Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Bicycle Planning: Separation or Integration

One of the more divisive issues in bicycle planning today is whether cyclists should be integrated with the rest of traffic or separated from it. There are aspects of the helmet debate and the L.A. case study that can be seen in this topic as well (perceived vs actual safety, locus of responsibility, should we focus on ridership or infrastructure). Let's run through some of the core arguments for each side and take a look at where we stand.

Separate Facilities:

  1. Increase comfort and perceived safety
  2. Increase ridership adds safety in numbers
  3. Increase actual safety
The first two points link together pretty closely and are the easiest arguments to make. Studies have been very clear that separated bicycle facilities lead to much higher perceived safety, especially among women, children and the elderly. These are our vulnerable users for cycling so we should be crafting infrastructure that gets them out and riding comfortably. 

The third point is a much more difficult sell as research has produced supporting and undermining this point. One of the big problems with the research is that most of it compares separated bicycle facilities to little or no facilities of any type. Separated facilities do increase safety mid-block and can be incredibly effective in reducing the risk of getting "doored." There will also be an increase in safety brought on by higher ridership and maybe some added safety in terms of higher air quality for cyclists. However, separated facilities do not help much when it comes to intersections and may actually make things worse as cyclists are less visible to automobiles  It has been difficult to really evaluate the full safety impacts of separated facilities in the U.S. as of yet, but this should be changing as more cities add separated facilities and greater data becomes available.  

Integrated Facilities:
  1. Increase visibility and actual safety
  2. Right to the road
  3. Feasibility
Integrated facilities have research finding that riding behaviorvisibility and slowing traffic will increase the safety of cyclists, which is achieved by integrating cyclists into the roadway and focusing on traffic calming. Having cyclists integrated into the roadway as normal users make them more predictable, expected and visible, which will make drivers better able to share the road safely. There have also been instances in Europe where cities are trying to move away from separated facilities because they are too dangerous, an example being Berlin where the police department has reported bicycling accidents have increased on streets with protected bicycle facilities even when controlling for the increased number of cyclists (I've read this elsewhere as well, but can't verify it because I can't read German). Integrationists would argue that separated do not help with intersections or driveways, which is where most collisions occur. 

The second point is a bit more abstract, perhaps. By creating separated facilities, you may essentially be saying that bicycles don't have the same right to the road. By separating cyclists you are saying that cyclists do not belong in normal traffic lanes. This can be difficult then in areas where there are no separated facilities as drivers now have an expectation of having the lanes to themselves. 

The final point is, of course, feasibility. It will be incredibly difficult to build a full network of separated facilities for a city. It's expensive, may require a great deal more social capital, and is largely unsupported at the state and federal levels. This is not to say that it's not worth doing, but it is a factor to be considered. 

I am honestly conflicted on this issue and am incredibly curious about how you all feel on this issue. This is not an easy one to solve and the true solution will probably be some mix of the two. I do think increasing ridership is one of the first things we need to tackle and separated facilities can definitely help with that. Building up a wider support base for future active transportation planning can yield great benefits down the road. The more people using it the more people wanting to improve it. However, any separated facility needs to really focus in on keeping visibility high and managing intersections. 

On the other hand, though, is the fact that the reason I started cycling is for the incredible freedoms it allows. Separated facilities can definitely limit that freedom. This is not a traditional example, but I look at NE Going and Alberta. That is in many ways a separated facility by saying that bikes belong on Going and not on Alberta. This is can be frustrating when Alberta has all the destinations, all the interest and vibrancy and it's being made into a automobile-centric roadway. Putting the bikes on Going increases mobility, but at how does it affect the accessibility for cyclists? 

To be sure there is a lot to say on the topic so speak up. While this is an issue for Portland with the recent focus on cycle tracks, it is also an issue for many cities nationwide. This will be a decision that may have a dramatic effect on our nation's urban form and function. 

And definitely read through this article from the editor of Bicycle Quarterly, Jan Heine. At the moment I think separated facilities are the more supported side in Portland so take a look through a quick opposition piece and the comment section for a quick look at some of the strong opinions for both sides.

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