Problems with making green (bike lanes) the new red (carpet)

Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles (California) is a charming stretch of well-kept buildings; it served as the original financial center of the city, hence termed the “Wall Street of the West.” The nearby Hollywood film industry relies on Spring Street as a perfect background for photoshoots; it’s a good “stand-in for Anytown, USA.[1]” But that changed in 2011. Los Angeles launched a pilot project to spur more Angelenos on bikes; the city sketched a bike lane on this famed 1.5 mile stretch and painted it bright green. Hollywood objected. The “green” was a distracting visual in the middle of a scene; furthermore, it was not representative of “Anywhere.” Hollywood wanted the green gone[2].

Not wanting to go to the mat with Hollywood, the city of Los Angeles caved and a compromise was reached. The bike lane remained but the bulk of the green was removed; it was restriped in white, with a narrow, four inch line of reflective dark green paint inside each line[3].

red paint intersection

Aggressive use of red paint in an intersection in Bologna, Italy (photo: Kevin J. Krizek)

Paint. It’s a powerful thing. A fresh coat makes your home feel like new. Smattering it across a five-foot wide bike lane does what a measly white stripe cannot. It loudly proclaims that streets are for more than just cars. Lacking the full green bike lane on Spring Street, cyclists are now longing for the “red carpet” treatment in Downtown L.A[4].

Europeans have been coloring their bike facilities for decades. The Dutch prefer a dull red; the French make theirs dark green; blue cycle crossings were first rolled out in Copenhagen in 1981[5]. Differentiated brick treatments are sometimes used as well.  And now, many U.S. cities are now taking colored paint to the streets in rapid fashion.

Lacking international protocol for which colors to use, cities choose their own[6]. Lacking standards for how to apply the paint, cities devise their own. Most applications focus on intersections, but they also apply to entire corridors. This semi-chaotic environment spurs creativity and experimentation (the topic of my next post); it also prompts confusion. Paint can signify a dedicated cycling corridor. It can also mean a shared mode facility. Other times it highlights a “mixing zones” with cars.

bryant ave lane near

Bryant Ave looking north (photo: Kevin J. Krizek)

Bryant Avenue South in Minneapolis is home to one of the most visible cycling paint experiments in Minnesota. More than two years ago, the city striped extra wide green bike lanes for 11 blocks South of Lake Street. But their placement was a bit unorthodox. They were close to the middle of the travel lanes, rather than in a corridor off to the side, separated from cars. According to Simon Blenski[7], bicycle planner with the Minneapolis Public Works Department, this was a decision guided by two motives: to encourage bicyclists to ride a safe distance from parked cars and to raise motorist awareness of bike traffic. The green lanes were also placed at varying distances from the curb in an attempt to evaluate where bicyclists felt most comfortable riding. It was an experiment that led many residents to question their use[8]. And now, owing to maintenance issues and having questionable effects, the city decided not to restripe them in 2013. Like the green Minnesota landscape fades with the coming of winter; the once bright green bike lane is quickly fading as well.

Experimenting is good. Creating confusion on the streets is not. Painting strategies unfortunately fall into this messy middle ground. Street markings for types of bicycle treatments are already muddied waters (e.g., advisory bike lanes, dedicated bike lanes, sharrows, bicycle boulevards). Colored paint undoubtedly highlights bicycling’s presence; but it can further muddy these waters. From the motorist’s perspective, varying colors and painting techniques send mixed signals. It’s unclear what is advisory versus prohibited; it’s unclear what space is reserved for cyclist-only travel or to be shared with cars.

It is healthy to see the “bicycle facility painting craze” alive and well. Experimentation is necessary and should be encouraged. The challenge rests in harnessing the craze in the right direction with maximum clarity. Part 2 of the post will offer an overarching purpose for painting strategies; part 3 will suggest guidelines for their use.


[1] Perfect stand in for Anytown USA, see: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/14/opinion/la-ed-bikelane-20120214

[2] Even in the day and age of digital technology, Hollywood claimed it was too costly to have to digitally remove the green lane from the photos.

[3] Adjustments made to Spring Street, see: http://m.ladowntownnews.com/news/spring-street-bike-lane-wiped-clean-of-green/article_e292e46e-217c-11e3-b106-0019bb2963f4.html?mode=jqm

[4] Red carpet, see: http://m.ladowntownnews.com/news/spring-street-bike-lane-wiped-clean-of-green/article_e292e46e-217c-11e3-b106-0019bb2963f4.html?mode=jqm

[5] Accident Analysis and Prevention 40 (2008) 742–750 Safety effects of blue cycle crossings: A before-after study Søren Underlien Jensen.

[6] Most communities in the U.S. opt for bright green, although red and blue get some nods as well.

[7] Email conversation with Blenski, December 11, 2013

[8] Blenski comments that the treatments did not go without notice—positive and negative. Based on video footage collected by the city, the paint marginally affected where bicyclists rode; most were still in the door zone. However, more drivers afforded more distance (>3 ft) when over overtaking cyclists.

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15 Responses to Problems with making green (bike lanes) the new red (carpet)

  1. Jeff Klein January 24, 2014 at 10:04 am #

    The problem with Bryant is it hasn’t attracted a critical mass of bikers, and that’s because it’s impossible to make good North/South progress on it because there’s a stop sign literally every block. What they need are little mini round-abouts. There’s a few on 5th St. in NE.

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke January 24, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    Bryant is the most half-assed bike boulevard Minneapolis has built, and it’s difficult to understand why. Is it the bus service there? The city clearly knows how to design a decent bike boulevard, as they’ve done a good job in the rest of the city.

    Hopefully this street evolves, and the can improve it down the road.

    Meanwhile, the green paint treatment on Pleasant Street by the U of MN campus is far more successful. (http://tcstreetsforpeople.org/node/1393)

    Just curious: How much does a mile of green paint cost?

    • Jeff Klein January 24, 2014 at 11:01 am #

      I think I’d rather they give up on Bryant. It’s an attempt to keep bikes of Lyndale and Hennepin. But bikes like to be where the action is for the same reason cars do — there are businesses, not to mention favorable stop lights. I’d prefer bike lanes, or hell, cycle paths on Lyndale, to more messing around with Byrant. And a nice, no-bullshit continuous path from downtown to uptown, as opposed to the half-assed MUP and round-about bridge onto Bryant.

      • Brendon Slotterback
        Brendon Slotterback January 24, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

        Sorry Jeff and Bill, I ride Bryant 3-5 days per week spring through fall, from 40th to Loring Park, and I love it. Short distances between stops, on-street parking, and a (relatively) narrow right-of-way mean cars travel slowly. Keeping the main bike facility OFF Hennepin or Lyndale is preferred in my opinion, to make riders comfortable.

        I routinely encounter multiple riders at each stop light, and I direct you to the Minneapolis Bicycle Counts for non-anecdotal data on Bryant (http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/www/groups/public/@publicworks/documents/images/wcms1p-118648.pdf). Bryant sees more riders than similarly-located stretches of Park and Portland.

        I’m ok with the green paint reverting to sharrows or advisory lanes, because I think drivers get it: there will be bikes here. To improve Bryant, I would actually add traffic diverters at 28th Street and 24th Street so cars can’t use it as a Lyndale or Hennepin substitute for long hauls.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke January 24, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

          Wouldn’t it be even better with a (riverlake-style) diverter w/ bike pass-thru at Lake Street?

          I.e. I’m not saying get rid of it. I’d like to see Minneapolis figure out a few ways to improve it, add some traffic calming elements, and make it into a real bike boulevard.

          • Jeff Klein January 24, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

            Yeah I know my preferance is a long shot here, so I’m fine to keep it. But I can’t believe this poor guy stops and starts forty times on his way up Bryant and likes it. Suffice it to say he’s more patient than me. At least do something so bikes can keep moving through most of the intersections.

          • Scott Shaffer
            Scott January 25, 2014 at 9:32 am #

            Bill’s right. It’s just not a real bike boulevard. Coming south from the bike bridge to Bryant Square Park, I go through ten intersections. I have to stop at six of them: Franklin, 24th, 25th, 26th, 28th, Lake Street, and 31st street. Cars, especially pizza delivery vehicles, use Bryant as a zippy light-free alternative to Hennepin and Lyndale. They pass me (illegally) in the intersections, and tailgate me mid-block.

            From everything I’ve ever read, a bike boulevard should have some mix of the following: A) lower speed limits B) fewer stop signs and stop lights C) diverters preventing through-traffic by cars. Bryant has A) one (1) traffic island at Franklin and B) painted bike totems that are buried in winter and ignored/misunderstood the rest of the year. We chose the low-cost option, which happens to be the no-benefit option.

            Bryant doesn’t serve cyclists. It relegates them to a slower, less-direct route. Lyndale and Hennepin are faster and more convenient to bike on. No one is going to a bar on Bryant. No one is going to a theater on Bryant. No one is stopping to shop on Bryant. The only reason I see to bike on Bryant is to connect to the Greenway.

            • Scott Shaffer
              Scott January 25, 2014 at 9:34 am #

              In my rage, I miscounted. Ten intersections, seven stops.

      • Matt Steele
        Matt Steele January 24, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

        How about turning Hennepin into a street with dedicated streetcar right of way, wide bike lanes, and wider sidewalks. And cars only on block-long woonerf segments for local business access and dynamically-priced parking.

        • Jeff Klein January 24, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

          We can dream, right?

  3. Walker Angell
    Walker January 24, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

    Kevin, why are the bicycle riders in Bologna riding beside the red carpet instead of on it?

  4. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman January 25, 2014 at 9:02 am #

    It’s not really accurate to say “Lacking international protocol for which colors to use, cities choose their own”. Bright green is an official US standard. It hasn’t made it the the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices yet, but there’s an official bulletin allowing it as an option for bicycle facilities. If cities are using red and blue they’re either doing it against US standards or did it before the standard took effect.
    http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/resources/interim_approval/ia14/

  5. minneapolisite January 25, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

    Bryant is a unique bike boulevard, but certainly not a very good one. There should at least be a bike-only access lane to and/or from Bryant off Lake which alone would cut down a good amount of traffic: just look at the lighter traffic on Nicollet north of the Kmart which serves that purpose. That makes me wonder why they’re so hesitant to do something similar here since it’s not a major street like Nicollet and it’s already designated as a bike boulevard. And for the stops I just treat them like yield signs; drivers don’t come to a complete stop, so I don’t either.

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  1. Where to Paint Your Street | streets.mn - February 21, 2014

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