MassDOT’s New Bikeway Guide is the Beginning of Good Things

Many in the active transportation advocacy world have waited with anticipation for the release of the 2015 MassDOT Separated Bike Lane Planning & Design Guide.

It was published last week and I think is much of what people hoped it would be.

Inside there is a lot of good design and perhaps best of all not a lot of objectionable design. So, no having to explain to an engineer who never rides a bike why door zone bike lanes aren’t usually such a good idea, especially in places with winter. And speaking of winter, the Winter Cycling Congress 2016 is in Minneapolis in 2016.


Alex Cecchini made a great point that like us Boston gets a fair bit of snow that they must deal with and design for. He also mentioned how fortunate we are that MassDOT are leading the way on bringing some of these designs, that have been common in Europe for decades, to the U.S. Indeed!

Recently talking about the Minnesota Statewide Bicycle Plan I wrote about how critical the 2016 update to the MnDOT Bicycle Design Guide (PDF) will be. This document from MassDOT will provide a good foundation and hopefully next year we can look with pride on what MnDOT are doing in advancing bicycling in Minnesota and the U.S.

Two Key Omissions

Before getting to the good stuff I’m going to touch on two important omissions that I noted in my first cursory read through.

Bollards. The first is that in the buffer zone between bicycles and motor traffic the guide largely gives bollards and solid barriers equal footing. There is no mention that bollards do not prevent road debris, salt, sand, and snow/slush/rain wakes from passing cars from entering the bikeway nor that while a solid barrier will usually prevent a car that is sliding on ice or snow from sliding in to a bikeway users, most bollards will not. Bollards are better than paint alone but something a bit more solid is much better.


Bollards are better than nothing but something a bit more solid will prevent debris, slush wakes, and cars sliding on ice from the bikeway.

Design Speed. The second omission is the most critical. There is nothing regarding design speed . Bikeways should be designed to allow safe and efficient speeds for all bicycle riders of all abilities and should provide all of these people access to all destinations. In higher traffic built-up areas this should be 13-15 mph and otherwise 20 mph or more. This is as important for bikeways as for roadways. This is important for slower riders as well as faster since designing for 15 mph creates a much better environment for someone riding 9 mph.

Bikeways should be designed for all users; fast, slow, young, old, and those with disabilities. Netherlands bikeways have become so popular with scooters that there are efforts afoot to ban them.

Bikeways should be designed for all users; fast, slow, young, old, and those with disabilities. Netherlands bikeways have become so popular with scooters that there are efforts afoot to ban them.

Not designing properly for speed results in two separate systems for bicycle riders with some people using poorly designed low speed bikeways and others riding in the road blocking vehicle traffic. This is dangerous and leads to confusion for motorists. I am strongly opposed to laws requiring bicycle riders to use bikeways. We should though design our bikeways good enough that people choose to use them without regulatory requirements.

Bikeways in The Netherlands function well and safely for all users from the slowest to the fastest. Ours should too.

Neither of these invalidate this guide, however engineers should be aware of these and design accordingly.

The Good Stuff

Now, some quick highlights (in no particular order) of the good stuff that even on a cursory read is a long list.

Continuity Across Drives. The guide discusses the importance of making the presence of bikeways obvious and making them smoother and safer to ride on by continuing the bikeway material, color, and grade across residential and commercial driveways and minor streets.

sharks teeth bike path

This bicycle path allows riders to go quite fast and efficient with few stops. The use of sharks teeth and color removes ambiguities over who has right-of-way. Path grade and material are consistent across driveways and minor streets when bicycle riders have right-of-way. Even at crossings where bicycle riders must yield to motor traffic the crossing path is quite smooth and bicycle riders need not stop unless there is crossing traffic.


Example Photos. This seems minor but is quite important as photos can establish the frame of mind for the design engineers. This guide has done a better job than most U.S. guides with example photos that mostly show well designed facilities with normal people wearing normal clothes using them.

Outside the U.S. bicycle riders are mostly normal people wearing normal clothes.

This is the kind of environment engineers should have in mind when designing bikeways.


Protected Junctions. Junctions are critical to actual safety and to how safe we feel and how desirable it is to ride a bicycle. I’ll leave more detailed discussion of this for later but the good news is that they’ve included what appears to be a relatively well designed junction.



Mixing Zones. I really dislike mixing zones. They are probably the number one thing I dislike about riding in Copenhagen and possibly the key reason that Copenhagen is such a distant second to The Netherlands for bicycling modal share. Besides being actually dangerous they feel dangerous and make bicycling uncomfortable and unpleasant. In this guide Toole have provided what is about as good a design as I can imagine with features such as clear right-of-way (sharks teeth). I would like to have seen a much stronger warning that these are a design of last resort.



Mountable Truck Aprons. These provide a good solution to our need for tighter radiuses to slow vehicle traffic while still allowing large semi trucks. I would much prefer that we do a better job of limiting where large trucks can go but that’s a much tougher nut.



Floating Bus Stops. In my experience in both bicycling and using buses in places like with high rates of bicycling this is the best design for all users.



Sharks Teeth / Yield. These are critical in reducing ambiguity about who has right-of-way at non signalized junctions and make these junctions much safer and efficient (though MassDOT did seem to have left them out of some important places in junction designs and elsewhere).



Details are critical. Very small design and maintenance elements can make the difference in a street being safe and appealing for bicycling or not. Details can make the difference in one person choosing to ride or 100 choosing to do so. Even in The Netherlands it can be a very thin line which is why they pay so much attention to the details and to what makes bicycling appealing.

This new guide from MassDOT is a welcomed addition to the U.S. engineering realm. It is important though to keep in mind that it is a small subset of what is covered in the CROW Design Manual For Bicycle Traffic that has proven itself the gold standard in both safety and modal share attainment. Traffic engineers in The Netherlands are quick to point out that good design extends well beyond what is covered even in CROW and that ‘meets minimum standards’ is rarely good enough.

This guide from MassDOT is far from perfect but is a great step forward and portends good things for our future. Congratulations to MassDOT and Toole Design Group.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN

28 thoughts on “MassDOT’s New Bikeway Guide is the Beginning of Good Things

  1. Nick

    Floating bus stops. Yes. Denver built them last year for their Metro Ride service (18th/19th Streets from Union Station to Broadway). They get snow and the stops still work.

    1. Chris IversonChris Iverson

      Love me some floating bus stops. The ones in Denver look great, and can be good examples for deployments around the country. The one caveat I noticed is that their widths are fairly narrow, and would prevent an enclosed shelter from being situated there.

      Per the Winter Cycling Congress plug, I think it’ll be extremely pertinent to established a dedicated maintenance mechanism for this design, since it is fairly complex as it relates to the surrounding roadway environment.

    2. Wayne

      Snow is not such a deal-breaker for pedestrian and bike friendly infrastructure as we’re constantly told, it just requires the public works people to actually care about maintaining it. Every time I hear that excuse I chalk it up to laziness because there’s plenty of places that get as much or more snow where they have nice things and maintain them better than we keep up any of our public infrastructure here. Being cheap and lazy is not a good excuse for keeping a status quo that kills and maims people.

      Seriously I’d say the city, county and state public works people are at the very top of my ‘naughty’ list for people who make this metro an unlivable nightmare for anyone without a car. Closely followed by spineless politicians, of course.

      Great example of them missing the point (sorry a bit off topic): they had the nightmare intersection at 5th St NE/ Central Ave / E Hennepin all torn up for a couple weeks and left the construction signs out for over a month blocking pedestrian access, then today they’re finally out there finishing up what they had started back in early October: installing new beg buttons right next to exiting ones. the new ones are on freestanding poles and the old ones are on the traffic light poles. If it’s some sad attempt at ADA compliance my mind is blown because they made the intersection unusable for people in wheelchairs for over a month to add exactly zero new functionality and did nothing useful to an awful intersection. But this is where our public works budget goes. That and building then removing pedestrian islands that some moron drivers can’t seem to avoid.

        1. Wayne

          If it weren’t for the disability rights groups, the agencies would be perfectly content to leave it alone and let it degrade even more than it already has. The fact they have to be forced by lawsuits or threats thereof tells you how much they care about the disabled or pedestrians in general. And the fact that they’re doing the bare minimum and obeying the letter of the law but not the spirit is another slap in the face.

          if anything we need stronger laws that proscribe better infrastructure instead of some buttons and textured ramps so they can force even more change.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Riding the bus in the rain the last few days, I’ve noticed they seem to be taking out street lights along Bloomington Ave between Lake and… not sure which point south.

            Which made me realize that at some point someone installed light posts right in the middle of the sidewalk, making for very narrow passages on that stretch. I assume they are correcting that error.

            1. Monte Castleman

              Looking at Street View, the underground wiring had obviously failed as they were tied together with overhead wires. Minneapolis uses conventional steel poles that rust and who knows how old the foundations are, so they apparently just decided to replace the entire installation.

              1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                I’m not seeing what you are seeing on street view with overhead wires, but to be more specific, I’m talking about the “decorative” metal street lights on the east side of Bloomington between Franklin and 24th.

                And now that I look at the street view history, it looks like they were not there when Google first passed by in July 2007, but were when they came through again in June 2009. That’s seems like a pretty short lifespan for a street light.

      1. Nick

        Looks like the work at Hennepin/Central/5th was to add buttons for cyclist recall from the curb, not for pedestrian light recall. Which is strange, since I don’t think those lights have sensors (i.e. the lights are on a fixed sequence timer of some sort).

        1. Monte Castleman

          Yes, that’s bizarre. Maybe they’re planning to install sensors, but in that case the sensors would be able to pick of bicyclists. Also, they installed some APS buttons, but not in the right locations, without proper curb ramps, and without programming the street names.

        2. Wayne

          Whatever it is, it’s really dumb because they need to be redesigning this intersection not putting more effort into the current design. The whole thing is a nightmare no matter what mode you use, but it’s extra bad for anyone not in 2000+ lbs of metal. And the lights are definitely on a fixed timer, so yeah … the purpose of this is completely baffling.

          1. Wayne

            But good riddance, I’m moving this weekend and won’t have to deal with whatever sad attempt at fixing it they’re making.

  2. Evan RobertsEvan

    I’m honestly not sure how the word “bollard” has been defined downwards to now refer to a flimsy plastic wand. Lets stop using this word for those objects.

    Actual bollards began as posts that things as large as ocean going ships moored to. And an actual row of bollards would be totally sufficient to protect cyclists. After all, bollards in their real form are used to protect public buildings from truck and car bombs.

    Lets not give into this degrading of the language, which I can easily see coming out of a state transportation department. After all, people know that bollards are solid objects that protect people. So lets use it to define a cheaper cosmetic solution! Orwellian. Literally.

    1. Wayne

      The sad flimsy imitation bollards used to ‘protect’ cyclists are pretty indicative of how important they are in the eyes of road designers and local government. Lip service and low-rent imitations without most of the actual advantages of the real thing is pretty standard for anything not exclusively serving cars.

    2. Nick

      I think they see them as a way to tell cars “you can’t go here” assuming that people are attentive enough to not go there. Someone needs to teach them that passive solutions are needed. Maybe my photo of plastic traffic trees (my lame nomination for a word other than bollards) that were mowed down on Market St. in San Francisco could start a collection?

      1. Nick

        After posting, realized that passive solutions sounded wrong. Need solutions that don’t require action on the part of motorist or cyclist to protect.

          1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

            🙂 Comment of the day!

            And given that the danger posed by drivers is the reason that people walking and riding bicycles and mobility scooters need protection in the first place…

      1. Alex

        Squallards? Failiards? “Naw”lards?

        I actually don’t mind them — they are a good interim solution that allows for a decent bikeway years before the money is available for a curb or some such.

        1. Evan RobertsEvan

          I totally agree that they are a good thing, maybe even permanently on some low speed streets. But lets not call them bollards.

      2. Monte Castleman

        I like the term “flim flam sticks”

        Bottom line is they shouldn’t be calling it “protected” if the protection is just psychological. Even a standard curb, while it won’t stop a car going 40mph straight at them, will tend to bump a car back into the lane if the motorist is slowly drifting over while texting.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          For the record, I’m in favor of flim flam sticks. I think they’re effective at slowing speeds, cheap to install, and can dramatically increase pedestrian and bicycling safety in the short term.

          Downside? They’re fugly, cause problems for snow, and don’t really provide concrete protection. (get it?) But that last point could be said of many treatment options.

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