by Alex Summers
Major American cities have rushed in recent years to promote biking and build dedicated bike lanes on their streets. Cities from Boston to Chicago to Seattle have invested millions in such bike lanes and have repeatedly voiced a commitment to being the most “bike-friendly” metropolis in the country. Lanes have been narrowed, roads have been reconfigured, and dedicated biker right-of-ways have appeared all across America.
But has it worked? Has an increase in bike lanes actually translated into more bike commuters and more eco-friendly cities? These are questions with no clear answer.
When it comes to highways, the general rule of thumb is that more highway lanes will bring more cars, in the process insuring that a given road remains just as crowded as ever. Proponents of bike lanes often believe that a similar phenomenon can occur on two wheels as well. Now that there’s an established culture of bike commuting in the U.S., and now that it’s not unusual to see people sitting in their office chairs in the morning wearing spandex and gulping water, there’s no reason why more people shouldn’t jump on the trend once additional lanes are added.
However, as was pointed out in an excellent piece by Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities, the research on bike lanes has been mixed. A study in Seattle found that people are more likely to bike to work when a bike path is built nearby, but not when that path is simply a dedicated lane on the side of the road. A study in Minneapolis found the exact opposite: there, bike lanes encouraged higher ridership levels but new bike paths resulted in no changes to the commuting stats.
Two new studies have given some clarification to the issue. The first of these, a report published this month in the journal Transportation, looked at America’s 90 largest cities and found that bike commute rates unmistakably rose when more routes were added – routes of both the on-road and off-road varieties. The second study, about to be published in Transport Policy, agrees with these overall findings but concludes that off-road paths are far more likely to increase recreational biking rates rather than commuting numbers. Either way, both studies strongly note the correlations between bike lanes and bike riders.
While there is still a “chicken and the egg” element here – What came first, the bike lanes or the bike commuters? – there is increasingly less doubt that the two clearly go hand-in-hand. Furthermore, even if new lanes were encouraged by non-commuters who sought a route to bike, there’s no doubt that commute rates increase in the presence of greater bike lane construction. For urban planners and environmentalists everywhere, this is an important relationship to keep in mind.
Alex is a freelance writer that has a passion for everything in relation to education, technology, and business operations.