May 24th, 2013 by Zachary Shahan
Making the case for off-road bike paths instead of on-road bike lanes (or, ideally, in addition to them), here’s a summary of some recent research I conducted and some recent research out of Harvard Medical School:
More or less, bicycle infrastructure policy and its relationship to riderships was the topic of my 2007 master’s thesis. It’s been obvious to some of us for a long time that bicycle infrastructure policy needs to change in order to give bicycle ridership a big boost, and public health would of course improve from that, as well. Nonetheless, there was some debate regarding infrastructure, thanks to a rather small but loud group of cycling enthusiasts who thought not having bike lanes was a better policy than having bike lanes, and who especially hated off-road bike paths that intersected with roads. Quite frankly, I’ve always thought that was absurd. Now, it seems that the case has grown strong enough in favor of off-road bicycle paths (or cycle tracks) that Harvard researchers think the “Bible” of transportation planning needs to be updated to encourage off-road bicycle paths over (as in, instead of, not in the space above) on-road bicycle lanes.
Better Bicycle Facilities = More Bicycling
My master’s thesis was about the relationship between specific bicycle facilities and bicycle transportation rates. Already, there was a lot of research in support of off-road bicycle lanes, but it was largely “stated preference surveys” (not the best proof) or aggregate studies of large-scale investments in bicycling facilities and concurrent increases in bicycle travel (still quite speculative). My research was much more specific and rigorous, and it was the first (that my advisors and I were aware of) to look at such a wide range of options (i.e. off-road bike paths, bike roads, on-road bike lanes, aesthetics along bike routes, etc.). It included research in Montgomery County, Maryland as well as the city of Delft in the Netherlands.
I’ll highlight some of the key conclusions from my research (which included regression analyses):
In both Montgomery County and Delft, the best possible bicycle travel facilities in respondents’ home neighborhoods were significantly associated with higher levels of bicycle travel, strongly affirming initial hypotheses.
In Montgomery County, the existence of bicycle paths/trails in one’s home neighborhood was significantly correlated with bicycle travel from home to work, and the existence of sidewalks in one’s home neighborhood was significantly correlated with bicycling in or from one’s neighborhood. Sidewalks protected from the roadway by a buffer of parked cars had a particularly strong association with bicycling in or from one’s home neighborhood.
In Delft, the presence of certain bicycle facilities and issues regarding their design were found to be significantly associated with bicycle travel in a number of instances. Bicycle-only roads—the largest and presumably most preferred type of bicycle infrastructure that was examined—in or near one’s home neighborhood were significantly and positively associated with the highest number of dependent variables of any bicycle facility variable—the number of times a respondent bicycled to work, the proportion of times they bicycled to work, and the proportion of times they bicycled to their common destination. This indicates that the better the bicycle facility, the more likely it is to influence bicycle travel. Bicycle lanes were also significantly and positively related to the number of times a respondent bicycled to work, indicating the importance of support travel facilities in auto-dominant urban environments.
Furthermore, the quality of the urban and natural scenery along bicycle travel routes (where they are located) was significantly related to the proportion of times a person traveled to work via bicycle and the number of times they traveled in or from their home neighborhood. Additionally, the entire scale for “design and quality of available bicycle facilities” was significantly associated with the number of times per week a respondent bicycled in or from their home neighborhood, as well as the total distance they bicycled in or from their home neighborhood. This implies that design and quality of bicycle facilities, and, in particular, the environments through which bicycle facilities pass, are very important to their effectiveness in attracting bicyclists and inducing bicycle travel.
Whether or not a person had ever lived in an area with considerably more bicycle facilities was significantly correlated with the proportion of times they bicycled to work, indicating a possible carryover effect of a habit that had been developed in a more bicycle friendly environment.
OK, that’s all I’ll report from my research right now. On to the Harvard study….
Change The Transportation Planning Bible!
Harvard researchers came to similar findings. But they didn’t stop there. They took up the important work of advocating for changes in the most influential book in the transportation planning realm.
From the Harvard press release: “Bicycle engineering guidelines often used by state regulators to design bicycle facilities need to be overhauled to reflect current cyclists’ preferences and safety data, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers. They say that U.S. guidelines should be expanded to offer cyclists more riding options and call for endorsing cycle tracks – physically separated, bicycle-exclusive paths adjacent to sidewalks – to encourage more people of all ages to ride bicycles….
“Standards set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) in its Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities generally serve vehicles well but overlook most bicyclists’ needs, according to lead author Anne Lusk, research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH, who has been studying bicycling patterns in the U.S. and abroad for many years. ‘In the U.S., the default remains the painted bike lane on the road,’ she said, which is problematic since research has shown that women, seniors, and children prefer not to ride on roads with traffic.”
Yep. Unfortunately, AASHTO, based on no legitimate evidence, has always considered off-road bicycle paths as dangerous. “According to the researchers, the AASHTO guidelines discouraged or did not include cycle tracks due to alleged safety concerns and did not cite research about crash rates on cycle tracks.”
The Harvard researchers went ahead and did the research that AASHTO had passed over. “This study analyzed five state-adopted U.S. bicycle guidelines published between 1972 and 1999 to understand how the guidelines have directed the building of bicycle facilities in the U.S. They also wanted to find out how crash rates on the cycle tracks that had been built compared with bicycle crash rates on roadways in the U.S. They identified 19 cycle tracks in 14 cities in the U.S. and found these cycle tracks had an overall crash rate of 2.3 per one million bicycle kilometers ridden, which is similar to crash rates found on Canadian cycle tracks and lower than published crash rates from cities in North America for bicycling in the road without any bicycle facilities.”
In other words, build the damn cycle tracks! They are safer than bike lanes.
Lusk, coming from Harvard’s School of Public Health, also made the important link to public health: “Bicycling, even more than walking, helps control weight and we need to provide comfortable and separate bicycle environments on existing roads so everyone has a chance for good health.” As did the press release: “Encouraging more cycling would be helpful for weight control, heart function, and would boost physical fitness for children and adults in addition to helping to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution from vehicles.”
After over a 1,200 words (this article) and dozens of research papers, the point remains clear: off-road bicycle paths are safer, preferred by most people, and should be encouraged and built.
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