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Is it time to try physically separated bike lanes?

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

[Regular bike lanes
don’t always cut it.]

As bicycle advocacy and ridership in America matures, new solutions and ideas for integrating bicycles onto our roadways must be seriously considered.

For decades, we have been happy with conventional bike lanes, but as we get serious about reaching double-digit mode-splits, perhaps it’s time to go beyond a stripe of paint and consider physically separating bicycles from motor vehicle traffic.

Like two young children that, despite attempts at behavior modification just can’t seem get along, maybe it’s time we separated bikes and cars to save us all from nasty conflicts and make bike lanes safe and enjoyable for everyone.

[This bike lane in Montreal is completely separated from motor vehicle traffic.]
Photo by joelmann on Flickr

The idea that typical bike lanes (usually sandwiched between motor vehicle traffic and parked cars) offer little more than a false sense of security is something that has sparked considerable debate on this site. My post, “Are bike lanes a haven or a hazard?” (which has 87 comments so far) was written to address the growing concern over bike lanes on SW Broadway Blvd. in downtown Portland. This bike lane is notorious (to the point of being avoided by many cyclists) not just because of a fatality in it a few years back, but because trucks, cabs and cars from hotels and businesses constantly disregard it as a legitimate traffic lane.

Now, venerable filmmaker Clarence Eckerson,working with Streetsblog and NYC Streets Renaissance, has released a video that advocates for bike lanes that are completely separated from motor vehicle traffic.

On the surface, allocating physically protected and separated space for bicycles sound like a no-brainer. As you can see in the video, many cities around the world have already implemented them. By taking bikes away from dangerous motor vehicle traffic and the dreaded “door zone,” cyclists will be safer, more people will ride, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

On the other hand, some people have reservations about the unique safety challenges they present, especially in the U.S. where the car is still King of the Road and drivers do not assume a bicycle might be around every corner.

The biggest concern seems to be what happens at intersections. Mike Sallaberry, a transportation planner for the City of San Francisco has been working on bike facilities design and implementation for seven years and he brings up an interesting point in his comment on Streetsblog:

“There are certainly problems with bike lanes, but there are also major problems with sidepaths…Many of the problems…between turning motorists and through cyclists for instance, are often even worse with separated bike lanes due to sightline problems and motorists not expecting cyclists approaching from the opposite direction. And…more effort should be made to state the likely problem of pedestrians spilling into bike space.”

Even if physically separated bike lanes pose some new safety and implementation issues, the time is now for Portland (America’s #1 bike-friendly city, remember?) to lead the way and seriously consider trying them out. SW and NE Broadway would be perfect candidates.

What do you think? Are physically separated bike lanes the Next Big Thing for bikes in America? And if so, when we finally build them in Portland, where should they go?

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