The uptick in Cleveland as a destination to live, work, play and pray was helping the cause last winter as a crowd turned out to hear about the city’s plans to “diet” Lorain Avenue, which means take it down a lane, to retrofit it with a protected bike lane.
The cast of supporters included Joe Cimperman, (then) Ohio City, Inc. director Eric Wobser, and Bike Cleveland leader Jacob Van Sickle who presented a study of protected bike lanes in New York City where they reportedly improved the fortunes of store owners 30% on streets that have what are also called “cycle tracks” or “green lanes” because of the paint sometimes used to cover pavement and separate it with a physical barrier.
The Lorain cycle track is a big idea; which could explain the 100 or so Millennials willing to brave the cold, many on bikes, to applaud Cleveland’s bid to attract and keep their cohort.
Like many progressive ideas, the meeting was long on vision, but about $17 million shy of implementation. A few months later, the city would announce its plans to build 70 miles of bikeways by 2017. Lorain is in the plan, which means it could see part of the $1 million boost for bike infrastructure that the city also committed in its annual capital budget when the road is scheduled for resurfacing (2015). But, few are declaring victory. Smart money knows that building protected bike lanes is an uphill battle, with an unwilling partner in Ohio Department of Transportation and a city promoting good ideas but struggling to find the means to produce them.
So, how will Cleveland know if Lorain is the marquee project on which it should focus its limited resources?
Concerns—chief among them safety (do they protect cyclists and inform motorists better than painted bike lanes?) and economic returns (do they improve local business?)—were coming up, mainly from a lack of empirical data.
Enter Green Lane Project (GLP), an joint effort from bike advocates and manufacturers to provide technical assistance to six cities per session. In a just released report, GLP captures performance data from the green lanes of its first, graduating class of cities. What it offers is evidence that protected bike lanes improve both perceived and actual safety and attractiveness for first-time riders, the primary target group.
In a survey of more than 2,000 bikers and 1,000 residents,GLP found that green lanes, across the board—in San Francisco, Austin, Portland, Chicago and Washington (Memphis was in the group but didn’t have a project complete in time)—did increase the number of trips cyclists made by two and a half times (even on roads that previously had bike lanes). The authors credit the biggest boost—such as an 86% increase on Dearborn Street in Chicago— to the green lanes with the most physical separation between bikes and cars.
GLP also filmed the intersections to see how cyclists and motorists mix, and made some important discoveries about design. They were looking to assuage fears that protected bike lanes are a safety concern at intersections (a concern expressed at the Lorain Avenue meeting). What they found after two days of filming in each city were zero accidents—not even any near misses—in the protected bike lanes.
GLP did find that design of the “mixing zone” at intersections corresponded with rates of “precautionary” braking on the part of both motorists and cyclists. The green lanes that maintained a strict separation between cars and bikes around intersections had fewer braking incidents than those with painted mixing zones at intersections. Flexposts got high marks for perceived safety, while paint alone got the lowest.
When cyclists were asked, “I understand where I am supposed to ride when approaching the intersection,” the strongest agreement was for the turning zone with Post Restricted Entry and Through Bike Lane (TBL) design in Washington, D.C. (85% strongly agree). The Mixing Zone with Yield Entry Markings used in Portland had the lowest strong agreement with this statement (91% total— 63% strongly agree, 28% somewhat agree).
Also, Chicago’s Dearborn Street which sees a high volume of cars and turns, got points for including special bike signals that give bikes a priority.
Differences in perceptions of safety are influenced not only by the design, but also by the volume, speed, and behavior of motor vehicle traffic, GLP states.
Both actual and perceived safety results could influence the level of separation on Lorain Avenue where average daily traffic counts and conditions such as the number and volume of cross streets are in line with the test cases from GLP.
In surveys, a clear majority of residents expressed support for protected bike lanes, saying that safety appears to be better for biking and driving. Even if they didn’t ride in the protected lane, the perceived safety improvements matched with the video record of those who did.
Since a full year of economic data were not available, the study deferred on the question of have the first six green lanes boosted local sales.
In summing up the lessons on its blog, GLP put it this way: As exciting as the 75% increase in cycling that they observed, there are still things that green lanes cannot do:
- They can't rapidly boost citywide bike ridership without a network.
- They can't always separate bikes and cars completely; and
- They can't be created without at least a little opposition.
Good lessons all for Cleveland to keep in mind as it moves ahead with its own green lane on Lorain.