Many bikers don’t wear helmets. So if they crash, they get hurt badly. And then society has to pick up the tab. If you really want to help with city transportation, put more buses on the streets, and for longer metro hauls, bus rapid transit. Another solution is group taxis, which are legal in only three cities in the US. But instead, many mass transportation providers are cutting services and service hours. Instead of investing in bike lanes and facilities, the money should go into buses.

  2. Erica Stephan
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Marc, your critiques that “only a tiny percent of Americans commute by bicycle” and “they are disproportionately white, male, and young” are actually reasons we need more bicycle infrastructure, not less. As these pilot projects demonstrate (and other studies have shown) providing protected lanes allows many more people to cycle who don’t fit the cyclist stereotype, especially women. When I ask friends and co-workers why they don’t bike to work or for errands, the #1 reason by far is that they are afraid of riding in traffic. Protected bike lanes reduce that fear enormously and change the demographics of cycling. I hate to bang the Copenhagen drum again, but check out a video of traffic in that city sometime. Everyone bikes – young, old, male, female – ok, mostly white but then so is Denmark! And the reason is good infrastructure, built over the last few decades – there was no cycling culture there in the 70s.

    You are getting cause and effect reversed. It’s like saying that we shouldn’t build a good transit system because so few people take the one crappy bus line that currently exists, and those that do are “hardcore” transit riders. If you build it, they will come.

    There’s no need for a war or animosity between transit and cycling advocates – for one thing, bikes are a great solution to the last mile problem of transit (getting home from the transit hub). Believing there is only one fixed, small pot of money we have to fight over, and tearing each other down, is a trap. Instead we should be working together for complete streets, and an integrated transportation system that does not require auto ownership.

  3. Paul Sauers
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Bicycles are a flexible transportation choice for people of all ages. Cities around the world have or are discovering this. They provide health benefits and as numbers increase and more suitable facilities built they create safer street environments for everyone thus belying the argument of their societal cost. They are essential community builders. In Europe and elsewhere people of all genders and ages are riding, many without helmets. As cities reduce the emphasis on automobiles space and monies should be freed to create bicycle parking and other amenities. Denmark is a prime example of an auto-centric country that deliberately changed its policy decades ago and has reaped enormous benefits as a result. We do need more mass transit, but that doesn’t need to be in competition against bicycle and pedestrian facilities. They can and should complement one another.

  4. Posted June 1, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I am old, white, a male and sweat profusely when I ride to work. I don’t shower, just towel off and change clothes. If I smell bad, maybe it will keep my boss out of my office.

    Bike lanes are fine until you get to an intersection where cars need to turn right and conflict with your bike. And what if you are on your bike and you need to turn left? I have recently met some radical cycle-nista’s who are very down on bike lanes. They say the bike lanes are full of debris or are too narrow.

    Personally I stick to low volume streets where cars can pass me safely. I cross arterials at right angles at lights that I wait for and avoid interchanges with the interstate highway system. I find drivers coming off the interstate are particularly cranky.

    I would rather the city fix the potholes first and then spend money on bike lanes.

  5. arnold Long
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Taiwan has a huge network of motor bike / scooter roads seems a great idea , sure more pollution than a bicycle but way less that a car.
    I would like to be able to travel on 2 wheels to work motorized or pedal power but I value my life too much to risk sharing the road with car drivers.

  6. Phil Hammerslough
    Posted June 5, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Within the next 50 years 80% of the planets population will live in urban areas. What will best serve these metropolitan areas, (as well as the rest of the planet) will be amass transit system integrating high speed rail, light rail, trollies, and busses that are easily accessible to walking and bicycling. These systems have been in use for years in Europe and the rest of the world is adopting and improving on the system of Active Transportation.
    This transition to public transit systems will create far more jobs and businesses that will more evenly spread throughout our economic system. This alternative system will greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, reduce the outflow of money to other countries, reduce households expenditure on transportation, get people walking and bicycling more, which in turn will reduce obesity and lower health care costs. Additionally, it will make a dent in greenhouse gasses, and make our cities quieter, greener, and more livable.
    Painful as it may be for a nation that defines freedom as the right to drive a car, that car is the least efficient way to get around an urban landscape. The cost for the freedom of owning a car is over $8,700 per year when you add up the cost of fuel, maintenance, insurance, loan cost, and depreciation. That’s over$17,600 for a two car family. The savings by using public transportation combined with walking or bicycling cuts that figure by more than half. For many this does not translate to disposable income, however it makes them less vulnerable to the vagrancy of these hard times. is part of Active Transportation. Creating safe bikeways will ensure safer cycling and cyclists. It is an essential part of the new infrastructure.

  7. Posted June 6, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Brenman complains that once you build bike lanes, you will need to provide showers, lockers, etc. A slippery slope of sorts. Why should that surprise anyone? Transportation requires infrastructure, regardless of mode.

    By encouraging people to drive to work, we have to provide roads, bridges, parking lots, parking structures, and fueling stations, all of which take up valuable urban space. Buses and trains take up their own space. Likewise, the public pays a hefty price for motoring not only in infrastructure requirements, but in the way of civil damage claims, lost time to injury, our obesity epidemic, and pollution, all of which are passed on to the public as unrecovered costs to motoring. Not to mention, motor vehicle operators kill two orders of magnitude more people per year than bicycle operators.

    Finally, as a cyclist who routinely dodges motorists who make illegal turns or fail to yield as required by law, don’t get me started on people who think the law doesn’t apply to them. Bicyclists and motorists are both the same species of people and ignore the laws for the same reasons.

    That said, there are some problems with these bike facilities. First off, the “build it and they will come” attitude smacks of social engineering, which doesn’t fly as well in the U.S. as it does in Europe. Secondly, “bike paths” (s.l.) are only one reason for the huge mode shift in Europe. Cities are small, compact, and flat, and gasoline is taxed punitively. Both social engineering and geography favor the bike in European cities.

    Secondly is the comment Mr. Allison offered. Where these protected lanes meet intersections, they are not protected any more. One has to engineer solutions (as done in Germany and elsewhere) to manage traffic where cyclists and motorists suddenly appear to each other.

    Therefore, one has to not just mindlessly ape the Europeans, but design something that will work in the American city, and work well. As fellow cyclist John Allen has alluded, if you look at many American bicycling installations aped on the European model, its as though someone decided to install a municipal swimming pool like the one in the next town, but left out the fences, lifeguards, and forgot to chlorinate the water. We are getting better, but often by the school of hard knocks.

    That all said, we do need to move out of the age of automobile-centric transportation. We have yet to improve on the elegant simplicity and incredible energy efficiency of the Ordinary Bicycle. Until we do, it should be part of our urban transportation solution. The challenge is to ensure that the way we integrate cycling into our urban design is as elegant and parsimonious as the machine itself.

  8. Posted June 6, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    That should have been “safety bicycle”, not “Ordinary Bicycle” (i.e., those old high wheelers). Sorry!