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Basic Bicycle Facility &
Transport Planning for Activists





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[This essay is under development.  Please let us know what questions it doesn't answer for you.  Email your questions to: "[email protected]" our domain name.]

The purpose of this essay is to help non-professional bicycle and non-motorized transportation advocates to critique the work of local transportation and city planners -- though it won't make you an expert so please recognize your limitations.  The language of the document tends to address bicycle activists specifically, but most of the concept are also applicable to the large subject of non-motorized transportation.  Many of the "terms-of-art" used in this essay are included in the "Bicycle Glossary."  The glossary may be a good place to start in any case because learning the language goes a long way to understanding and communicating in any field.

There are a couple of immediate challenges with critiquing the work of local planners:

  • Engineering for bicycle transportation can be as much an art as a science.  It is pretty easy to layout a trail across a field, but it gets more complex when you are in a built environment trying to safely coexist with large volumes of motor vehicles.  There are many examples of where reasonable, experienced, bicycle transportation specialist disagree about the best treatment for a specific problem/issue.
  • Government planners are presume themselves to be the experts on the subject, but often they have no specific training in bicycle transportation and they resistant considering even excellent suggestion from activists.

The Goal:

The goal of a bicycle facility and programs are to improve access.  Along the way, some of the criteria for facilities are: safety, security, directness, flow, unambiguousness, and aesthetics.

  • Safety incorporates a lot of factors; the mix of facility uses (their relative numbers, speed, and footprint), the width of the facility, turning movements, sightlines and penetrations (cross traffic.)
  • The two primary security issues for bicyclists is to be safe from assault of their person and safe from theft of their bicycle.  Good sightlines / visibility generally improves both aspects.
  • Directness is important because most bicyclists have a limited tolerance for having for traveling extra distance to access their destination.  Associated with this is continuity:  Direct corridors with "missing links" or sections of "friction" like narrow bridges and high volume roads, lots of pothole and irregular road surface, or railroad tracks crossing at oblique angles can suppress use.
  • Repeatedly having to stop and start takes extra energy and breaks the rhythm of cycling.  Facilities with good flow tend to encourage use.
  • In every traffic situation the combination of facility design and traffic laws should make it unambiguous as to who has the right-of-way.
  • A positive aesthetic experience, including environment and health (air quality) will tend to increase participation.

Programs can focus on skills development, safety education for cyclists and motorists, and enforcement.


There are a myriad of designs for bicycle facilities and approaches to bicycle programs.  There is no "one size fits all."  It is advantageous to knowing AS MUCH about AS MANY options as possible.

There are several online manuals that cover physical design, some are listed in the "Bicycle Policy Bibliography."   It is also helpful to ride on as many different facility designs (off-street, on-street, shared lanes) as possible to understand how they function under different conditions.  Adjacent land use can be a big factor in the function of a facility.

[Having said that, we note that one of the biggest barriers to increasing bicycle travel in many locations is land use patterns.  It is an important issue to address but it is beyond the scope of this essay -- and it is usually much more of a political and social process, than engineering.]

Because of the limited scope of this paper, it also doesn’t suggest specific infrastructure solutions.  The selection of a treatment will depend upon factors such as the age and skill of the user group, trip purpose, volume, load characteristics, adjacent land use, nature of the local bicycle culture, terrain and the mode split.

While a specific street might not be a priority for bicycle-friendly treatment, all street provide access to someplace that might be of interest to a bicyclist so bicycle need access to all streets.  Too often planners use the motor vehicle plan as their basis for bicycle circulation plan; this consists of a grid of regional route, fed by urban and suburban arterial, sub-divided by neighborhood collector streets.  Basing a bicycle circulation plan and prioritizing improvement bases on the motor vehicle may lead to a waste of resources.  The destinations, demographic and trip characteristics are likely to be all different.  The exception: mirroring motor vehicle travel patterns tends to work better with very older infrastructures, with narrow streets that are inherently on a “traffic diet” or “traffic calmed.”  The main point is that is what is useful for a motor-vehicle may or may not be best for a bicyclists.  Bicycle project/programs should be approached from an independent point of view.

The bicycle transportation planner’s tool box generally starts with the three traditional classifications of bicycle facilities:

  • Bicycle Path (bike trail, bikeway, side path, Class I bicycle facility) is a physically separated facility, on its own right of way.
  • Bicycle Lane (Class II bicycle facility) is a designated bicycle lane on a road, identified by pavement markings and/or signs.
  • Bicycle Route (Class III bicycle facility) is an existing street, usually low volume, that is posted at intervals with a bike route sign.

To these can be added a number other types of treatments that are hybrids or not overtly “bicycle facilities.”  A couple examples of these are:

  • Key Bicycle Street is a street that is important for bicycle circulation, that is designed (or retrofitted) to be as bicycle-friendly as possible, but because of other factors (usually high traffic volume) it is not overtly signed to attract bicycle use.
  • Hybrid bike path/bike lane is a lane on the street right of way that is separated from motor vehicle lanes by a physical barrier (i.e. extruded curb).
  • Grade separated bike lanes, where the facility is immediately adjacent to the motor vehicle lane, but distinguished by a couple inches of grade separation.  These are often in fairly built environments on streets that are part of a grid system.

For all of these, nine times out of ten the most critical element is approaching and passing through an intersection. This is where there are crossing patterns and the greatest likelihood of ambiguous rights-of-way and consequently, accidents.  Examples of other issues are shy distance, sight lines, encroachment, channelization, continuity, transitions, user conflicts, traffic management, signage, and spot issues, like storm water drain grates and railroad tracks.

The entire solution to promoting cycling doesn’t lie just in bikeway improvement; other elements to consider are parking, aesthetics, security, perceived safety, debris removal and on-going maintenance, and the “road culture.”

A poorly designed bicycle facility may be worse than none at all.  Follow the latest engineering and design standards and keep the bicyclist’s needs in mind.

Inevitable you are going to come up on constraints about what solutions you can select.  Example of constraints are: cost/funding, physical, geometric, social or political considerations, and legal.

Collect and analyze travel data:

The best tool for choosing between design and treatment options is knowledge.  You can ask municipal, county or district government, state or provincial agencies, regional planning bodies, academic institutions and private companies for studies, plans, aerial photography and base maps.  Build you own knowledge base by going out into the field and "getting your hands dirty."  Walk and bike the area in questions.  Walk and bike similar areas where improvements have been made.  What's working? What's not working? Visualize all the different user groups (mode, ability, demographic, etc.) that might be using the area.  Visualize different times of day.  Visualize different times of the year. Visualize the character of the area changing.

Getting knowledgeable is often it is a major challenge because there is often no or very little travel and safety data for bicycles.  If there is some data, it likely doesn’t identify unmet needs, for example if there is a road that cyclists feel is unsafe to use, and don’t use, but would be ideal if certain treatments were applied, it may not show up as key bicycle street in a traffic study because no cyclists are using it.

There can also be a reverse problem where planners assume the same arterials that are important for motor vehicles are important for bicyclists.  There are probably some bicyclists who would use these streets and bicycle-friendly improvements may be in order, but motor vehicle can be much more a regional transport mode and bicycles can be a much more inter-neighborhood transport mode, so their priorities may be different.

One format for collecting travel data is an “origin-destination study.”  Origins are places like a house.  Destinations are places like schools, employment, recreation/entertainment, markets, friends and relatives, health care and other services.  Of course on the reverse trip the origin and destination would be reversed.  Origin-destination studies can be problematic because if non-motorized travel is being avoided because of lack of facilities or safety issues the researcher may not see the demand.

One way to determine if there is suppressed demand is anecdotally; interviews and getting people to talk.  A couple relatively efficient tools for collecting this information are community meetings and focus groups (a structured group interview with a specific targeted group.)  One tool that can be used in either of these settings is to provide a large map of the study area and have people identify the origin and destination of trips that the do or would take by bicycle.  This will give you a picture of how close the needs of non-motorized travel match the infrastructure built for motorized travel.  In addition to showing you where people want to ride, the process should also provide information on how people feel about cycling in their community and why they feel they don’t, if that is a major issue.

Another important piece of information can be accident data.  Again it is hard to get very complete data on accidents involving bicycles.  Ideally you will find data on the location, typology, severity, and victim of all accident involving bicyclists.  Place to go for data are the police, hospital emergency rooms, safety councils, etc.  If you can get data it should give you an indication of the locations that are the biggest problem, the demographics of the victims and the behavior patterns that are causing the accidents.

The import lesson from this information is the most frequent typology is not is not what people fear most:  Often people fear being hit from behind.  These are often fairly rare daytime accidents, when most cycling is done.  Usually, the most frequent types of accident involve some kind of intersection where travel patterns cross (a corner and end of a driveway.)

If this is what you learn in your community, you want to make sure that the traffic planners have taken extra care analyzing these locations and got the treatments right.  Creating a bikeway does not always assure bicycle safety, if the details are flawed.  For an assessment tool that can help you with this see "Calculating Multi-modal Levels-of-Service."

In creating a better community for bicycling don’t overlook the importance of education and enforcement, both for motorist and cyclists.  These can be much cheaper and more effective in improving the environment for bicycling than an imperial facility.

Developing a Relationship between Advocacy, Engineers and Politician that Leads to Success

Many, though not all, of the most successful bicycle infrastructure implementation programs can point to some level of support and good communications between three quarters:

  1. Citizen Activists banging the drums for new and continue projects.  They need to be strategic about the noise they make so that they continually grow their reputation for being constructive players in the process, but this by no means implies that they always have to be conventional in their approach.
  2. Political support from elected official who set policy and funding priorities.
  3. Diligence from government planners and engineers, so that they keep up-to-date on best practice for non-motorized transport and design and implement quality projects

Sometimes there is also a fourth element, a bicycle project review board, official created by the government.  These may have better access and more status than citizen activists, but if things start to go awry, they may also be more limited in there ability challenge the issue than the citizen activist.  See also "Bicycle Advocacy: Organizational Structure" and "Bicycle Advocacy: Developing A Strategy To Affecting The Political Process"



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