It’s long been the most controversial issue in bicycling:
Should people on bikes ride in traffic with cars, using the same infrastructure and following the same procedures (a style of riding known as “Vehicular Cycling”)? Should we ride on the sidewalks and off-road paths, with pedestrians?
Or should we have our own place to ride that’s designed specifically for bicycling?
Like Goldilocks, we’ve tried all these options. Riding with faster, heavier cars is hard on us. Riding with slower, roaming pedestrians is hard on them. Only when we have our own place in traffic are things anywhere near just right.
Or so says a study released last week in Montreal, which shows that not only does dedicated bicycle infrastructure work in North America, it borders on negligence for cities not to build such infrastructure. (You can download the entire study here [PDF].)
We’re not talking about the old, familiar bike lane, marked by a line of white paint — which so often functions more as a symbol and reminder of our right to be in the road than as actual bicycle infrastructure. Car doors, intersections, potholes, and misinterpretations by law enforcement are among the many pitfalls of the old-school bike lane. But on any road where car traffic is traveling significantly faster than a person can pedal, a bike lane, flawed compromise that it is, is better than nothing at all.
Cities across North America have in the last two years been discovering a better way to build a bike lane — separating it entirely from motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic alike.
It’s called the cycle track. Though we recently discovered it, we didn’t invent it: It’s been the backbone of the world’s most attractive, comfortable, safe bicycling environments for decades in European cities like Utrecht and Groningen (see the system in action next column).
Cycle tracks, also called segregated bike lanes or separated bike paths, are basically bike lanes that use the same right of way as a major street but are set off from car traffic by a barrier more substantial than a single painted white line. They may be separated by bollards, a concrete barrier, or a curb. On many streets, parked cars provide the barrier. Some cycle tracks are one-way and others carry two directions of bike traffic.