Bike boulevards use street grids to boost two-wheeled travel

Robert Steuteville
New Urban Network

Portland, Oregon, has adopted the ambitious goal of increasing bicycling from the current 8 percent of all trips to 25 percent in the next quarter-century — a change that would reduce personal transportation costs, improve health, and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The city plans to provide trails, lanes, or streets designed for bicycling within a half-mile of at least 80 percent of residents. Currently only about 25 percent of Portland residents are within half a mile of bike facilities, and even that number represents an impressive accomplishment for a US city.

Portland has created more than 300 miles of bicycle facilities in the past 25 years. Among the most effective are “bicycle boulevards” or “neighborhood greenways.” A bicycle boulevard is a shared street with no specific bike lanes or paths. These streets have low motor vehicle volume and speed, and they possess enhanced landscaping (more street trees are planted, for example) and traffic-calming features.

Automobile traffic is diverted at key points to keep volumes low. Stop signs are eliminated or “flipped” (shifted to the cross-street) to give traffic on the bicycle boulevard the right of way. Crossings are installed to get bicyclists and pedestrians across busy intersections, and special signs and pavement markings are installed.

“People go out of their way to use these routes — they are very attractive,” says Jennifer Dill, a researcher and professor at Portland State University. Portland currently has 30 miles of built bicycle boulevards, which carry approximately 10 percent of bike traffic in the city. Another 30 miles of these boulevards are funded, and an additional 58 miles are planned.

Besides Portland, bicycle boulevards have been created in Eugene, Oregon; Arcata, Berkeley, Emeryville, Palo Alto, San Luis Obispo, and Pasadena, California; Tucson, Arizona; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Ocean City, New Jersey; Syracuse, New York; and Vancouver, British Columbia, according to Mia Birk of Alta Planning.

These routes take advantage of the current urban environment. Cyclists like bike boulevards more than streets with bicycle lanes, Dill says. They are nearly as popular as off-street paths — and much less expensive. Bicycle boulevards run $250,000 or less per mile, depending on the improvements required, whereas off-street paths cost about $1 million a mile, says Birk, who was the City of Portland’s “bicycle coordinator” prior to becoming a planning consultant and author (Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet, 2010). Bicycle boulevards are about 10 times less expensive than European-style “cycle tracks,” which are wide, separated bicycle paths on urban streets.

Bicycle boulevards work better on gridded networks than in conventional suburban circulation systems. The dendritic street patterns of many suburbs result in routes that are discontinuous and indirect. A street grid, by contrast, allows for relatively straight thoroughfares that connect important destinations — such as commercial centers, campuses, schools, and parks — to residential neighborhoods. A low-volume street that runs parallel to a busy street is a particularly good location for a bicycle boulevard, Birk explains.

Attractive to cautious riders

Bicycle boulevards are attractive to cyclists who are uncomfortable riding on major roads — even roads with bicycle lanes. About 60 percent of bicyclists fall into this category, including many children and senior citizens, Dill’s research shows.

Bike boulevards also have a positive social impact, Birk notes: “It becomes a wonderful thoroughfare for people walking their dogs and jogging. It’s a very popular street … for kids to be out and about and it’s just become this wonderful community street,” Birk says of Lincoln Street, one of the first bicycle boulevards in Portland.

To illustrate how Lincoln Street has been transformed, consider that it once carried 5,000 vehicles per day, but now carries 2,000 cars and 2,500 bicyclists. The total number of trips has not changed much — but the dominant mode has switched. Pedestrian activity has also increased.

Neighborhood greenways — a term that is well received by residents, Birk says — help to connect existing and planned open spaces. They provide a park-like atmosphere “in places where we can’t get a park,” says Brett Horner, director of planning for Portland parks, on a video called Portland’s Bike

Boulevards Become Neighborhood Greenways (see “Streets become the park. It feels like a park, and there are social benefits. People are interacting with neighbors, they are looking out for each other, and they are exercising.”

To select a route for a bicycle boulevard, officials often look for a street carrying fewer than 4,000 vehicles per day. Below 1,500 vehicles a day is even better; 500 or fewer is ideal. On higher-volume streets, automobile volume can be reduced through traffic-reduction measures.

One of the biggest challenges to developing a bicycle boulevard is making it difficult for cars to enter from busy streets, Mike Lear of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, said on the Streetsfilms video. “If you fail to make those kinds of improvements, what will happen is you’ll have a lot more cars on the bike boulevard.” The reason is that the stop-sign flipping would, in the absence of traffic diversion measures, makes the bicycle boulevards attractive to drivers as well.

Motor vehicle speeds below 25 miles per hour are preferred, and these can be further reduced through traffic-calming measures such as gentle speed bumps, small circles, and neck-downs at intersections. Yield streets no more than 28 feet wide, with parking on both sides, are preferred; they reduce the need for traffic-calming interventions.

Since bicycle boulevards usually start out as low-volume streets, they often have stop signs at nearly every intersection. On a single Portland route, 19 stop signs were flipped. Also, 21 wide speed bumps — negotiable by cyclists — were added to make sure that traffic remained calm.

Where bicycle boulevards cross busy streets, designers must provide crossings. “Refuge islands” that allow only nonmotorized traffic to traverse the intersection are often needed. Bicyclists will go 30 to 60 percent out of their way to avoid crossing a major intersection, notes Dill.

Prior to designating a bicycle boulevard, substantial public outreach is required, Birk notes. “It’s a hard concept for residents to grasp — people have never seen it before,” she says. “With the traffic diversions, they wonder whether they can get to their house, and where the traffic is going to go.” There are two main fears — that bicycle boulevards are unsafe and that property values will drop. There is good evidence that in fact the street will become safer and that “houses on boulevards are worth more,” Birk says.

Some traffic is shifted to parallel streets, but “the traffic spillover is much less than people feared,” she adds. “What has happened over a 20-year period is that people use bicycles much more.” Bicycle boulevards should also be combined with efforts to encourage pedestrians, such as Safe Routes to School.

Although Portland is pursuing bicycle boulevards aggressively, Birk emphasizes that they are “one part of the puzzle” and not a substitute for other measures — such as bicycle lanes, paths, bicycle parking requirements and incentives, and integration of bicycles and mass transit.