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Bike Highways Aren’t Any Better for City Streets

Cycling urbanists celebrate their own urban carve-outs after rightly decrying the automobile's.

It is perhaps the most iconic moment in urbanism: Robert Moses, the greatest power broker and central planner the American city had ever seen, squaring off against Jane Jacobs, the champion of the city’s community and author of the greatest book on urbanism ever written, over whether Jacobs’s beloved neighborhood of Greenwich Village would have one of Moses’s favored highways carved through it.

Jacobs eventually prevailed, protecting her community and signaling a shift against the city central planners who had dug up or flattened large swaths of American cities in the name of progress, urban renewal, and the automobile age. Jacobs’s victory against the urban highway is still spoken of in almost reverential tones by many committed to healthy cities and strong communities.

Until, that is, they were offered a highway for bikes.

The notion of a bicycle-only superhighway has been revived in places like Copenhagen and the Netherlands in recent years, but Mayor Boris Johnson has just announced plans to build bring a record-breaking bike highway right through central London. Johnson has proposed nearly 20 miles of segregated bike lanes that, instead of being guarded by loosely spaced networks of thin plastic poles, would have their own dedicated curbs.

Bicyclists are generally strongly in favor of dedicated lanes, with the more protection the better, as they the ones who fare by far the worst in collisions with cars. However, the effusive praise heaped on these cycle superhighways is strangely reminiscent of the rhetoric of 50 years ago used to coax cities into building the original highways urbanists so lament today.

One of the original designers of Los Angeles’s traffic and street patterns, Miller McClintock, instructed the public in the 1920s that “The old common law rule that every person,, whether on foot or driving, has equal rights in all parts of the roadway must give way before the requirements of modern transportation.” The traffic engineers who constructed city streets, particularly after the advent of “forgiving highways” thinking in the 1960s, believed firmly in segregating out every mode of travel that they could, protecting pedestrians from cars, and cars from pedestrians. The old, dynamic, civic street that had survived in one form or another in every city in the world from the time of the Sumerians would be largely snuffed out.

Urbanists rightly, and often, decry this auto-centric legacy that yielded the streets to one mode of traffic alone. But many are also fond of their bicycle, and can’t help but be tempted by the idea of cruising along smoothly, with no cars, no pedestrians, no dangers to worry about on their commute. That is exactly what is wrong with putting highways in cities in the first place.

City streets should be in a continual conversation with the buildings surrounding them, with the people flowing in and out. Segregated travel lanes make people feel comfortable by separating them. They make them feel safe. And that can make them especially dangerous. As I wrote a few months back,

For wide, straight roads with large buffers, any visual obstacles swept aside, naturally signal safety and the absence of surprises to a driver. It’s why highways function so well in transporting vehicles large distances at great speed: drivers don’t have to worry about children chasing a ball out from behind a tree, or parked car. They are roads for dumb drivers, which is why roadtrips are particularly well suited to listening to books on tape, or the radio, or just pondering in peace. Dumb roads let us divert our attention productively while almost unconsciously following the cues of the road.

City and suburban streets are so radically different in use and purpose from highways as to deserve their very different names. Children just might run out into the street, because they live around the corner. A shopper just might walk out from behind a parked car, because there’s a storefront by the sidewalk. … To design a peopled street like a dumb road is to tell drivers to speed up and space out.

City streets are not safe, they are dynamic. To design streets that tell their users a different story can lull them into a false, dangerous sense of complacency. Exposure to all the dynamism around them can in fact keep them aware of their surroundings, and keep all the users of a street honest. It is why cars driving down streets with unmarked bike lanes tend to give cyclists a wider berth than those with painted lines.

London already has powerful examples of the power of “shared space” on its busy Kensington High Street, which ripped out many of the protective barriers and warning signs as an aesthetic renovation that was subsequently followed by a drop in accidents. To give bicyclists their own carve-out would be a step backwards in the revitalization of the city, not forwards.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.



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