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:

[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:

[4] Red carpet, see:

[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.

Kevin Krizek

About Kevin Krizek

Kevin J. Krizek is Transport Professor, Programs of Environmental Design and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He was a 2013 fellow of the Leopold Leadership Program and received a 2013 U.S.-Italy Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Bologna (Italy). He is currently a visiting professor of "Cycling in Changing Urban Regions" in the School of Management Science at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Kevin blogs at Vehicle for a Small Planet and can be found @KevinJKrizek . Prior to moving to Colorado, he lived in Minneapolis and St. Paul and was an Associate Professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.