Protected Bike Lanes are the Safest Bike Lanes (for drivers too)

October 2.

Tonight, the Athens Mayor and Commission are going to vote to accept (or reject) the Athens in Motion Plan for walking and biking. The next agenda item is a vote on the Barnett Shoals demonstration project. Do we make it permanent? These comments may be mooted by the vote by the time you read them, but we think it is important to share our thoughts on the project. Similar projects and similar decisions will become more frequent if the Mayor and Commission accept the Athens in Motion Plan. Many of our points about 3 + 2 reconfigurations will apply to those future projects.

BikeAthens supports the permanent installation of the Barnett Shoals demonstration project. We support the 3-lane configuration with 2-way protected bike lanes. Since August 27, we have written four articles about the benefits of the 2-way protected bike path. Safe. Connected. Inexpensive. The proposed project would reconfigure the street with 3 motor vehicle lanes and 2 bike lanes (i.e. “3+2”). Yes, we know that 3+2 road reconfigurations are perceived as “taking away” something from drivers—and that stirs the hornets nest. However, after collecting data on traffic, there is no appreciable congestion. Drivers experience 14 seconds of delay in the morning, but save 15 seconds in the evening. The best bang for your buck.

At BikeAthens, we don’t care about “wins” and “loses.” We are not worried about who’s “right” and who’s “wrong.” These decisions are not battles in a larger war for better, safer roads. We want greater equity in the transportation network. We want safer street design. We like decisions that are data-driven, people-focused, efficient, and cost-effective. BikeAthens has been following the development of bike lane design since the early 90s. All the research about protected bike lanes and 3+2 roadway conversions is clear: the Barnett Shoals 3+2 reconfiguration would have significant safety benefits for drivers, for people walking, and for people on bike. It would do so at a fraction of the cost of a bike path adjacent to the road. 

As we noted before, the current configuration, with 3-lanes and both bike lanes on the same side provides substantial benefits: more physical protection, more safety and comfort, more neighborhood connectivity, more cost savings, and safer driving speeds. Tonight (Oct. 2) commissioners will present a CDO (commission defined option) to keep 4 travel lanes and install a $1,000,000 multi-use path on the other side of the street. The CDO would not do much to advance safety for people on bike. The return to 4 lanes would see a return of speeding cars. And the costs are too high. Again, we support the 3 lane + 2-way protected bike lane. We also want to arrive at some common understandings.

A multi-use side path is NOT necessarily a safer, more bike friendly design. Why? Because it is NOT a different design. As noted by the writers of the American Association of State Highway Officials Bike Guide, protected bike lanes are the SAME THING as a multi-use path, except the protected bike lanes are exclusively for bicycle use. According to Jennifer Toole (yes, the same one who founded Toole Design Group): “This is important: there are a lot of communities very interested in designing [protected bike lanes], which are a type of pathway adjacent to the road, sometimes at surface level of the street” (emphasis ours. Discussion begins at 28 minutes). Again, the multi-use path as suggested by the CDO and the protected bike lanes as demonstrated for the past few weeks are both “pathways adjacent to the road.” They are practically synonymous– but the costs are not. The 3+2 configuration with protected bikes will cost $23,000. A multi-use path that provides the same experience? Over $1,000,000.

Commissioners want more bang for the buck. According to People for Bikes, bollard protected bike lanes rate 4 / 5 stars for protection (small tweaks could get it to 5 out of 5) and 2 / 5 for cost (paint only is the only more inexpensive option). Protected bike lanes and two-way on-street bike paths are not new-fangled designs. There are used all over the US and all over the world. They work. They keep people on bike safe. The current demonstration project brought out more than several riders, and it will bring out even more once the weather cools, the project is permanently installed, and traffic signal timing is optimized for the 3+2 conversion.

The 3+2 conversion is also safer for people in cars. The Federal Highway Administration calls roadway reconfigurations a proven safety countermeasure. Specifically they say, “In addition to low cost, the primary benefits of [roadway reconfigurations] include enhanced safety, mobility and access for all road users and a ‘complete streets’ environment to accommodate a variety of transportation modes.” Looking at nationwide data, reconfiguring to 3 lanes “indicate a 19 to 47 percent reduction in overall crashes when a [roadway reconfiguration] is installed on a previously four-lane undivided facility as well as a decrease in crashes involving drivers under 35 years of age and over 65 years of age” (emphasis ours). In a college town that wants to attract older residents, this is just the type of project we need.

Changing the street to 3+2 lanes reduces crashes. More importantly, it also reduces speeds. The Barnett Shoals study shows a 5 mph reduction in speed with practically net zero congestion. Before the demo project the 85 percentile speed was 47.2 mph. During the 3+2 demonstration, 85 percentile speed was 42.8 mph. While 42.8 mph still poses a grave danger to people walking, 5 mph makes a huge difference in survival probability when hit by a car. All in all, let us review the benefits of the 3+2 road reconfiguration: 1) protected lanes for people on bike (protected bike lanes) AND a buffered sidewalk for walkers / rollers; 2) a significant reduction in speed with no accretion to travel time; 3) proven reduction in number of car crashes from nationwide data. Sure, we can vote to put the road back as it was. But if we do so, then we are valuing convenience over safety…we are signaling that we are willing to spend 4x’s more [edit: its actually 40 times more] to value car speeds over people.