Public health researchers: Bike guide leaves out facilities favored by many

By Robbie Webber

A recent article by Harvard researchers published in the American Journal of Public Health concentrates on the lack of updated bicycle facilities standards in the official AASHTO guides. U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood voiced this same concern when he spoke to the AASHTO national meeting in February. The article’s authors focused specifically on their perception that cycle tracks—bike facilities separated from motorized traffic by a curb, parked cars, or other physical or painted buffer to discourage intrusion by motor vehicles—would increase bicycle transportation by older users, women, and children.

The AJPH article compared crash rates on cycle tracks compared to reference streets, i.e., nearby alternative routes. They found a lower rate of crashes with injuries on cycle tracks than on the comparison roadways.

The researchers also cited polls and research showing that female, older, and child bicyclists prefer bicycle facilities separated from motor vehicle traffic. This is significant because these groups are underrepresented among transportation bicyclists. In countries where a much higher portion of all trips are made by bicycle, and where cycle tracks are common, women also make up a higher percentage of urban bicyclists than in the U.S., and older and child cyclists also have a high bicycle mode share. Many public officials and citizens, including those concerned about increasing physical activity, have advocated that new facilities are needed to attract these potential users.

Inclusion of new infrastructure designs in the AASHTO guide requires that the facilities have a proven record of safety and be commonly used in the U.S. However cycle tracks are not installed in many locations, so it is difficult to amass a safety record. At the same time, because the facilities are not included in the official guide—one that most state DOTs use—they are difficult to install because they fall outside the norm, especially if state or federal funding is used. In some cases, cities, where the majority of cycle tracks are being used, have been barred from installing them on local roads that are also state highways.

While the AASHTO Guide—including the 2012 edition, which came out after the AJPH article was accepted for publication—does not include language about cycle tracks, and states that on-street bicycle facilities should generally be placed between any parked cars and motor vehicle travel lanes, the trainings offered by AASHTO on the new guide do suggest that innovative designs be considered.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials does encourage cycle track use in its NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide, however this publication does not offer guidance regarding where cycle tracks should be used and where they are not recommended. Most practitioners admit that cycle tracks are not appropriate for all roadways, but there is not yet good guidance on which situations are optimal. Knowledgeable engineering and planning staff will be able to ascertain appropriate locations, but not all municipalities have well-trained staff available.

Until the widely-accepted AASHTO publications contain information about cycle tracks and other innovative bicycle facilities, including appropriate and inappropriate locations for installation, these new designs may continue to be difficult to integrate into our transportation system. And according to the authors of the AJPH article, this delay could be a disincentive for many female, older, and child riders to travel by bike.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.