Author’s note: For this series, I crowdsourced driver questions on social media and posted the top 10 in several bicycle enthusiasts’ and advocacy groups for their replies. (For more background, see the series’ introduction here; read Part 2 on bicyclists’ mindsets; read Part 3, on intersections; and read Part 4, on sharing the roadway.) Let’s build empathy for all the ways we get around!
In our fifth and final installment of “Why Do Bicyclists Do That?,” let’s talk about the controversial idea of separated bikeways, like those on the Como Avenue portion of the Saint Paul Grand Round or on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis:
- Why do some bicyclists want separated bikeways so badly?
- Why do some bicyclists hate separated bikeways?
Separated bikeways have become a standard feature of municipal bike planning. Planners see them as an important part of a diverse bicycle system. The City of Minneapolis has incorporated sidewalk-level protected bike lanes into their Street Design Guide. Their online street design guide states, “Sidewalk-level protected bike lanes are the preferred bikeway type for any street reconstruction project on a street identified as a low stress bikeway on the All Ages and Abilities Network where a shared use path or neighborhood greenway are unfeasible or not preferred.”
Meanwhile, the updated draft St. Paul Bicycle Plan doubles down on the safety and accessibility of separated bikeways. Yet St. Paul’s Summit Avenue redesign project has bicyclists arguing among themselves about them.
The on-street versus separated bikeways debate has been simmering for a while now, between two contrasting philosophies on how bicyclists should regard their position as vehicles in traffic. Which one a bicyclist believes is largely dictated by the reasons they cycle. When asked the questions, many bicyclists spoke about different types of riders. One respondent (who wished to remain anonymous) described a few of the community’s archetypes as “Lycra athletes getting their miles on Strava” versus “the reckless bike delivery guy,” versus “first-timers and seniors,” for example.
Bicyclists who might fit the profile of an athlete or delivery bicyclist tend to buy into the philosophy of “vehicular cycling.” This idea, popularized by John Forester, advocates for bicycles behaving more like cars and assertively taking traffic lanes. They may even fight against separated bikeways, for reasons we’ll explore below.
On the other side are bicycle advocates who identify more with first-timers and seniors. They tend to believe in designing transportation systems primarily for safety and accessibility. In this worldviews, separated bikeways and off-road trails are optimal travel options for bicyclists. Here, the safety of separation is the primary goal, supporting all types of riders despite their skillset, age or abilities.
Then there are the bicyclists who defy a typology — practical users who may commute or run errands via bike. They can come down on either side of the divide or see merit in both viewpoints.
The Essence of the Debate
Streets.mn co-founder and avid bicyclist Bill Lindeke broke down the differences. “Some people like to cycle as fast as possible and don’t mind riding in traffic. For them, having to ride at a slower pace separated from the roadway feels like being trapped. People ride bikes for a few different reasons; some for athletic reasons and others for relaxed transportation. These groups have different preferences.”
Daniel Herriges does a wonderful job of breaking down the international history of these diverging views in his 2020 article on Strong Towns’ website, but how does this dynamic play out locally?
For each question in this series, we’ve started by describing a typical situation around that question. Then, we’ve explored how a driver might interpret it, based on my own driving experience, as well as comments from drivers who proposed questions via social media. Finally, we’ve shared a few bicyclists’ perspectives about what’s going on for them in that same situation. Let’s hear some local views on separated bikeways.
Why do some bicyclists want separated bikeways so badly?
Summit Avenue, a much-used bike route with a painted lane, faces a redesign proposal with separated bikeways at curb height. While most of the discourse focuses on saving trees along the street, a passionate subset of folks focus on separated bikeways. Some bicyclists are fiercely opposed to the lanes, while others fiercely defend them.
The Driver’s Narrative
Why should I give up my parking spots for a group of people who think they’ll be safer with a separated bikeway? They’re doing just fine with the painted lane. Why can’t we leave things as they are?
The Bicyclist’s Perspective
This one is about safety and a transportation planning concept called induced demand.
Some riders prefer that transportation planners separate bikes and cars entirely. St. Louis Park resident Adam Oien owns a car but prefers to bike. “My wife and I designed our life to be bikeable to our jobs and our friends,” he said. Why have separated bikeways? He put it bluntly. “Safety! The two should not exist in the same space; it’s not safe.
“A car makes a mistake, and it’s a call to the insurance company,” Oien added, “but for the bicyclist it’s a call to the morgue!”
Triathlete and casual biker John Weeks shared, “I am not comfortable riding on the road… Traffic is so dangerous, especially larger vehicles like pick-up trucks,” he said. Indeed, active transportation advocates have been raising the alarm about the increasing size, weight and grill height of consumer trucks and SUVs for years. Sharing the road with increasingly large and dangerous vehicles using bike lanes — many designed decades ago — is chilling for many bicyclists.
Other cyclists took a more nuanced view in their support of separated bikeways. Michele Molstead shared, “I hate framing things around safety and want it to be more comfortable.” Safety, she said, “should just be built in. I want society to create patterns for future behavior, keeping kids and seniors active.”
“When my 80-year-old parents were out here, I would never take them down Summit Avenue. I’ve ridden it probably thousands of times, and I’ve always thought this could be the premier multimodal space in the United States. You could just make this a place for so many people to enjoy,” Molstead said. For her, the option of a separated bikeway just makes sense, so the system can accommodate all types of riders.
Lindeke agreed. “It’s safer and more comfortable for most cyclists, especially older or younger people,” he said. “Bicycling while people drive past at 40 miles per hour five feet off your shoulder is deeply unpleasant.” Bicyclists facing daily riding stress might prefer separated bikeways as even an occasional option, in the same way as an auto driver opts for a scenic route, or a pedestrian chooses a woodsy trail over the sidewalk.
Separated bikeways are also easier to maintain in the wintertime, when road hazards mount. Snow berms force parked cars into bike lanes, and debris and ice ruts build up. Potholes form, which are increasing in severity for a number of reasons.
With a growing number of bicyclists opting for year-round riding, the promise of snow- and ice-free routes is enticing. Andy Singer, co-founder and former co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, answered the question simply. “Safety, comfort and winter maintainability” were reasons to embrace separated bikeways. Separated bikeways can be plowed and de-iced with special equipment and techniques to prevent ice buildup. That said, municipalities worldwide are still learning about balancing best practices with budgetary constraints.
Finally, many bicyclists have a policy endgame in mind when it comes to building out separated and other kinds of bikeways. Since the 1950s, municipalities have focused on automobile infrastructure, but the onslaught of use has made it impossible to build enough roadways and parking surfaces to keep up with demand. In response, many transportation planners have come to believe in the theory of induced demand. That is, when planners build for one mode of transportation, it creates more and more need for that mode. Conversely, when planners slow traffic, reduce lanes or reduce space for a mode, that traffic tends to evaporate, with other modes gaining popularity.
Year-round bicyclist Ben Zvan said, “I prefer trails to roads for safety and calm.” He wants more separated bikeways for bicyclists like himself “because we don’t want to be hit by a car, we don’t want to have to swerve into traffic when someone parks in the bike lane and we don’t want a gas-hungry, car-centric world to dictate the shape of transportation.” For many bicyclists, the idea of inducing demand for bicycling — and reducing it for single-occupancy vehicles — is an important step in alleviating the climate crisis.
Why do some bicyclists hate separated bikeways?
Summit Avenue, a much-used bike route with a painted lane, faces a redesign proposal with separated bikeways at curb height. While most of the discourse focuses on saving street trees, a passionate subset of folks focus on separated bikeways. Some bicyclists are fiercely opposed to the lanes, while others fiercely defend them.
The Driver’s Narrative
Well, if some bicyclists don’t like separated bikeways, doesn’t that just prove me right in saying painted lanes are enough?
The Bicyclist’s Perspective
There is no single bicyclist’s perspective on this, but it’s about those competing philosophies about bicycling in urban areas.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all infrastructure – not for pedestrians, not for bike riders and not for drivers,” Lee Penn shared. “One of the reasons I do not like separated bikeways is because folks ride with such a broad range of speeds. Some of us ride 20ish miles per hour while others (ride) 6 or 7 miles per hour. Some of us want to ride with children, while others want to get to work quickly, while still others are hauling groceries or other humans or other things. It’s kind of like asking folks who like to drive slowly to the farmers’ market to share the road with folks who like to drive like they are on a freeway.”
But even though Penn’s preference is to ride in the street, they shared their belief that the system should accommodate all types of riders. “In the end, we need roads that are bike friendly and also separated bikeways. We need both because the folks who ride bikes are a diverse group of people riding bikes for a broad range of reasons.”
“Vehicular Cycling” & Tradeoffs
Andy Singer described what he’s heard from the bicycling community, but with a critical view. There’s a “desire for speed and to easily be able to pass other cyclists,” he said. But he added that many cyclists still embrace the theory of “vehicular cycling” that Singer characterized as a “not entirely logical, almost religious belief started by John Forester that the safest place for a bike is in the street with cars.”
Many practical cyclists continue to point out the tradeoffs of having separated bikeways. John Weeks uses trails and separated bikeways to train for triathlons. “Bike paths are too rough and slow for my road bike, so I mostly train using a heavier slower bike on bike paths and hope that the training translates to riding my road bike on the road on race day,” he said. He added, “They are also dangerous, with people wearing earphones and not watching for bikes. Some cities have goofy low 10 MPH speed limits.”
Kevin Greimel is an all-round cyclist who races triathlons and cyclocross, rides around the neighborhood with his family and bike commutes year-round. He shared a balanced view, saying that separated bikeways are “great for leisure and social riding; they’re less great for commuting or cranking out miles.”