‘Cycle tracks’ in cities could save bicyclists lives

Public health researcher Anne Lusk argues that installing bike routes separate from motor vehicles will boost cycling and make compact communities work better.

Author: 
Philip Langdon
New Urban Network

Dr. Anne Lusk wants everyone to learn a new term: “cycle track.” And not just learn it — apply it to the planning and development of cities everywhere.

A forceful advocate of bicycling, Lusk commanded the spotlight at CNU-New England’s annual conference in March when she received the chapter’s first Achievement Award and repeatedly pressed conferees to make biking an integral part of community design.

New Urbanism’s usual focus — the making of walkable communities — will not be enough to reverse America’s obesity epidemic, says Lusk, a research associate at Harvard University’s School of Public Health who holds a PhD in architecture, environment, and behavior from the University of Michigan. Biking, she argues, is much more effective than walking when it comes to controlling weight, improving people’s health, and making transit-oriented development function well.

In her eight years at Harvard, Lusk has concentrated on getting planners, transportation specialists, and others to view biking as a routine, indeed almost essential, element of daily life — the way it is already seen in Denmark and the Netherlands. She pursues this quest by generating high-quality research on biking, health, and communities and through outspoken advocacy.

Bicycle-commuting has been on the upswing in recent years in cities that that have made it a priority — among them, Portland, Oregon; Boulder, Colorado; and Davis, California. According to a 2009 American Community Survey, 5.8 percent of Portlanders bike to work, as compared to the 1.7 percent who did so in 1996, when Portland first adopted a plan to get more people onto bikes.

The biggest thing preventing biking becoming much more widespread, Lusk says, is fear. A large proportion of Americans are afraid of being hit by a motor vehicle if they ride a vulnerable bike on the streets and roads. That’s especially true of women. Only 24 percent of Americans who bike to work are women.

The danger is not imaginary. “The injury rate of bicyclists is at least 26 times greater than in the Netherlands,” Lusk and five co-authors wrote in a risk assessment this February in the journal Injury Prevention.

One of the reasons biking is so much safer in the Netherlands and Denmark is that the principal bicycle facilities in those two countries are cycle tracks — bike paths physically separated from motor vehicle traffic. Cycle tracks run parallel to the sidewalk, and are exclusively for bike riding. The 18,000 miles of cycle tracks in the Netherlands help to explain why 27 percent of Dutch trips are made on bicycles. (In that country, 55 percent of bike trips are made by women.)

Cycle tracks are common in Montreal. In most places in the US, however, they’re rare or nonexistent. To a large extent, Lusk and her co-authors blame resistance to cycle tracks on the Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities — a publication of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) that advises against building two-way bike paths along, but separated from, a parallel road.

“AASHTO states that sidewalk bikeways are unsafe and implies the same about shared-use paths parallel to roads, listing numerous safety concerns and permitting their use only in special situations,” the article in Injury Prevention notes. Cycle tracks, which can be either one-way or two-way and which resemble shared-use paths, are not mentioned in the AASHTO bike guide, but the overall effect is to discourage them.

The prevailing official view in the US is that bicyclists belong in the streets and should be treated the same as operators of motor vehicles even though the cyclist is no match for a 3,000-pound car. Lusk believes biking will remain at a big disadvantage until the view of where bikes should be permitted is altered.

What Montreal Shows
Since American authorities have dismissed the Dutch experience as inapplicable to the US, the research team studied cycle tracks closer to home — a half-dozen of them in Montreal, a city that has had a network of cycle tracks for more than 20 years. The analysis compared the six cycle tracks — all of them two-way routes on one side of the street — to conventional streets nearby. Raised medians, parking lanes, or posts separate the Montreal cycle tracks from the street.

The comparisons showed:
• The risk of injury was 28 percent lower on the cycle tracks than on the streets. Dutch experience suggests that cycle tracks are safer yet when they are one-way.

• Overall, 2.5 times as many cyclists rode on cycle tracks as on streets lacking separated bike lanes.

Lusk recommends cycle tracks about eight feet wide and separated from the sidewalk, to prevent collisions with pedestrians. In some cases, a curb separates the cycle track from the sidewalk. A wide cycle track has the advantage of providing enough space for a parent to ride next to a child.

Cycle tracks currently exist in cities such as Portland, Boulder, New York City, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has recently been advocating cycle tracks in Boston and Cambridge.

“It’s better to have the track near the sidewalk,” partly to reduce the cyclists’ exposure to pollutants in vehicle exhaust, Lusk says. By contrast, she says, a bicycle lane on the street, next to moving vehicles, produces more of “a highway look.” “I think news urbanists could do wonderful things with cycle tracks,” she says.

Upgrading the Research
At the CNU conference in New Haven, Lusk came across as a dynamo. That perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise, since she’s a woman who once pedaled from Boston to Washington, about 600 miles, meeting reporters each day as she promoted the East Coast Greenway. Her immersion into bike-related issues came in the early 1980s in Stowe, Vermont, where she lived while teaching fashion at the University of Vermont.

Stowe needed a feasibility study for a local bike path, and she worked on it. “So I became a professional lecturer, keynote, and consultant on how to build bike facilities,” she says. Ultimately, Lusk concluded that the battle for bike facilities and other health-sustaining public improvements would not be won until research studies were carried out by respected scientific methods.

She went to Michigan for her PhD (with a minor in urban planning), became affiliated with Harvard, and has tried to bring academic rigor to studies linking exercise, health, and elements of the built environment. She also teaches a bicycle environments and public health class at Harvard University Extension School.

Why bicycles? Because “the bicycle is the best rig we have for public health and climate concern,” Lusk says. “With a bicycle, you can travel farther and carry more goods than you can walking. The bike replaces the car. Walking doesn’t always replace the car.”

Transit-oriented development would function better if there were cycle tracks, enabling people to bike some distance to the station and to the stores or other facilities there, she says. “If you have this wider transportation shed, you can better support the stores in the TOD. We don’t want people riding in their car to the station.”

In Celebration, Florida, the town center’s stores “can survive only because there are enough tourists,” she observes. With cycle tracks, the stores could attract residents from a considerable radius, she suggests. The same would apply to many town centers.

As for walking: It doesn’t deliver as much health benefit as people think. With Harvard Public Health’s Dr. Walter Willett and others, Lusk carried out a study of over 18,000 women, finding that only 39 percent of them walked at a pace brisk enough to ward off weight gain. Women tend to walk more slowly than men, and “it’s not comfortable to walk briskly if you’re overweight,” Lusk says.

“In contrast, both lean and overweight women who bicycled did so for approximately the same amount of time,” she points out. Bicycling raises a person’s metabolic level much more consistently, which is good for controlling weight and for overall health.

Research in the Netherlands, she says, has shown bicycling to be “strongly associated with the emotion of joy in comparison to riding in a car or taking mass transit.” One reason for this joy, she says, may be that people can bicycle side-by-side, talking as they ride; building the cycle track wide enough to allow side-by-side travel would increases the likelihood that people will use it. Suggests Lusk: “The bicyclists may then also feel joy.”

Please also see our related Urban Bikeway Design Guide article here.

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