How to Build Great Bicycle Streets
Bicycle streets offer a glimpse of what streets can look like when cars are not the primary design user.
This blog series started by looking at the “fietsstraat” (bicycle street), as implemented in the Netherlands. We learned that, unlike a bike lane which is easily recognizable, bicycle streets come in various shapes and sizes. A bicycle street is not a piece of infrastructure, it is a specific condition: bicycle dominance, where bicyclists are the dominant street user and motorists are “guests”. Where people riding bicycles are not relegated to the fringe of the roadway, but instead ride comfortably in the middle of the lanes, side-by-side, while motorists wait patiently and respectfully at a safe distance behind them.
We then took a brief tour around Canada and the US to see if this concept has been used outside of Europe. We looked at NACTO guidance as well as leading built examples in Portland, Toronto, and Vancouver. On this side of the Atlantic, “fietsstraten” go by different names: bicycle boulevards, neighbourhood greenways, and local street bikeways being the most common. Even with different names, we learned that the objective remains relatively unchanged from the Dutch model: creating streets that serve as a main network route for cyclists while serving only a local function for motorists, where bicyclists are the priority user.
Infrastructure is much easier to perfect than behaviour, and this is evident in the fact that even the Dutch have not consistently implemented bicycle streets with success. Toronto’s Shaw Street is a textbook implementation of a bicycle street, complete with thousands of daily bicyclists, and yet we found many motorists have not adjusted their behaviour, making it difficult for bicyclists to emerge as the priority user.
Even with narrow lanes, traffic diversions, and sharrows in the middle of lanes, many cyclists on Toronto’s Shaw Street still ride in the door zone. User behaviour change is lagging behind infrastructure change.
Even where bicycle streets have been broadly implemented with success, there are still shortcomings; Portland’s neighbourhood greenways, which have been around for decades, seem to have achieved respectful behaviour and widespread use, but have had the negative impact of reducing support for separated bicycle facilities on arterial roads. Portland’s overdependence on this facility type has created a “ceiling” that has prevented its cycling mode share from rising beyond 6-8%.
- Bicycle streets can form part of a complete all-ages-and-abilities network, but must be used in conjunction with separated cycling facilities on busier roads. Vancouver’s 10th Street Bikeway shows that transitions between mixed traffic and separated infrastructure are possible even along a single street, if it’s not possible to heavily reduce volumes everywhere.
- Bicycle streets should not be seen as an alternative to providing bike infrastructure on a parallel main street. It may be politically easier in the short term, but in the long term it could create a lasting lack of support for cycling facilities on the main street because “cyclists already have a nearby route”. Bicycle streets can supplement main street cycling routes, but cannot replace them, because cyclists will always need to reach the destinations on the main street.
- When designing bicycle streets, the focus should be on creating the desired behaviour: bicycle dominance. While this may sound like a lofty goal, it is the core principle of a bicycle street and there are proven ways of achieving it: strict motor vehicle volume and speed management, as well as picking a logical route that forms part of a larger cycling network, so they have potential to serve many cyclists. Portland routinely monitors the speed and volume of motor vehicles on its neighbourhood greenways and is constantly making adjustments, helping these facilities to maintain strong public support.
- A high volume of bikes as a starting point is not necessary, but the selected route should have growth potential. This is a notable difference between the Dutch and the Canadian and US approaches: while Dutch bicycle streets are justified based on a high number of cyclists, bicycle streets on this side of the Atlantic are a tool to stimulate demand and growth. Less than a decade ago, Toronto’s Shaw Street carried about 700 bicyclists per day. Thanks to improvements to the street and on connecting routes, that volume has quintupled to over 3,000.
- The features of bicycle streets can be applied to other local streets too. The close relative of the bicycle street is the “quiet street”. While the former focuses on creating a main route for bikes, “quiet streets” prioritize making the street more pleasant for its residents, while relying on the same speed and volume management principles. These streets can be implemented anywhere, not just where it’s logical for people riding bikes (though they still benefit). In the Netherlands, all residential streets are built as “quiet streets”.
The following design “suggestions” are based on the case studies we reviewed. Hopefully as bicycle streets become more common in Canada and the US, more evidence-based guidance can emerge. We strongly encourage reviewing published design guidance from NACTO, Vancouver, and Portland, linked at the bottom of this post.
- Network: bicycle streets operate as an “arterial” for bicycles and as such, the route should form a link in a broader all-ages-and-abilities city-wide cycling network.
- Bicycle Volumes: a high volume of bicycle traffic is not necessary from the onset, but the chosen route should have the potential to serve more than just local bicycle traffic.
- Motor Vehicle Volumes: use design treatments to restrict motor vehicle volumes, and regularly monitor volumes to make improvements where necessary. Strive for motor vehicle volumes of no more than 500 per day, and when volumes cannot be reduced, implement separated cycling infrastructure.
- Speed: design for 30 km/h (20 mph) motor vehicle speeds, and regularly monitor speeds to ensure compliance. Speed humps are a tried and tested solution that we saw applied in all of the case studies, but NACTO overviews many more options.
- Profile: narrower streets are generally better at keeping speeds low, but on a two-way street, the width should be enough to allow a cyclist to comfortably pass an oncoming car without having to ride in the door zone. Vancouver finds this to be about 10 metres (30 feet) for a two-way street with parking on both sides and 8 metres (24 feet) for a two-way street with parking on one side. Shaw Street features 7 metres (21 feet) for a one-way street with a contraflow lane and parking on one side. If on-street parking is part of the bicycle street, it should have a high occupancy rate, to enable the traffic calming benefits.
- Behaviour: the end goal is a design condition where bicyclists feel comfortable riding in the middle of the lane, and even side-by-side. Surveys or observations should be conducted to see whether this condition is present and where there might be opportunities to improve. Signage and pavement markings may be helpful to reinforce the desired behaviour.
The list of fundamentals shows that while bicycle streets aren’t going to be the proper solution to build out a full network of all ages and abilities (AAA) cycling infrastructure, they are an essential part of a complete network. Dedicated cycling facilities like cycle tracks, bike lanes and multi-use trails will still be required to connect to many of the destinations that are traditionally found on busier collector and arterial roads in North America.
More broadly though, bicycle streets represent an opportunity to fundamentally rethink how our public space is used. Bicycle streets offer a glimpse into what a street can look like when the movement of cars is not the primary objective. In typical North American communities, roads are built by default to be great for people driving – they offer sufficient width, unquestioned connectivity to key destinations and minimal travel delay. If budget and space allow, communities will often add elements that make the street friendly for people walking or cycling – but the width, connectivity and access are much less consistent. Even in the communities where walking and cycling are more common, the approach is often to create infrastructure for walking or cycling that is “good enough”; that is, able to accommodate an able-bodied, confident person, but without the space, connectivity and comfort that would appeal to a broader range of people.
A bicycle street creates a space that, when designed effectively, turns that equation on its head. Bicycle streets create an experience that is great for people cycling and, by extension, for people walking. The bicycle streets profiled in this series showcase something rare in North America – spaces that are just good enough for people driving. By minimizing cut-through traffic and designing for more human-scale speeds, bicycle streets showing what could be possible if our local streets were thought of as true public space rather than simply a tool for moving cars – and that’s a concept that is worth exploring further.
Special thanks to Justin Jones for collaborating on this post. Justin is an active transportation and community engagement professional who works to create communities where transportation is a joy, not a chore. He works to expand access to public spaces for everyone, regardless of how they choose to get around. You can find him on Twitter.
Don’t forget to check out the other posts in the Bicycle Streets Beyond Europe series below.