America Could Have Been Building Protected Bike Lanes for the Last 40 Years

intersectiondesigns

The latest in bikeway design? Nope, these intersection treatments are from early American bikeway planning documents. Sources: Fisher, 1972; City of Davis, 1972; Smith, Jr. 1974

Salt Lake City is on track to implement the nation’s first “protected intersection” — a Dutch-inspired design to minimize conflicts between cyclists and drivers at crossings. For American cities, this treatment feels like the cutting edge, but a look back at the history of bike planning in the United States reveals that even here, this idea is far from new. In fact, the protected intersection concept appeared in every foundational document for bike planning in the early 1970s. But no American city ever installed one until now — here’s why.

First, some background. The first modern on-street bike lanes in the United States were installed in Davis, California, in the fall of 1967. Of these three bike lanes, one was a parking-protected bikeway on Sycamore Drive. That’s right: The first on-street bike lane in the United States was a parking-protected bikeway.

As word of the Davis bike lanes spread across the country, cities all over the United States began improvising their own designs. In response, the Federal Highway Administration funded the publication of four key planning documents between 1972 and 1976 that provided diagrams and guidelines to help cities (and ultimately the FHWA) create a uniform design for bikeways. There are many similarities in all of these documents, but it is clear that with each subsequent report, the design of on-street bike lanes slowly drifted toward designs that treated the cyclist more like a motor vehicle than a human.

Just as the bikeways movement was gaining steam and formalization was taking shape, physically separated bikeways were challenged by a new movement of vehicular cycling advocates — many of whom still challenge bikeways today. Throughout the 1970s, these fit men who self-identified as “cyclists” attended meeting after meeting to decry the designs that engineers were supposedly building for them. Quibbles in the wording of laws or details of a design became arguments and headaches for city staff. Anyone who was not already riding a bicycle on busy car-dominated streets was drowned out by the vehicular cyclists who claimed to speak for all bicycle riders.

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