In the bike policy debate research sides with protected lanes

Despite documented successes, protected bike lanes continue to be controversial in Salt Lake City.  The Salt Lake City Division of Transportation released a progress report in September for the 300 South protected bike lane.  The report cited a seven percent increase in sales receipts for business along the corridor and a 30 percent increase in bicycle traffic.

Yet, the bike lane has emerged as a contentious issue during the City’s 2015 mayoral campaign.  The Deseret News recently ran a letter to the editor written by a former mayoral candidate who called the 300 South bike lane “dangerous.”

There appears to be overall local support for bike lanes.  A May poll by UtahPolicy.com found that nearly two-thirds of Salt Lake residents support the expansion of bike lanes, while a third disapprove.  Although the poll shows support for bike lanes, the level of support for protected bike lanes is unclear since the question asked in the poll didn’t differentiate between separate and protected bike lanes.

The 300 South bike lane may have public detractors, but there is a plethora of data on the impact of protected bike lanes. Salt Lake’s reported success of the 300 South bike lane is not an anomaly.

New York City constructed a protected bike lane on 9th Avenue and retail sales along the corridor increased by 49 percent.  Another protected bike lane on Columbus Avenue led to a 56 percent increase of weekday bicycle traffic and a 34 percent decrease in accidents.

In a 2014 report from Portland State University, analysis of new protected bike lanes in five large U.S. cities revealed that the lanes increased safety and local bicycle ridership.  Ridership on eight streets that gained a protected bike lane in Austin, Chicago, Portland, San Fransisco and Washington D.C. increased between 21 to 171 percent.

A 2012 study from Canada, that appeared in the American Journal of Public Health, found that cycle tracks (separated or exclusive, bike lanes) decreased a cyclists chance of injury by 50 percent.  Cyclists using a protected bike lane were 90 percent less at risk of an injury then riders using a street without bicycle infrastructure.

Protected bike lanes calm traffic, but sometimes at the expense of a lane of vehicular traffic, often referred to as a road diet.  A lane of traffic was sacrificed to make way for Salt Lake’s newest protected bike lane on 200 West.   The general push back to road diets or traffic calming is often based on concerns of increased traffic congestion.

While studies do show that lane reductions do increase travel time, that actual increase tends to be minimal while increasing safety.  According to a recent case study of an artery street in New Brunswick, New Jersey, after the four-lane road was reduced to two lanes, general travel times increased by two to three minutes.  These findings included the morning and evening rush hour commutes.

According to the report’s authors, “Evidence on the safety effect suggests that road diet conversions of arterial streets in urban areas will achieve about a 19 percent reduction in crashes.”  For a street that had 38 crashes and 18 injuries between 2007 and 2009, a 19 percent reduction would mean seven fewer crashes and three fewer injuries.

Protected bike lanes may not be universally popular, but according to the research, they are the safest option available to cities that seek to accommodate cyclists, cars and pedestrians.  In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation made separated bike lanes part of federal policy by releasing official design standards for protected bike lanes and intersections.

Posted by Isaac Riddle

Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at isaac@buildingsaltlake.com.