Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Gender Equity in Bicycle Planning

Separated bicycle facilities has been an increasingly tricky issue in the U.S. We can see the success stories in Europe, but there are also plenty of studies detailing the dangers of cycle tracks and the like (more on this in the Op-Ed). One thing that hasn't been talked about much, however, is the categorical lack of gender equity in deciding if the U.S. should adopt cycle tracks as a viable infrastructure option. This may be a key issue in the disparity in gender of cyclists in many cities trying to be more bike-friendly.

A recent study by Anne Lusk investigated the safety of cycle tracks as well as the realities of the planning and engineering keeping cycle tracks from becoming a part of the official transportation manual. From past literature, she found that about 24% of bicycle commuters in the U.S. are female while 55% of bike trips in the Netherlands are taken by females. One of the reasons for this, she posits, is the lack of separated cycle facilities in the U.S., which is supported by past studies. Women have consistently shown that they are more comfortable on separated bike facilities and more likely to ride a bike if these facilities are available. Cycling rates have significantly increased in U.S. cities that have implemented cycle tracks. If we have this data, why aren't separated facilities even an option in the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) guidelines that are the basis for many DOTs?

Lusk points out to some disturbing trends. First, the research AASHTO has used to deny protected or separated bike lanes from being in their manual is not rigorous or up to date. Second, there has been little effort to address this, even though there are now 32 U.S. cities using separated bicycle facilities. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Lusk looked into who was making these decisions in AASHTO. For the 1991 AASHTO manual, 91% of the people involved in the planning, engineering and writing were male. In 1999 that numbers jumps to 97%.

I'm not saying that all cities should use cycle tracks, or that separated facilities are the right choice in every situation. What is crucial is that the AASHTO manual is the primary basis for transportation engineering decisions in many cities and this manual doesn't allow for the option of using separated facilities. Comparatively, the Urban Bikeway Design Guide used and developed by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) presents four different protected or separated bicycle facility options. The NACTO Guide was developed by city officials across the country and the organization has 23 member cities, including Portland. However, even here in Portland the AASHTO manual still causes problems on state-owned roadways or in some federally funded road projects because AASHTO is the nationally recognized manual that forms the basis for road requirements.

We talk about equity a great deal in our planning and implementation, our outreach and goal-setting. It's important to also keep in mind our research and process as well, to keep reevaluating where our information is coming from and who is controlling the gates.


  1. Michael-

    I agree with your post and think it makes some interesting observations. I think one gets a sense from your piece of the quickness with which some of these agencies do or do not respond to changes that road users exhibit - greater bike use, etc. That said, it doesn't seem surprising that incorporating equity into the mix still appears to be a way off.

    One thing, after a cursory read/look, that I'm curious about: AASHTO creates guidelines (basically industry standards that are implemented or have to be used) where the NACTO produces 'design guidance treatments' meaning if you want to use them you can but nothing is mandatory - is that correct?

    Also, while reading your post I kept thinking about how this issue squares with the ideas that are brewing in the safety sector of this blog.
    Meaning your post advocates greater bike use and equity through increased separation of travel modes. In contrast, the safety contingent is eager to remove the curbs and signs and throw the whole lot together: vehicles, bikes and pedestrians with the idea that it will create confusion and increased safety.

    The two ideas seem like polar opposites? Do think it's an either/or for cities and bikers?

  2. Ugh, I feel like these kinds of issues are so difficult for me. I'm an ardent feminist and am devoted to pushing for input from all affected groups for new developments, but I'm also a conservationist, so I struggle with all of the construction and development that often go into separating cycling facilities from roads. Granted, it doesn't take much to paint bike lanes or cycle tracks, but then, for example, you sometimes take into account separate traffic lights for bicycles or paving multi-use paths through fragile areas (often wetlands) and while this makes for a much safer environment, the lack of cyclist presence on roads can contribute to drivers' views that they "own the road."

    So much of the country has been paved for roads, highways and freeways, and we know this has gotten out of control. Yet sometimes we still don't see the irony in doing the same thing for bicycles. It's like bicycling infrastructure with a car-centric point of view. Cycle tracks would be awesome if they could be implemented without expanding the roads and right of way. But rarely do American citizens allow their precious car lane or lanes to be taken away to make room for cycle tracks or bike lanes, so then we end up widening the lanes, often paving over small yet significant areas of grassland, trees, plants, etc. How do we create safe environments for cycling without the destruction and degradation involved in major construction projects? It's simple: we have to take away from the car-centricity and infrastructure currently in place. But since we can't convince the masses that this is the best course of action, then we end up doing what they'll let us do, which is throw down more pavement. But it's true that many of these separated facilities greatly contribute to increasing bicycle rates, so it is definitely a tough decision.

    And Adder, I think (though I'm not sure) that there is a big push for NACTO to either replace AASHTO or at least greatly influence the guidelines that are adopted into AASHTO. From what I remember hearing, it's quite an uphill battle.

  3. Michael,

    Great post! It complements your integration/separation post nicely. Though I'm pretty familiar with the literature surrounding the policy of integration/separation, I've not come across any discussion of the equity of the process behind it. This was a very illuminating post, and while the male-dominant demographics of traffic engineering is not surprising the 97% figure is shocking.

    On the AASHTO v. NACTO discussion, it's important to remember that the AASHTO Green Book is vastly more comprehensive than the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide. The Green Book covers basically any road you could think of, and has been acknowledged by various courts as representing "industry standards." This is why it is often (almost universally) voluntarily chosen by DOTs to be or provide the basis for their own design guidelines.


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