Bicycle Superhighways — Pathways to Less Congestion and Healthier Urban Lifestyles?
Recently I’ve learned about efforts in England, Sweden, Denmark, and even in North America, to establish “bicycle superhighways” — not just bike lanes tacked on to city streets, but dedicated bicycle roadways, with features like two-directional traffic, passing lanes, service areas for repair and filling tires, and signage for safety and wayfinding.
Sweden’s transportation authority has reportedly approved a 10.5-mile, four-lane bike highway between the city of Malmö and the nearby university town of Lund. The city of London is developing a system of 12 bicycle highways that radiate from the center of the city to outer London. Bike highways are under development in Copenhagen, Denmark. A Toronto architect has even proposed the construction of a high-speed network of bike tracks enclosed in elevated tubes.
Encouraging more bicycle transit seems like a logical move for cities, given the levels of congestion, air pollution, and safety problems resulting from automobile traffic. “Hard-core bikers,” whoever they might be, are supposedly satisfied to mix right in with automobile traffic on city streets. But obviously, limiting bike traffic to a regime that is only safe for that mythical population is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Only the hard core will dare to venture onto streets dominated by tired, angry, frustrated car commuters, one hand occupied with a cell phone, operating speeding projectiles made from a ton of metal. The average person who dares to try it runs the risk of providing proof of the theory of natural selection. (Photo: Bicycle roadway in Malmö, Sweden. Credit: David Hall, CC BY 2.0.)
Bike lanes hardly seem like a better solution. Bike traffic is still effectively mixed in with automobile traffic. You still have the same problems with intersections, lane-crossings, and left turns. Bike lanes are usually narrow, often obstructed, and sometimes run alongside parked cars, so the cyclist runs the risk of getting creamed when someone opens their car door.
I’ve long felt that different kinds of traffic should have their own separate thoroughfares designed according to the unique needs of the category of traffic. I would be happy to never have to drive again on the same highway with big trucks, and I’m sure the feelings are mutual on the part of truck drivers. To me it makes great sense to develop dedicated bicycle highways designed with the characteristics of bicycle travel in mind — slower speeds, faster maneuverability, and greater vulnerability in case of collisions.
Where I live, in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.A, the city is developing what it calls the Capital Area Greenway Trail System — a network of trails now at 69 miles and still expanding. The Greenway is primary intended for recreation and is not restricted to bicycle traffic, but it does provide alternative bike travel for some routes. So far, though, the Greenway system does not provide a direct route from the populous North Raleigh area where I live down into the central city and NC State University, which are key commuting destinations for people living up here.
Malmö: Sweden’s “Cycle City”
The city of Malmö bills itself as “Sweden’s cycle city,” boasting 410 kilometers of bicycle paths, more than any other Swedish city. Bicycling is increasing rapidly in the city, with 30 percent of total transport occurring by bicycle, and 40 percent of all work-related activity undertaken by bike. The city web site says,
At 28 intersections in Malmö a sensor system has been installed to grant cyclists priority. As cyclists approach an intersection which is not already crowded by car traffic, the lights quickly turn green to favor the cyclist.
The new bicycle superhighway between Malmö and Lund would be constructed along the route of existing bike paths and would pass through several smaller communities along with way. Leo Kaye, writing for TriplePundit, says,
The 10.5 mile link would be for the most part adjacent to rail tracks, feature exits but no intersections, and offer wind protection from hedges. Bicycle service stations would also be included on this link. The proposed highway would also have links to bicycle and pedestrian paths to other towns in this southern tip of Sweden.
The project is expected to cost about US$7 million and will take several years to complete.
London’s Barclays Cycle Superhighways
London calls its bike transit project Barclays Cycle Superhighways, named after the banking firm Barclays, which sponsors the roadways and a bicycle-sharing program in the city. Designed for commuting, the Barclays routes radiate like spokes from central London out to surrounding areas of the city and running through 25 boroughs. Routes measure up to 15 km. Four of the routes have been completed, and eight more are planned by 2015. The system is part of a plan by the city to increase cycling by 400 percent from the year 2000 through 2025. This would mean that by 2015, 5 percent of all trips in London would be by bicycle. (Photo: Bicycle route signage, London. Credit: EverydayLifeModern, CC BY-ND 2.0.)
Although the routes run through urban land and often close to automobile traffic, the city has made them much more than just bike lanes. According to the city,
Cycle lanes are at least 1.5m wide and continue through junctions. Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs) are provided at signals to help cyclists get ahead of the traffic, and a number of junction layouts have changed to provide more space. There are also safety features, such as blind spot visibility mirrors to help HGV [Heavy Good Vehicle] drivers see cyclists. Barclays Cycle Superhighways will provide thousands of new cycle parking spaces, free or subsidized Commuter Cycle Training, as well as better facilities for cyclists at work.
The highways also provide “improved signage, road markings and other info to assist with wayfinding and journey planning, … [and] new surfacing to provide a more comfortable journey for cyclists and other road users.” The roadways use blue surfacing, “to provide high levels of safety and visibility, to help wayfinding, to provide a consistent look and feel, and to distinguish them from other cycle lanes in London.”
The aforementioned “hard-core bikers” are said to complain at times about the whole bike-lane concept, asserting that a bicyclist will do better by “owning the lane” and riding in the center right along with car traffic. While acknowledging that this might sometimes be the case, the city argues that
The blue cycle lanes help make motorists aware that they can expect high volumes of cyclists along the Barclays Cycle Superhighways routes, adding to the “safety in numbers‟ effect. Individual cyclists should use their own judgment and apply what they have learned in their training, taking up a road position that is appropriate to the traffic conditions. On some occasions, for example, when preparing to turn right at a junction or when passing stationery vehicles, cyclists may choose to cycle outside the blue lanes.
As a practical matter, London has not created the completely separate roadway system that I think would be ideal. In such a heavily-developed metropolitan area, the land simply isn’t available to provide wholly segregated bike roads. City informational materials say that,
Barclays Cycle Superhighways are primarily intended to provide commuter cyclists with a safer, faster, and more direct route between work and home. They are aimed at those who already own and use a bicycle, as opposed to inexperienced or novice cyclists and are intended to help cyclists assert their right to be on the road, whilst making drivers aware that they are likely to encounter high volumes of cyclists. The project promotes shared road space, which has been shown to have a civilising effect on all road users.
Each of the superhighways is expected to cost between £8 and £11 million. Transport for London, an agency attached to the mayor’s office, reported that, along the first two Barclays routes, bicycle traffic increased by 70 percent from 2008 to 2010. Research by the office found that, because of the new routes, more people had taken up cycling and those already cycling had increased their activity. About 80 percent of trips were made by people commuting to and from work.
Copenhagen, the City of Cyclists
The city of Copenhagen, Denmark, likes to refer to itself as “The City of Cyclists.” And their support for two-wheeled transit is impressive. Informational materials from the city say that the city has 350 kilometers of cycle tracks and 40 kilometers of Green Cycle Routes, that cyclists in the city travel 1.2 million kilometers by bike daily, and that one person out of three commutes by bike to work or school daily. (Photo: Cyclists in Copenhagen. Credit: Troels Heien.)
The Green Cycle Routes the city describes as “cyclist motorways” that “criss-cross the city, separated from the rest of the infrastructure,” providing cyclists with “a quick route because of the broad width of the paths and a minimal contact with traffic.” Besides the Green Cycle Routes, the city provides conventional bike lanes, as well as “cycle tracks,” tarmack roadways that follow city streets but are separated from auto and pedestrian traffic by curbs.
A brochure discusses safety measures the city has built into its bicycle infrastructure:
In order to reduce the risk of accidents, many intersections have been restructured in order to give priority to cyclists. Stop lines for cars are being pushed back five meters behind the stop line for cyclists. At intersections with separate traffic lights for bikes, the cyclists get a green light four seconds before the cars do. In some cases the head start is up to 12 seconds. These initiatives make the cyclists far more visible in the traffic.
Copenhagen is now working with 18 municipalities in the region and the Capital Region of Denmark to develop a large-scale Cycle Superhighway.
The United States is not completely ignoring the bicycle-superhighway model. Tom Vanderbilt at Slate writes that Portland, Ore., Austin, Tex., Minneapolis, Minn., Wilmington, N.C., and Rochester, N.Y., are considering the idea.
Does it really make sense to put so many resources into specially-designed roadways for bikes, rather than just create bike lanes or let bikers mix in with car traffic? Jacob Larson, a McGill University researcher who conducted a study about Montreal’s bicycle infrastructure, told Vanderbilt:
I do believe the separate facility is the best. Not only in terms of actual safety performance but in terms of encouraging people who are less likely to ride their bikes. These people shouldn’t have to be some kind of breakneck radicals that are really diehards—it should be a clear and safe option, and I think separate facilities give the perception that it is, and often do provide a truly safer alternative.