Workshop highlights best practices in designing separated bike lanes

Jul 26, 2016

Hayes Street cycletrack by BeyondDC on flickr
(Photo by BeyondDC on flickr)

In an effort to get more people to ride for everyday transportation, cities and counties in the Washington region have started to build more bicycling facilities that make it safer and less stressful to ride. One main facility type that achieves this is known as the separated bike lane, which uses curbs, bollards, or other dividers to separate slower bicycle traffic from faster moving automobile traffic. As part of the effort to encourage more riding by building such infrastructure, the TPB’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Subcommittee hosted a workshop on June 29 to highlight best practices in the design of separated bike-lane facilities.

Approximately 65 engineers, planners, and consultants from around the region attended the workshop. They had a chance to share ideas and learn about new federal and state design guides from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. And they had a chance to share their own successes and challenges in designing and building separated bike lanes in their respective jurisdictions. After the workshop there was even an impromptu tour of the nearby First Street NE separated bike lane!

Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr
(Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr)

New federal guidelines provide flexibility

The Federal Highway Administration was one of the presenters at the workshop. The agency is closely following new trends to make it safer and easier for people to bike and recently released a design guide to help planners and engineers understand different kinds of design treatments for separated bike lanes.

According to the agency’s Dan Goodman, who presented at the workshop, the guide supports wider federal efforts to encourage safer streets but provides a lot of flexibility in how states and local communities make streets safer for bicyclists. One of the key things the federal guidelines look at is mixing zones, areas where automobile traffic mixes with bicycle traffic, increasing the risk of crashes. Examples include freight loading zones and bus stops where vehicles have to pull to the curb and may cross or block a bike lane, or turning lanes where vehicles cross bike lanes to make left or right turns. In these cases, motorists are likely to have a harder time seeing cyclists, which increases the chances of a collision.

New Massachusetts DOT guide focuses on creating “low-stress” environments

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) also recently developed a new design guide for separated bike lanes. The guide focuses on creating “low-stress” environments for bicyclists. Jeremy Chrzan, a senior engineer with Toole Design Group, the firm that authored the guide, also presented at the recent workshop. Chrzan said it’s important to remember that every bicyclist has a different tolerance for stress while riding and that those with a lower tolerance benefit greatly from infrastructure that helps eliminate key stressors. He said that new cyclists, slower cyclists, and young children especially benefit from such infrastructure.

This focus on creating low-stress environments, Chrzan said, can help planners figure out when it is appropriate to build separated bike lanes. Areas with greater bicycle usage or areas with high automobile traffic speeds or volumes are especially good places to build separated lanes, he said. Chrzan gave more detailed examples of how planners handled different situations such as intersections and why different applications worked well for certain situations. One of his main points was that motorists need to be able to see cyclists. If they can’t, then the intersection is not a safe one.

Learning from each other: local planners shared their own experiences

After hearing from FHWA and Toole Design Group, bicycle planners from local jurisdictions shared their own experiences. Overall, many jurisdictions struggle with ways to make intersections safer, provide designs that give clear signals to all road users, and create a less stressful environment for all people on the road. Here are some highlights:

  • District of Columbia. Darren Buck, from the District Department of Transportation, talked about the District’s first separated bike lanes on 15th Street NW, Pennsylvania Avenue, and First Street NE. Buck reported that DDOT is now looking at non-downtown streets to consider for separated lanes and is looking at potential upgrades to existing bike lanes. He said the agency will be taking what it has learned from the lanes it has already built to make the improvements.
  • Montgomery County. Patricia Shepherd, with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, said that the county is starting to build a network of separated bike lanes, drawing on some very early lessons about what works and what doesn’t. The county is looking at where cyclists want to be and is planning more bike lanes in Downtown Silver Spring and better connections to the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda.
  •  Arlington County. Arlington’s Larry Marcus talked about how the county took many ideas for its separated bike lanes from a guide developed by the National Association of City Transportation Officials. The main idea from Arlington was the question about how to get new, innovative ideas for bicycle infrastructure out on the streets. He also said that it is important to make the whole street work for all modes.

MORE: Get all the presentations from the recent workshop

An impromptu walking tour of First Street NE!

After the workshop, Montgomery County DOT’s Matt Johnson led an impromptu walking tour of the First Street NE separated bike lane near the COG offices. The lane runs for several blocks between the NoMa neighborhood and Union Station.

DDOT’s Darren Buck answered questions about why certain sections were designed the way they were. He said the intersection near Union Station uses special signals and bike-lane markings to show where bikes should travel and when they should move through the intersection. Buck also pointed out the curbs and flex posts used to separate bike traffic from automobile traffic elsewhere along the lane.


DDOT's Darren Buck talks about the First Street NE bike lane (Photo by Abigail Zenner)

The group also examined key intersections to see how the two-way bike lane interacted with drivers. And they looked at how the bike lane connects with the NoMa Metro station and the Metropolitan Branch Trail, a bicycle and pedestrian path that runs along Metro’s Red Line and continues north to Silver Spring.

As the group walked along First Street, they continued to swap ideas and suggestions and take notes that they could bring back to their agencies.

MORE: Learn more about the Bicycle and Pedestrian Subcommittee

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