Almost every time a bikeway is proposed along an urban street we hear wailing about parking. This was the case with Cleveland Avenue in St Paul, with projects I’ve traded tweets with Bill Schultheiss on, and before you can even get the word ‘bike’ out of your mouth in Westminster (the rest of London doing much better though). And it’s an issue with the 38th Street bike lane and Bloomington Avenue in Minneapolis, and on Rice Street in St Paul.
This debate fairly consistently pits parking versus bikeways.
Let’s set aside for a moment the issue that bikeways are critical to people’s safety while convenient parking is not. And let’s set aside that increasing numbers of people are looking for places to live with good walking and bicycling links to local eateries, grocery stores, and pharmacies, and less traffic. Let’s also set aside that car ownership, particularly in urban areas, is declining and will likely decline much faster with the advent of autonomous services from Lyft and Tesla that will be more convenient and less costly than owning a personal car. Will people find the value of their home in the tank because buyers no longer need parking but do want safe bikeways?
Running through our communities we have some exceptionally unique bits of land—unbroken ribbons for transportation—transportation right-of-ways. These ribbons exist solely to serve transportation and access needs.
Getting from one place to another requires these unique ribbons of land; whether walking from one store to another on Grand Avenue, riding a bicycle to Kowalski’s grocery or driving across the Twin Cities for barbecue at Baker’s Ribs.
Parking, loading and unloading, and other things do not require these unique ribbons of land. Parking can be placed anywhere in just about any size or shape of land. Land usable for parking is not a limited resource but ribbons of land for transportation is a very limited resource.
As with all such limited resources we must prioritize how we use our transportation ribbons. Top priority should be given to what these ribbons are intended for and what requires them—transportation. Secondarily, once our priorities are met, other desirable uses like parking or sidewalk cafés should be considered.
First Priority – Safe And Efficient Transportation
It is critical that we provide safe transportation options for all people.
Many low traffic streets can be safely shared by all users. A key to these is keeping traffic volumes low and speeds below 20 MPH. Where we have higher traffic volume and want to allow higher speeds we need to separate users to reduce conflict. Users fall in to three classes; walking, human powered vehicles, and motorized vehicles. Human powered vehicles includes vehicles of less than about 250 watts of power and that travel 9 to 15 mph such as bicycle riders, most e-bikes, wheelchairs, and mobility scooters.
The good news is that just about every bit of transportation right-of-way we have is wide enough for a reasonable width walkway, bikeway, and motorway (all in each direction) which covers the basics of our first priority. A key to safe design here may be to start from the outside, the most vulnerable, and work in. That means starting with foot traffic, then considering bicycle & disability traffic, then motor traffic, instead of beginning with motor traffic.
Above is the minimum configuration that any road or street with a posted or actual speed of greater than 20 MPH and in a built-up area should have. This is critical to providing safe transportation. These minimums should be inviolable—not able to be removed nor narrowed, and applied to every newly built road, reconstruction, or mill & overlay.
Beyond this minimum then we have some options and need only decide what bits are most important to us and how best to get what we want within the ribbon space available. Each option has a cost though. Sometimes this cost is only in additional width consumed, though sometimes safety and other elements require additional design elements.
Motor Vehicle Speed – If we want to increase the speed for motor vehicles then we may need to increase the lane width, perhaps from 9’ to 10’ to allow a speed of 45 MPH. As motor vehicle speed increases we also need to increase the protection provided between motor vehicles and those on foot or bicycle. This to prevent deaths as well as mitigate the negative impact of road debris, slush wakes (that increase with vehicle speed), and noise. This protection may include buffer width, a solid physical barrier, or a combination. Speeds of greater than 30 MPH should also require traffic signals at every crossing as otherwise drivers are unlikely to stop.
Traffic Lanes – Additional traffic lanes, for travel or turning, come with an obvious width cost. More important, they come with a very high cost to safety, particularly at crossings. Adding any lanes past a single lane in each direction should also require traffic signals at every crossing and crossings of greater than about 30′ should require a refuge island. Many countries like The Netherlands have determined that crossing any more than 6 meters (20’), or a single lane in each direction, is too dangerous to ever be done without stop lights. Many smaller crossings will also include a refuge for added safety.
Bicycle and Walking Volume – The minimum bikeway and walkway widths above are narrow. Both widths should be increased when space is available.
It should be incumbent on traffic engineers to hold to these for basic human safety. If politicians want more lanes to reduce delay or businesses want more on-street parking then it is the responsibility of engineers to insure that needed safety measures are also included. Not doing so is intentionally putting the lives of people at high and unnecessary risk, which no engineer should ever do.
Second Priority – Other Uses
Once transportation needs are fully met we can consider additional optional uses for our right-of-way. None of these require the uniqueness of these ribbons of land but can be valuable assets and enhance the ribbon if space is available. This list is not comprehensive nor in any sort of order.
Delivery Loading & Unloading – This is ideally close to its origin/destination, though that is not strictly necessary. Hubs can be used with smaller vehicles, from bakfiets to small trucks, providing the last link. A truck can park at the end of a block and hand trucks used to carry items to and from local stores. Or, if available, space can be provided along a street.
Parking – Most businesses’ best revenue is its closest revenue. People who come because it’s close and convenient to their home or office provide a very critical stable stream of revenue. This is why businesses see increases in revenue when good bikeways go in. Parking for those coming from farther away may still be important though. Parking will cost some width, though it may also provide some of the protection needed between motor traffic and people walking and bicycling so its width cost may be much less than its actual width. If there is not sufficient space within the ribbon then parking can be provided elsewhere.
Sidewalk Café – This adds considerable vibrancy to a street and community, is a very enjoyable benefit to those who live, work, and eat near there, and benefits local businesses. This usually consumes some sidewalk width but might also be alternated with parking — café during warm/shoulder months and parking during the worst of winter, December – February, when people most want to be close to their destination (and few want to eat outside). 8 – 12 people can enjoy eating outside in the space occupied by one single unused car.
Street Vending – E.G. a store spilling over on to the sidewalk (in an appealing and organized way). This adds vibrancy and benefits local businesses and often for no cost.
Food Trucks – Food trucks add to the vibrancy of a street and neighborhood, provide some great options for eating, and provide entrepreneurs with a wonderful first step.
Aesthetics – Aesthetics may be more important than we think. Besides people enjoying aesthetically pleasing places and making it more enjoyable to walk or ride a bicycle, aesthetics also improves the care people take of an area and may also improve people’s mental health. An aesthetically pleasing place is less likely to attract litter or graffiti and is more likely to have people walking along it rather than quickly driving through. More people walking or bicycling will also decrease crime. Realtors have also noted that people walking and bicycling enhances the feel and thus value of a neighborhood.
There is more to aesthetics than just visual. Traffic noise and the discomfort of fast nearby traffic decreases the aesthetics of a street, so slower speeds and as much buffer as possible between motor vehicle travel lanes and other uses is critical.
It’s important to note how much of the above is dictated by motor vehicle speed and there are two key reasons for that. Cars pose a very significant danger to others that must be mitigated. Cars are also the least efficient mode of transportation and require the most space.
I am not at all anti-car. Cars are important and valuable tools. I like cars. I drive a car for many local and long distance trips. I have no plans to give up driving a car when it make sense (at least until I’m too old to drive safely). But drivers and cars cause considerable risks to people’s lives and it is critical that our roads, like those elsewhere, begin to be designed to mitigate these risks.
— Urban Planning & Mobility (@urbanthoughts11) February 15, 2017
London (above) does not have a very high modal share of bicycling and this bikeway on Blackfriars is less than a year old. Yet it already has a large number of bicycle riders and has capacity for many many more (yes, it’s a real video – click on it).
A single 10’ wide bikeway can transport multiple times as many people as a 10’ wide motor traffic lane. Driving a car instead of walking or riding a bicycle requires an estimated 17 times as much space for driving, queuing at junctions, junctions themselves, and parking as walking or riding a bicycle.
Giving such absolute priority to the most dangerous and least efficient mode of transportation, encouraging that mode over others as we do today, is not smart.
Prioritizing someone’s parking convenience over others safety is wrong.
 An 8-10’ wide bikeway serves bicycle riders similarly to two motor traffic lanes in the same direction in allowing bicycle riders to safely pass each other. This is critical due to the widely varying speeds of bicycle riders. …
 Streets of 20 MPH or below can, if designed properly, be safely shared without the need of bikeways or in some cases even walkways. This would include most residential streets and some retail streets.