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Life in the Green Lane: Protected Lanes Transform the Biking Experience

Jay Walljasper / Jul 17 2013

For Release Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Citiwire.net

Jay WalljasperHow to describe your first time in a green lane? There’s nothing quite like it.

For me it happened on a business trip to Copenhagen. I saw bikes everywhere, beginning with the taxi ride from the airport where I spotted business executives toting briefcases on bikes. I saw wannabe fashion models wearing high heels on bikes, kids heading to school on bikes, parents pedaling toddlers to daycare on bikes, old folks chatting to one another on bikes.

How do they do it, I wondered? I was a seasoned bicyclist who rode every day for commuting and recreation, yet still felt tense wheeling down busy streets. These riders looked completely at ease, even in morning rush hour with cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles all around them. I even saw one guy smoking a cigarette on a bike and others absorbed in conversations on their mobile phones.

Then I noticed that the bike lane was separated from motor vehicles by a divider. So that’s how they do it! I couldn’t wait to try it myself.

The next day I ducked out of a meeting, rented a bike at nearby shop and set forth to explore Copenhagen on two wheels. After pedaling just a block, I thought “Wow!” and began giggling. This was an entirely new experience in biking – almost like the exhilaration of riding without training wheels for the first time.

Liberated from fears of being sideswiped by motorists, I could take in the historic architecture and enjoy the city’s teeming street life. There were even special traffic signals for bicyclists, giving us a slight head start through crowded intersections. No wonder half of Copenhagen’s downtown commuters travel by bike.

Cruising through the heart of the city, I realized these protected bike lanes were good for everyone, not just bicyclists. Without them, pedestrians, motorists and bus riders would be engulfed by twice as much traffic. That, I figured, accounted for the calm courtesy I experienced from people behind the wheel.

We need something like this in the United States, I told everyone back home. Impossible, many folks would tell me. Special bike lanes are strictly a European thing that would never fit in our newer, auto-dominated cities.

You’re selling America short, I answered. We are an enterprising nation, dedicated to innovations that can improve our lives. If we can invent the Internet, we can make biking safe for everyone.

And that’s exactly what’s happening right now. Protected bike lanes (now called Green Lanes) are popping up from Miami to Long Beach, Austin to Chicago. As I ride the new, protected bike lanes in downtown Minneapolis, I say “Wow!” and then giggle. I can appreciate the handsome old warehouses and enjoy the bustling street life. I notice people in suits and in high-fashion outfits on bikes, even some teenagers and older riders. It feels even more exhilarating than the first time Copenhagen, because it’s right here at home.


Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults frequently about biking and other ways to improve our communities. His website: www.JayWalljasper.com

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4 Comments

  1. Posted July 17, 2013 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Nice post and I agree with overall sentiment, but the assumption that separated protected bike lanes are the default gold standard is bad. There’s no way to make that happen on all the roads cyclists use, and shared lane treatments (sharrows) are a better solution for cyclists and car drivers on lower speed (>40-35 mph) roads with limited right of way. Bicyclists function best when they are part of the traffic flow and have equal access to destinations along arterial and collector roads, and protected bike lanes will never achieve the same level of accessibility.

  2. Posted July 17, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    Jay, you are waaaay more adventuresome than I! I have not been to Copenhagen, but I have been to Amsterdam, which I love..but if the two cities are anything alike [I have been told many times they are with regard to cycling] I’d chicken out as I did in Amsterdam. It was wonderful to observe the hordes of cyclists who far outnumbered the cars, particularly in the CBD. But, I feared I’d cause an accident if I peddled into the frenzied masses of cyclists. I walked, and walked, and walked. I did eventually rent a bike in Delft and had a great time. Greetings from Portland, OR
    Mike Houck, Director
    Urban Greenspaces Institute

  3. Posted July 18, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure you got the naming conventions quite right, Jay. “Cycletrack” is the more inclusive term for Copenhagen-style protected bikeway. Green markings are used on some cycletracks for their full length, but sometimes only at intersections or high-conflict points, and sometimes not at all. Green lane is also used for a different kind of facility: a marked area set into the travel lane, similiar to sharrows.

    I agree with Whit to a certain extent, that we must make sure bicyclists are comfortable and know how to ride on all streets, with or without protected cycletracks. However, I do not think this is a reason not to build them. I think it’s simply an indication that we need to make sure their design allows bikes to travel in a way that’s compatible with mainline traffic. I strongly oppose two-way cycletracks — which put one direction of bikes going the wrong-way on the street. But one-way cycletracks, like those used in Copenhagen, provide a sense of separation without creating adding dangers by significantly moving the bicycle’s location in the street.

  4. Posted July 18, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    By the way, I had a similar first impression of Copenhagen: that it seemed really intimidating to be riding with all that traffic. I’d never really ridden in a city before, but quickly got comfortable. And in fact, even moving back to Minnesota, I felt far more comfortable with urban traffic than I did prior to Copenhagen.