Portland guide to streamline protected bicycle lane design

By Michael Brenneis

In the United States, bicycling mode share hovers in the single-digits, while many European countries enjoy double-digit cycling mode share. The difference may be due to the attention European planners and engineers pay to cycling infrastructure.

Increasing the active transportation mode share is important for many reasons. Physical inactivity contributes to numerous chronic diseases, and motor-driven transportation adds significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. The need to reduce vehicle miles traveled and increase physical activity is becoming more apparent. To this end, local departments of transportation are increasingly looking to European examples where separated cycle tracks, or protected cycle lanes, make cycling a more attractive means of transportation for even the least experienced and most cautious.

Portland, OR, a city with 7 percent cycling mode share by some counts, recently previewed a protected bicycle lane design guide that, if adopted by city council, will become the go-to resource for Portland’s planners and traffic engineers when designing protected bike lanes. And since the city in 2015 adopted a policy to make most bike lanes protected, this would become the default for any street needing bicycle accommodations.

As reported by Jonathan Maus, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) Bicycle Program Manager, Roger Geller, expects the new design guide to expedite the installation of protected bike lanes in street reconstruction situations.

Protected bike lanes can be controversial, however, and some of the objections come from cyclists themselves. Protected lanes restrict cyclists from merging into motor-vehicle traffic should the need arise. And narrow lane widths shown in some cross-sections can make passing difficult.

In contrast, the view is widely held that potential safety improvements and mode-share increases outweigh such concerns. Proponents of protected bike lanes point to the increased safety, both real and perceived, which may attract the less bold or less skilled, who would not otherwise consider cycling. Another important safety consideration is the reduction of auto speed on roads with cycling facilities in order to improve safety and crash survivability for cyclists, and motorists as well.

Fire departments sometimes advocate against narrowing travel lanes and other measures intended to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians, but evidence, also from Portland, has shown no reduction in response times when such measures are implemented.

The mingling of cyclists and motor vehicles within intersections can create many potential conflicts. While many intersection designs have been proposed and implemented, PBOT declined to include specific design recommendations in this guide, and will instead adapt designs from other institutions.

Maus points out that PBOT estimates for the cost-per-mile of this infrastructure vary from $70,000 for parking protected lanes, to $2.8 million for grade-separated or curb-protected lanes with adjustments to drainage. But many believe that investment in protected bike lanes goes beyond improving mode share, safety, and health, to advancing equity and economic prosperity

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.