Thursday, January 8, 2009

Beyond Bike Lanes: True Urban Design

Ask most people how you can improve cycling in a city and they will unfailingly call for more bike lanes. The benefit of bike lanes, however, is a myth that often gets in the way of serious planning.

The reason cycling as transportation is not too popular in this country is that, as a policy, roads are optimized for recklessly fast automobile travel. Ask most people why they don't bicycle on the roads and they'll cite safety concerns - mainly due to motorists driving at wildly excessive speeds and feeling so entitled to do so that they'll often hurl obscenities at cyclists who dare to use their road.

As you might guess, bike lanes, i.e. paint stripes and a bicycle symbol on the side of the road, are not going to help this situation much. A few people might feel safer and venture into the road, but at the end of the day you still have cars traveling fast enough to easily and instantly kill a human being.

Designing towns optimized for pedestrian travel, where cars proceed slow enough that they can safely share the road with pedestrians and cyclists - that's a solution you can believe in. Anyway, you don't have to listen to me on this one. I got the idea from a list-serv post by Dom Nozzi of Aside from his closing paragraph, which I don't really understand, he presents a comprehensive, yet concise explanation of what we need to do to make our towns and cities more walkable, more bikable, and more livable.

For a downtown to be healthy for retail and all forms of travel, low-speed car travel is essential, and a "park once" environment must be created.

In a downtown, that means that the pedestrian, not the bicyclist (or car or transit), must be the design imperative. If we "get it right" for the pedestrian downtown, every stakeholder tends to benefit: not just pedestrians, but bicyclists, transit, retail, residential, children, seniors, well-behaved motorists, the disabled and everyone else.

However, if we suboptimize bicycling, transit or cars to the detriment of other community objectives, the unintended consequence is that most everyone loses.

I believe that bike lanes and the removal of on-street parking downtown serve to suboptimize bicycling -- and I speak as a bicycle commuter.

How do we make the pedestrian the design imperative downtown? Some of the more important tactics include reducing dimensions, increasing commercial intensities and residential densities, and obligating slow, attentive speeds by motorists.

Probably the most powerful, affordable way to achieve the above-mentioned tactics is on-street parking. Such parking effectively slows cars and obligates attentiveness by adding friction to the street. Such parking is also essential for healthy downtown retail. And such parking sometimes
dramatically improves pedestrian safety by reducing the street crossing distance.

In a downtown, bike lanes tend to undercut each of those design objectives.

Shoup's "High Cost" book is perhaps the best book I've ever read in the field of planning/transportation (a must-read for all planners,designers and elected folks). In that book, Shoup certainly identifies excessive parking as an enormous problem in nearly all American communities.

However, he points out that it is subsidized, underpriced OFF-STREET parking, required in excess by nearly all local governments, that is one of the most important problems in American cities. Shoup is a strong advocate of on-street parking (especially when it is properly priced and therefore efficiently used). I believe he would agree with me that for nearly all cities (even those w/ too much parking), an extremely important objective is to substantially INCREASE the amount of on-street parking and substantially reduce the amount of off-street parking. And that as much downtown street frontage as possible be lined with on-street parking.

In a properly designed downtown, car speeds are low enough that it is not only safe and pleasant for pedestrians and retailers and residences. Car speeds are also low enough to permit safe and pleasant sharing of the travel lane by bicyclists. And in a downtown, for those bicyclists who are
uncomfortable sharing even a slow-speed travel lane with cars, there tends to be nearby parallel lanes off the main street for the bicyclist.

Important downsides for removing downtown on-street parking:

*Smaller retailers tend to suffer so much that empty storefronts result and retailers flee to more remote locations that are inconvenient/unsafe to walk or bicycle or bus to. In other words, bicyclists should be strong supporters of a healthy downtown retail/residential environment, in part because it promotes a compact community with short travel distances.

*Unless travel lane width is dramatically reduced, bike lanes tend to add asphalt width to the main street. That can mean longer, more dangerous crossing distances for pedestrians, and higher speed and less attentive (and therefore more dangerous) car travel.

Again, downtown designers must be careful not to suboptimize bicycle, transit or car travel downtown, since doing so tends to be detrimental to the pedestrian, which is the downtown design imperative. The irony for bicyclists calling for the removal of on-street parking downtown is not only that it is detrimental to bicycling. On-street parking removal downtown was (and still is) most loudly called for by the motorist lobby (which fought to increase downtown street widths and car speeds beginning about 85 years ago).

And for the record, I am a strong advocate of in-street bicycle lanes on most all major streets in a city. I believe, however, that they tend to be incompatible with a low-speed, human-scaled ped-friendly downtown.

Dom Nozzi


  1. WalkbikeCT:
    I'm flattered by your comments and reference to my essay. I'm happy to help you understand my last paragraph if you are interested. Email me at
    You can also check my blog site:
    Or go to this webpage I wrote:

  2. I agree that bike lanes are a pretty shoddy solution to incorporating bike traffic into roads... there are a million problems with them, one of the biggest being that all the crap that gets swept off the roads ends up in the bike lanes, not to mention the worst street wear and potholes and such end up there as well, since they are not as high of a maintenance priority.

    I also agree that a downtown area should emphasize pedestrian traffic, for sure. I think this is good for shops, restaurants, theaters, etc, and creates a very low-key, enjoyable atmosphere in the downtown area.

    I like the way many European cities have done this by either eliminating or greatly reducing private automobile traffic in the city centre (by either blocking roads to private cars or charging tolls or other such measures), and then allowing public transit, bicycles and pedestrians in, but separating them so that they are not mingled together in most cases. If you are riding your bike, you're physically separated (at least by pylons or something) from both pedestrians and automobile traffic, and if you get off your bike, you move out of the bike lanes and onto the sidewalks. Then both of those are separated from the minimal amount of automobile traffic.

    This all creates a quiet, calm, walkable, bikeable city centre that can be enjoyed casually, it makes it pleasant to sit at sidewalk cafes, as there is much less automobile noise and exhaust, and it makes a great area for people watching, since the majority of people then aren't in automobiles, but out in the open. It creates a more personable feel to the city and makes it feel like you are actually interacting with others who live there.

  3. I subscribe to the Complete the Streets theories. However it will take a complete shift of attitudes to get people to take advantage of somethings. I know people who, if they cannot get a parking space directly in front of the business they want to visit they will go somewhere else, and will circle the mall parking lot until a space near the door opens up.

    We can learn a lot from what has been done in Denmark and the Netherlands. We don't necessarily have to copy it verbatim but at least incorporate the things that work.


  4. Wow. There are some very different perspectives out there! In my city foot traffic is the main driver of downtown business, and it has not arrived there by "parking once" but by train, bus, bicycle, cab, or you know, foot. That's something every place should work towards. I couldn't agree less with the idea that we should increase any kind of parking in downtowns. Isn't on-street parking pretty much maximized in most of them? It's the allocation of it that must be improved with higher pricing, precisely because the supply can not be increased.

    How many bicycle lanes are put in place of parking lanes, anyway? The argument seems to take that uncommon case as a foundation for general opposition to bicycle lanes through city centers, relegating bicycling to speedways. I live in downtown Brooklyn, commute to downtown Manhattan... so uh, no thanks. I like my downtown bicycle lanes very much, even the ones that are only painted in the road, but especially the excellent new design on Grand Street that puts bicycles between parking and the sidewalk. That certainly calms traffic and enhances safety. All the lanes I ride to work calm traffic by narrowing or eliminating travel lanes; none of them have replaced parking lanes. (Even so, I think a no parking spot left behind policy is foolish; complete street redesigns sometimes require parking removal, but they tend to protect the new public space with curbs or large objects that people can not actually speed a car through.) I rarely ride on "major" roads, not at all on my daily ride, and wouldn't like to. Basically... what are you guys talking about !?

  5. "Designing towns optimized for pedestrian travel, where cars proceed slow enough that they can safely share the road with pedestrians and cyclists - that's a solution you can believe in."

    That hit it right on the head, but to my experience and mind the remainder of the post does not support that at all. Dave and Doc are both on the right track.