Bike lanes or bike paths? Are the best investments off street or on street?Bike lanes or bike paths? Are the best investments off street or on street?

By Steve Clark, Bicycling and Walking Program Manager


In surveys of attitudes toward bicycling as transportation, there often is a large group of people who are "interested but concerned," usually about safety. I'm hearing lately that some feel we need more off-road bike paths to get these people on bikes. I've also heard that a local bicycle organization is supporting a proposal to put in a "sidepath" along a fairly busy street with lots of intersections. Bike lanes or bike paths? What's going to get more people riding? What's safer? What is the better investment, on-street or off-street?

This last question of course, was a critical one for Bike Walk Twin Cities when we began implementation of the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program back in 2006. Congress made it clear that these funds were to get people out of their cars - to see "to what extent walking and bicycling could become part of the transportation solution." So we knew we had to make sure that whatever we built, it would help people reach their destinations, safely and efficiently. The facilities needed to be seen as part of a transportation network, not just a nice recreational loop around a lake.

Here are some of the things we wanted people to know about "bike paths" right from the beginning:

1)      Bike paths, with few exceptions are not bike paths.  They are multi-user trails (aka MUTs) accommodating skaters, walkers, people in chairs, baby strollers and skate boarders.  When well-designed, these are hugely popular and relatively safe.  When narrow or in areas where there are lots of intersections or driveways, bicyclists often choose to use the adjacent roadway, where they tend to fare better in terms of safety and travel time.

2)      MUTs are not the only way to entice new riders. Many studies and surveys have revealed that on-street bike lanes or paved shoulders are preferred over bike paths even by "potential" cyclists.  In a 1999 MnDOT survey asking Minnesotans to choose facilities that would be "important in increasing the likelihood" of commuting to work by bicycle, "bike lanes on roadways" received a yes vote from 79%  versus 73% for separate bike paths.  In later surveys "paved shoulders" were added to the list and immediately rose to the top with 93% of the respondents saying it was "somewhat or very important," with 88% agreeing that separate bike paths or trails were important.

3)      MUTs, if not designed well, can be as  dangerous as riding on the sidewalk,and for similar reasons.  Some studies have found that riding on a sidewalk or sidepath is 10 times more dangerous than riding on an on-street bike lane, and 5 times more dangerous than riding on any type of roadway.Most crashes happen at intersections.;Cyclists entering intersections from off-street trails are often less visible to motorists, especially when a cyclist is traveling fast and coming from a direction that would be considered "wrong-way" if he/she was on the roadway. 

4)      Off-street facilities require new pavement and sometimes the purchase of right-of-way (buying property or an easement).  Because of this, off-street facilities tend to have much higher costs than bike lanes, which frequently can be added to a roadway simply by reducing the width of travel lanes or the number of travel lanes. Off-street paths also means adding more pavement to open land, increasing runoff.


Those points aside, there is no question that the Midtown Greenway and many other paved trails in the Twin Cities are world-class facilities, offering cyclists a more pleasant option than a typical roadway, without compromising safety or convenience for cyclists (pedestrians also using MUTs might disagree). But we also know that opportunities for these kinds of trails (along rivers or within a railroad corridor) have become increasingly rare. How do we know this? Because early-on we asked for proposals for off-road facilities and few proposals where ideal conditions exist came in. We did fund the proposals that met our criteria, including an extension of the Hiawatha Light Rail Trail into downtown and the University of Minnesota Trail, which will connect the Inter-campus Transitway to Bridge #9 when it is completed in 2012.

What about Sidepaths?

We have consistently turned down for funding for sidepaths, a widened sidewalk type facility that runs parallel to a street. Again, if the sidepath is also adjacent to a river or some other barrier that limits the number of crossings (such as the paths along the Mississippi), a sidepath can be safe and pleasant.   But if it has multiple crossings (aka "side friction") it can become a real hazard.  With exceptional design (e.g., raised trail surface at each driveway crossing) and features such as special bike signals at intersections, some of these problems can be overcome. But outside of Europe, willingness of agencies to make such investments is extremely rare. 

Is off-street better? Or are "bike streets" best?

Today, even in Europe, bicyclists are beginning to challenge the notion that off-street is better. Interestingly, it was only recently that cyclists in Germany achieved what most states in the United States accepted long ago: a repeal of laws that require cyclists to use a sidepath when one exists.  In addition to the federal court agreeing that cyclists shouldn't be forced to use inadequate facilities, new policies have been created requiring German cities to provide more dedicated space for cyclists on their streets. What's behind this recent change in laws in Germany? Let's start with Münster and move to Kiel for examples.

Münster, Germany. World-class bike paths & a new love of bike streets

Stephen Böhme, Münster's traffic engineer (whose number one priority is cyclists) came to Minneapolis when we established the Bike Walk Twin Cities program in 2006, courtesy of Bikes Belong. Muenster's claim to fame was their outstanding network of bike paths, a system built after World War II, mainly, as Bohme describes it, to allow motorists to travel unimpeded by bicyclists!  I visited Muenster and was quite impressed with their elaborate trail system. They worked hard to make intersections as safe as possible, mostly by using bike advance boxes and special signals.  But Bohme told me that he was very worried about the paths, as they had become increasingly inadequate to accommodate all the bicyclists that want to use them, especially those using trailers and cargo bikes.  At that time, more than one in three cycling crashes in Münster involved collisions on bike paths. And Bohme was pretty sure that the crash rate on the paths would continue to rise.

Bicycle advance box, Münster Germany

When I asked Bohme for his advice on what types of facilities we should focus on in Minneapolis to get more people riding, it did not take him long to come up with his answer: "Bike Streets - as many as you can get - preferably every three blocks or so" !!!!

And what did Stephen mean by Bike Streets....?

In this country, they are most often called Bicycle Boulevards.  Low volume, low speed streets that are typically residential in character, bicycle boulevards employ pavement markings and traffic calming elements that make them work even better for bicycling and walking.  The best Bike Streets have large pavement markings, few stop signs (because keeping momentum on a bike is pretty important), and clever ways to discourage and slow motorized travel, such as median diverters, speed humps, raised crosswalks, and traffic circles. In Germany all Bike Streets have a maximum speed of 30 Kmh which is the equivalent of 18 mph. The safety record on these appears unsurpassed, even superior to bike lanes, which one study found to be twice as safe as a roadway without striped lanes.


Will Kiel emerge as the next Münster?

Bohme encouraged me to visit to Kiel, Germany, the home of Mercedes Benz, where cars are loved and where, unlike in Münster, bicycling was largely ignored until the last decade or so.   Starting out with only a 5% mode share for bicycling (low for German cities) back in 1996, Kiel can now boast that over 15% of their residents bike to work on a typical day. How was this done?  A combination of a very persuasive public awareness campaign and the creation of a new network of facilities centered around "bike streets."  "Our goal was to make it easier to bike than to drive a car," Susanne Heise of BUND (a Friends of the Earth group that helped to design their pilot program)  told me, "and so we gave cyclists as many short cuts as possible with our bike street network and closed off some access to the motorist. It really has made a difference!"

Try out the new Bike Streets aka Bicycle Boulevards funded through Bike Walk Twin Cities:

RiverLake Greenway

Bryant Ave

5th Street NE

22nd Ave NE

And still to come in 2012:

President's Bicycle Boulevard (NE Mpls)

Southern Connector

Jefferson Ave

Griggs Street