The past decade has been productive when it comes to making American cities bicycle-friendly. Dozens of cities hired staff designated as "bicycle coordinators." New York and Seattle painted huge networks of bike lanes onto their streets. Washington, D.C., launched a bike-sharing program that more than a dozen cities looked at emulating in one way or another. And, in general, sensitivity to the issue of climate change put pedal-powered transportation in the good graces of many an American mayor.
Despite all this, the U.S. Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey had some sobering news about bicycling: Only about half of 1 percent of Americans bike to work. A number of city planners are seeing that statistic as evidence that some more radical bicycling strategies are in order. It's time to think beyond bike lanes, they say, and start using bike-only traffic signals, traffic-protected "cycle-tracks," and other street designs that are common in European cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where up to 40 percent of all trips are made on two wheels.
Doing that is harder than it sounds. American street-design manuals and regulatory mechanisms revolve around cars, not cyclists. As a result, few traffic engineers possess the technical knowledge -- and bureaucratic savvy -- necessary to implement novel bike treatments. That's why the National Association of City Transportation Officials last month launched an initiative called Cities for Cycling. The idea is to offer a clearinghouse of information for municipalities interested in bringing urban cycling's best practices to the United States.
"We're actively trying to identify innovative technologies in the world's most bike-friendly cities and how we can adapt them to the North American context," says Rob Burchfield, a traffic engineer with the city of Portland, Oregon, who is helping to spearhead the initiative. As Burchfield explains, the primary rulebook governing urban street design is the Federal Highway Administration's "Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices," or MUTCD. That document is oriented toward state highway officials, not city planners interested in getting people out of their cars. The 2010 MUTCD update, for example, includes only one non-standard bike design -- roadway markings indicating that cars must share a lane with bikes. That scheme has been around for almost a decade.
Although cities can use designs that are not listed as approved by the MUTCD, few are willing to do so. The effort requires applying to the Federal Highway Administration for a special "request to experiment." The ensuing project also is subject to laborious federal oversight. Many cities are concerned about liability issues associated with using street designs that have yet to be formally approved.
Cities for Cycling aims to overcome these obstacles by sharing the knowledge acquired by cities such as Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco, which already have jumped through some of these administrative hoops. For example, Portland will share what it's learned from adapting a European intersection treatment known as the "bike box." That's a painted area of roadway between the crosswalk and the place cars come to a stop. It's intended as a sanctuary for bicyclists to wait at red lights in a space where drivers can see them.
But Burchfield says the point of Cities for Cycling isn't just to trade notes on how to navigate federal rules. It's also to find ways to cut the red tape altogether, and finally remove federal constraints on local roadway design. "We want to shift from a regulatory aspect," Burchfield says, "to a partnership around innovation."