Are Bike Lanes Really Making Our Streets Better?

Not all streets are created equal.  Streets serve various purposes.  They come in various shapes and sizes.  Some are loved.  Some are hated.

The Via dei Calzaiuoli is a street in Florence that connects the Piazza del Duomo to the Piazza della Signoria. It is one of the nicest, calmest, most enjoyable streets you could ever hope to walk along.  Its simple brilliance is often overlooked, as eyes are drawn to Brunelleschi’s great dome at one end or the Uffizi Gallery at the other.  The street’s role as a supporting cast member was set early on, when in the 1300’s the grade was lowered to make the height of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral seem even more otherworldly.  But the Via has played a vital role in Florentine life for centuries.  The sculptor Donatello had a workshop on the Calzaiuoli.  Da Vinci, Galileo, and Machiavelli spent afternoons striding along this treasured corridor of art, history, and architecture. The Calzaiuoli is more than just a nice street that connects monuments; it is, in fact, a model for modern architects and planners.

The Via dei Calzaiouli        image: TRAVELTHROUGHITALY.COM

The Via dei Calzaiouli      image: TRAVELTHROUGHITALY.COM

The magic of the Via dei Calzaiuoli is in its absence of barriers.  In the purest interpretation of a figure-ground diagram, the Via is covered in uninterrupted stone paving from one building wall to the other.  There are no curbs.  No lanes.  No segregation of traffic within the “public space.”  Automobiles and pedestrians mix freely here, if perhaps not always efficiently.

The modern street, however, seeks to separate all modes of transportation into distinct rights-of-way.  Diversity and romance are sacrificed for speed and efficiency.  The modern street is intended for transportation; not as the place where one experiences the city.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this; we live increasingly fast-paced and long-distance lives that require such efficiency of movement. Measured in terms of efficiency, current street design is a success.  

The problem arose when planners made blanket decisions, applying the criteria of speed and efficiency to all streets.  Distances between points of interest grew, parking lots occupied valuable real estate, and Main Street disappeared as the automobile, not the pedestrian, became the “owner” of the street.  It has become so prevalent, that much of modern planning today is aimed at reformatting these streets from the scale of the automobile back to the scale of the pedestrian.

This image by Karl Jilg and commissioned by the Swedish Road Administration illustrates how thinking of the street as lanes for transportation only has damaged the pedestrian experience on the street.

This image by Karl Jilg and commissioned by the Swedish Road Administration illustrates how thinking of the street as lanes for transportation only has damaged the pedestrian experience on the street.

Those same blanket decisions are now being made regarding bike lanes.  Designed to move bicyclists as quickly and efficiently as possible, they succeed in their purpose. But at what price to the pedestrian?  If walkability is the goal in modern street design, bike lanes, sacrosanct as they are, may actually be an obstacle. Bike lanes have helped to promote and legitimize a very sustainable method of transportation.  However, promoting bicycle use does not need to come at the cost of the pedestrian. What impact does increased segregation of the street, particularly as it involves bike lanes, have on walkability?

Plan and Street Section Diagrams of the Segregation of the Street

Segregation of the street occurs when lanes divide the street into multiple rights-of-way.  This works well enough mid-block, where all modes of transportation are traveling forward in their respective lanes.  The problems occur when one mode of transportation must cross into another mode’s lane, such as at an intersection.  Lanes provide a feeling of entitlement to the designated user of the lane; and woe to the “trespasser” who must cross into another’s lane.  “When I’m in my designated lane, why should I stop, slow down, or even be aware of others using the street!?”  This feeling of entitlement is dangerous for all users of the street.  If you’ve ever been in your car and realized too late you needed to cross several lanes of traffic to make a turn, or been a bicyclist trying to negotiate the quirks of lane shifts at an intersection, or been an unsuspecting pedestrian who takes a false step into a bike lane and been subject to a myriad of expletives from speeding cyclists; then you have experienced firsthand the dangers of street entitlement.

Jan Heine of Bicycle Quarterly came to the conclusion that separated bike lanes are actually less safe.  He notices a disconnect between the "perceived safety" of bike lanes, and the "actual safety" of these separated lanes.  The main problem, Heine notes, is at intersections, where bicyclists must dangerously cross with motorists.

When a street is shared, all users of the street must have a heightened sense of situational awareness.  The requirement for every user of the street to be situationally aware will lead to caution and therefore safety.  Designated lanes reduce the need for this situational awareness, providing people with a false sense of security while in their lane.  Streets designed to demand situational awareness may not be the easiest, nor the fastest means to travel, but provide a safer environment for every mode of transportation on the street. 

Our romantic street in Florence is hardly a model for quick and efficient transportation. But that is not the Via’s purpose.  The Via die Calzaiuoli is a street to be enjoyed every bit as much as the monuments it connects; it is not simply a means to access those monuments.  Planners today need to ask themselves whether they are designing a street for transportation or a via for enjoyment.  If their only goal is to move people as quickly as possible, than perhaps segregated streets are the answer.  However, if their goal is to have a street that is safely and comfortably enjoyed by various modes of transportation and by pedestrians, than segregated lanes, including bike lanes, may only be moving us farther away from that idyllic Florentine street.