Cycling is increasing as a mode of transportation in North America. No longer just for leisure, bicycles are now being used to commute and run errands. People are getting out of their cars to build exercise into their daily routines, lower monthly costs, decrease their carbon footprints, and avoid urban traffic snarls.
Yet growth in this mode of transportation has created conflict over shared use of infrastructure. Sharing the road can create direct frustrations, but even marked bike lanes can lead to issues: where a culture of biking has not taken hold, bike lanes are sometimes ignored and are used as turning lanes, unloading zones, vehicle stands, or even as parking. Drivers who are primarily concerned with other drivers may think it’s quite reasonable to pull into a bike lane to unload a passenger, and not realize the danger to cyclists. Some of this is due to a simple lack of awareness as rules and street markings change, and because driver training rarely focuses on car and bicycle interactions.
Cyclist groups have been stepping up to raise awareness and advocate for safer bike infrastructure for many decades, but recently have become involved in new “human bollard” campaigns. In these events, people stand along painted bike lanes, making the separation obvious. The riders are communicating the need for visibility and awareness, as well as advocating for physically separated bike lanes, which are safer for cyclists of all abilities and lead to less driver frustration.
A shift in transportation culture and planning practice
In North America, only 1-2% of trips are taken by bicycle, in comparison to 15-40% of trips in European cities. Encouraging people out of cars makes for more efficient use of street space, reduces the climate-harming emissions produced by single-user vehicles, and can help lower maintenance costs should vehicle use fall. Research into cycling as a primary transportation mode has been clear that a cycling-specific “built” environment encourages people to bicycle. Cities have moved towards adding a network of bike lanes to encourage people out of their cars.
However, without a clear culture of understanding, even bike-supporting drivers can get confused by these initiatives. Bike lanes at intersections change how intersections work. In some locations, the expectation is that the right turn is made around the bike lane, not through it. In other places, the right turn position is to the right of the bike lane. In either case, many drivers know to shoulder-check for pedestrians at the intersection but might forget to also check while changing lanes before the turn.
The rise of online shopping has made delivery trucks a ubiquitous element of road traffic and they are becoming an increasing source of bike lane frustration. In many locations, the delivery driver believes they are choosing the safest position that will keep them on schedule: that it’s safer to everyone if they stand in a bike lane while they run a package to a door.
Cyclist safety and protected bike lanes
Protected bike lanes in which cyclists are separated from traffic by barriers mitigate some of these use-of-space conflicts by clearly outlining single-use spaces. Lanes can be protected in a myriad of ways. The cycle path can be built behind a row of planters or bollards, a line of parked cars between bicycles and traffic, a raised sidewalk, or a series of “tough curb” parking stops. In some places, entire streets or paths can be dedicated to bicycle traffic. Studies in Portland have shown that the addition of these sort of barrier separated bike lanes coaxes more riders to the road.
The development and installation of these separated bike lanes is coming slowly. To show the utility of separation for both cyclists and drivers, and to encourage all sorts of riders to feel confident on their streets, human bollard campaigns have proved successful.
Human bollards, protecting people
The first human bollard campaign was developed one evening after two cyclists, Maureen Perisco and Matt Brezina, discussed frustrations they’d experienced on a bike trip. They’d repeatedly had to pull into busy traffic because of cars standing or parked in the bike lane. Ms. Perisco commented that “we should do Hands Around America, but next to the bike lane." From this discussion, the organization People Protected was born.
Just a month later, People Protected held their first action. On May 1, 2017, 20 people wearing shirts announcing “Protected Lanes Save Lives” created a human bollard line along the outside of a bike route in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. This action was successful at bringing together cyclists and making the issue more obvious to the drivers in the area.
Since then, activists worldwide have taken up this strategy to bring both awareness and action for the protection of bike lanes. People Protected has inspired action in Waterloo (@peoplewr), New York (@TransAlt), Boston, (@StreetsPAC_MASS), Boise (@BoiseStreetDept), and Portland (@bikeportland).
Some protective solutions safer than others
Some bike lanes are separated with thin polyethylene plastic delimiter poles. These delimiter poles are the source of some controversy: they can get run over and ripped off their bases by people drifting the lane. However, these delimiter poles are often better than paint, because they are tall and reflective, and provide a clear visual guide. They are not an active barrier and, in some places, having permeable barriers can be important. For example, busy and crowded downtown streets that manage a lot of traffic may need places next to the curb for emergency vehicles, or even allow access of emergency vehicles to the sidewalk.
If thin delimiters are not enough for protection but a permeable barrier is needed, thicker flexible bollards with 4” body diameter, made of polyurethane, are a more substantial option. These look like metal and so actively discourage regular vehicle traffic from cutting into or drifting the lane. Yet these bollards can bend throughout the bollard body, should a firetruck or ambulance need to drive over them.
Another semi-permeable option is the installation of tough curbs. These hard rubber strips are also used as parking stops, and are quite jarring to drive over. They will discourage people from driving into the bike lane, being particularly unpleasant to drive over at posted speeds—and yet an emergency vehicle could ease over them if needed.
Permanent barriers include planters, retaining walls, raised bike paths, or cars themselves—a parking lane can be constructed between bicycles and vehicle traffic. These solutions often come after people have adapted to sharing the road and cyclists have become more visible on a given route or street. It is hard for businesses and drivers to imagine losing parking and road space to cyclists they never see. However, protected bike lanes do bring riders, and businesses can capitalize on a new market share by becoming cyclist-friendly or bringing rider-awareness to their branding.
Separated bike lanes encourage hesitant riders
Cycling is not appropriate for all people. Ride-share with transit, cabs, and personal vehicles will be part of our city streets for a long time. However, creating more safe facilities for riders can make bicycles possible for a greater number of people. A protected bike lane means a family with youngsters may be able to bike to a busy destination rather than taking the car, or that a senior on a trike will feel comfortable they’ll be safe.
Human bollard campaigns help bring awareness to the utility of separated bike lanes. They also flag, simply, where bike lanes already exist, to help bring awareness to drivers of change in traffic patterns on a given street.