Jeff Speck is Almost Wrong About Biking on Main Street

A while back I mentioned how I’ve become something of a Speck-olyte. Permit me to explain. After reading Jeff Speck’s Walkable City a while ago, I took a Christmas gift card to Barnes and Noble and bought two extra copies to hand out to people. I love the book, and you’ll find no better short, readable, and comprehensive guide to good urban design. Plus, Speck’s book centers on walkability, which should be the #1 most focus for cities.

That said, Speck’s book isn’t quite perfect. When I digested it back in 2013, his chapter on bikes stuck in my craw. After outlining the many reasons why cities should encourage bicycling — health, safety, and economic development — Speck throws in a note of caution about bike lanes and commercial corridors. Here’s what he says:

The final question to ask is whether a bike lane is in keeping with the nature of the street. While carving bike lanes out of existing retail Main Streets can sometimes make sense, they should not be allowed to replace curbside parking, nor can they be allowed to create an impediment between cars and chops. For this reason, separated paths rarely belong in a retail environment. All those stripes and posts may send a message of sustainable transportation, but it is still a message of motion, not of the stasis appropriate to a Main Street. The design objective of this type of street should be to create an environment of such slow driving that bikes and cars can mix comfortable at biking speeds….

By “separated paths”, Speck is mostly talking about cycletracks and buffered lanes. He worries that bike infrastructure on commercial main streets will detract from their walkability.


Real World Main Streets are Rarely Walkable

Meanwhile, I worry that planners and officials might misinterpret Speck’s bike warning so that it does more harm than good. Speck argues that commercial “main streets” should always be low-speed (<20 mph) “shared space.” But the problem is that today’s main streets remain high-speed arterials. Most of the streets Speck is talking about have speeds of at least 35 mph with multiple lanes of traffic. In many cases, separated bike infrastructure might be just the thing to improve these streets for biking, walking, and small businesses.

Let’s look at a few examples from the Twin Cities. In Minneapolis and Saint Paul, most commercial “main streets” are county road arterials where safety and access take a back seat to traffic flow. For example, look at Lake Street, Lyndale Avenue, or Central Avenue in Minneapolis (or 7th Street, North Dale Street, or Snelling Avenue in Saint Paul).


Biking on Minneapolis’ Lyndale Avenue S is pretty horrible.


Today, Minneapolis’ Central Avenue NE is a car sewer.


In all these cases, you have multiple lanes in each direction. While there might be on-street parking, high speeds of travel on all these streets often makes stopping at businesses inconvenient at best. And all these streets lack bike infrastructure, so that it’s often unsafe and uncomfortable to ride out in the traffic lane. (That said, people ride on these streets anyway.) I’d say that many of these streets would be improved with separated bike lanes.


Shared Space

On the other hand, Speck’s point is that bike lanes alone won’t make a street walkable. Rather, he argues that the key to walkability is traffic calming and “shared space.” Speck advocates creating “an environment of such slow driving that cars and bikes can mix comfortably at biking speeds.” What would this look like?

First of all, biking speeds are pretty slow! We’re talking about 15-20 miles per hour, much of the time. Imagine our key “main streets” calmed and designed so that cars travelled at 20 miles per hour through the city. How would that affect bicycling, driving, and small businesses?

stp selby avenue

Selby Avenue in Saint Paul is a rare “shared space.”

Slowing traffic down to this level is pretty rare in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, but there are a few examples to look at. My favorite is Selby Avenue (at least the Eastern mile between the Saint Paul Cathedral and Victoria street). Selby is narrow, with one travel lane in each direction, parking on the sides, plentiful bumpouts and medians, and no bike lane. It’s also a slow speed commercial corridor with nice sidewalks and patios, and small businesses opening up all the time. Surprisingly, despite it’s complete lack of bike infrastructure (no lanes, no sharrows, no nothing), it’s one of my favorite streets to bike on in Saint Paul.

It works because traffic speeds are very slow. Cars rarely drive 30 mph on Selby because the street is narrow and full of activity. But this low-speed traffic calming is the key to Selby Avenue working as a “shared space.” Without those slow speeds, biking on the street would be horrible and it’d be a far less pleasant place to stroll.


The 1st Ave “cycletrack” in downtown Minneapolis.

Bike Lanes Can Provide Walkability

Speck’s book focuses on how walkability creates thriving cities. In particular, he loves design walking commercial districts with lots of shops, cafés, street trees, and thriving businesses. The key to that kind of street is slow traffic speeds.

I worry that Speck’s warning about separated bike lanes sending a “message of motion” is overblown, particularly as long as our main commercial streets remain high-speed traffic sewers. For example, despite being badly designed, the 1st Avenue N protected bike lanes [pictured at right] improve the street and have been a modest success in downtown Minneapolis. It would be a shame if anyone reading his book took his warning as a permission slip to keep bicycles off our key commercial streets.

Instead, Speck’s shared space prescription only works if we change how our streets behave. We need to slow traffic down to sub-fatal 20 mph speeds through traffic calming, road diets, bumpouts and medians. Only then can we build the kind of “shared space” streets that allow for safe mixing of cars and bicycles. We’re a long way from this goal in most American cities. And until we get there, maybe bike lanes aren’t such a bad idea on our main streets.

15 thoughts on “Jeff Speck is Almost Wrong About Biking on Main Street

  1. Jeff Klein

    I think the question becomes, by building the separated paths, do we delay the ultimate goal of building shared streets? It seems as though it moves us farther from the goal, by being unwilling to challenge the status quo of these straods by working around it.

    You said “Surprisingly, despite it’s complete lack of bike infrastructure (no lanes, no sharrows, no nothing), it’s one of my favorite streets to bike on in Saint Paul.” (Someone should tell Mr. Angell!). Is Selby such an unreachable goal? Is it any more realistic to apply complicated infrastructure to a street like Lyndale than it is to turn it into Selby, which could be done partially just with paint?

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Someone just did 🙂

      I biked along Selby this morning and am currently sitting in Nina’s. I agree that this section of Selby is one of the best in the Twin Cities. It would not be acceptable by Dutch standards however. While great for some people it is not acceptable for younger folk (what mom would send her 8-year-old off to ride by themselves down the middle of Selby?), elderly, disabled, or my wife.

  2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great great post. Just downloaded the book.

    I was long a fan of Hans Monderman and of his and others shared space concepts. Sadly, over time these have proven to be failures. The Monderman designed spaces in The Netherlands are being converted to traditional Dutch infrastructure with marked/signaled crossings and cycletracks. Their experience was that these worked well for a couple of years but that once drivers became used to them the cars took over.

    The Dutch experience has been that shared space does not work for any type of thru street but only for those limited to very local access only.

    What has been a huge success in The Netherlands and elsewhere, including in NYC, is cycletracks along retail corridors. I’d love to see what would happen if parking along one side of Grand was replaced with a curb separated cycletrack.

  3. Nicole

    I, too, loved Speck’s book, but found his bicycling section a bit frustrating too. Recognizing my own bias towards good cycling infrastructure, I tried to take it with a grain of salt, as I loved just about everything else about the book. However, I appreciate your articulating what didn’t sit well about his analysis. I think protected bike lanes on our busiest arterials (where all the destinations are!) are just what this city needs!

  4. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Hopkins Mainstreet should become a shared space. I wish they could be convinced of it.

  5. Froggie

    Reminds me a lot of arguments made by a prominent Alexandria, VA resident during that city’s transit corridor meetings, that pedestrian-space should be the #1 priority, and that bicycle facilities should not be included if it detracts or takes space away from pedestrian facilities.

  6. Keith Morris

    Selby only in the immediate vicinity of commercial clusters is good to bike on w/o worrying about speeding traffic. Between, say, Dale and Western you’ll have cars wanting to speed up along the less clogged stretch (lined with only homes, no businesses) to the other end. Selby just pales in comparison to what Nicollet offers or my hometown of Columbus where a short stretch of a downtown street was converted to a two-way and had traffic calming measures added. Note the raised median on a now narrow two-way street and a *real* curb bump out just ahead (not one of those timid bump outs that don’t reach and delineate the very edge of the travel lane like they should).,-83.000337,3a,75y,65.28h,71.17t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sxM87i0uTEdEfphEN6RUAHg!2e0

    No speed limit is posted and I regularly had to slow down for motorists travelling too slowly for my liking (10-15 MPH). Now that is when you can say you’ve done a (near) perfect shared street.On Selby I just haven’t had a similar experience: I’m too busy watching for cars or buses speeding up from behind and looking for a gap to pull over and let them by..

  7. Eric SaathoffEric S

    I certainly don’t think a cycle track like that on 1st Ave is going to either make the pedestrians feel much safer or slow down the cars. Without a high volume of bicycles it will make the space look and feel more open (not in a good way). I’ve been looking a lot more at the positive effects of on-street parking since reading Speck.
    Perhaps an Amsterdam-style cycle track with grade/color separation or substantial physical barriers would do the trick for safety. Putting the cycle track on the outside of parallel parking seems like the best bet, but I’ve read there are real safety concerns with intersections.
    I would hope an easy compromise would be narrowed lane widths to win both parking and bike space, but this may not be realistic with today’s street design manuals.

    “high speeds of travel on all these streets often makes stopping at businesses inconvenient at best”

    If this is the case, they aren’t currently functioning very well as main streets.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      If designed properly an intersection for a segregated cycletrack (eg, on pedestrian side of parked cars) is much safer than for a bike lane or protected bike lane on the traffic side of parked cars.

      1. Eric SaathoffEric S

        I have seen that video on Dutch intersection design, and it looks great. Though it also looks limiting as to type of traffic, such as trucks on Snelling. Does your vision for residential streets obliterate the boulevard grass and trees?

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  9. Justin FoellJustin Foell

    I think the biggest concern here is really misinterpretation of Specks vision. Granted, I would be delighted to know that any planner, engineer, or politician even read his book in order to misinterpret it 🙂

    I think they’d ignore the speed (which is paramount to Speck) because Minnesota has a statutory 30MPH speed limit for streets. An engineer may see that as non-negotiable. Then they’d pat themselves on the back and say “See, we’re doing it right!”

    1. Eric SaathoffEric S

      Is anyone proposing that this be made negotiable? Is anyone proposing that cities in MN can decide their own speed limits – at least along certain corridors? (residential, commercial / main street, arterial perhaps being different or overlapping categories)

      Can anyone think of why legislators on either side would oppose more local control?

      1. Justin FoellJustin Foell

        If I remember correctly, Minneapolis had to go out of their way to allow the short 25MPH section along 15th Ave between University & Como.

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