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).
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.
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?
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.
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.