Use Protection

By John Hennelly

How do cities move from car-centric to people-centric?  If we have learned anything it’s that it isn’t easy, even in progressive communities where people accept that climate change is a serious problem.

Here in Evanston we are getting ready to start phase two of a project to install bike lanes along Sheridan Avenue. The first phase, completed last summer, added a protected two-way bike lane from Davis at Chicago to Lincoln at Sheridan, running the length of the NU campus. This summer the lanes will be extended north, where they will connect with quiet residential streets to get riders to the Wilmette bike lane.

The key word above is “protected.” Evanston has built bike lanes along Davis, Church and Dodge over the past eight years. Some sections of these lanes are protected, by parked cars. But long sections offer no protection at all except flimsy bollards, which are removed in the winter. And, as bikers know, cars often park in these bike lanes, offering the opposite of protection.  

The new lanes along Chicago/Sheridan are well protected, using concrete curbs to keep bikers separate and safe, and keep cars out of the lanes.

This is important because without protected lanes many potential bikers will just get in their car and drive instead. Studies show (and my personal experience confirms), that many people don’t ride bikes because they don’t feel safe. They’re not crazy. Today’s drivers are distracted, stressed, and at times a hair-trigger away from rage.

(Note: it is actually pretty safe to ride a bike in Evanston. But that’s another blog.)

Protected bike lanes get more people on their bikes. And, for our environment, for or health, for our safety, for our quality of life, we want more people on bikes. 

But believe it or not, just ten years ago it would have been difficult to get a protected bike lane built here. There was no such thing in America.

The Atlantic Monthly recently published an article arguing that a key moment in the “complete streets” movement was the creation of engineering standards for protected bike lanes. The article by Steven Higashide is worth a read.

Higashide recounts how the key standards bibles for road design, from the American Association of State Highway and transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD), both lacked any design guidance for protected bike lanes. This is important because road designers use these guides to save time, money, and indemnify themselves.

In 2010 a group of urban planners led by New Yorkers changed this by publishing standards, based on best practices in Europe, for protected bike lanes in the Urban Bikeway Design Guide, published by the National Association of City Transportation Officials. This guide has helped officials not just in New York, but across the country build bike lanes that help everyone feel safe.

In New York, where they have built hundreds of miles of lanes, much of it protected, they have seen a 49% increase in bike ridership since 2009.  

Not every bike lane can be protected, and not every bike lane needs to be protected: on low traffic, low speed roads a painted lane can do the job. But as Evanston moves forward with its bike plan, and seeks to reduce its carbon use, protected bike lanes should be the standard along busy roads.

The city has done a great job on the Sheridan bike lanes. Let’s keep it going.