After much research, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has introduced design guidelines for implementing separated bicycle lanes. The FHWA defines this as an “exclusive facility for bicyclists that is located within or directly adjacent to the roadway and that is physically separated from motor vehicle traffic with a vertical element.”[1] This is different from standard bicycle lanes because a physical vertical barrier is placed between the bicycle lane and travel lane. This barrier makes bicycling safer, preventing collision with motorists. The barrier can be on of any number of elements such as posts, concrete barriers, or raised medians. The hope is that improving bicyclist safety will promote more use of bicycles as a means of transportation and make bicycling a more inclusive activity among various ages, genders, and ethnic groups.

Separated bicycle lane in New York City

As the FHWA notes, separated bicycle lanes have existed in the United States since the 1970s. However, interest outside of the few areas where these lanes were first implemented has only occurred within the past several years. In 2011 there were 78 nationwide, and by 2014 the number had increased to 191.[2]

The FHWA’s new guide to building separated bicycle lanes, “Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide”, incorporates ideas from previously released guides from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) (which the FHWA endorsed)[3] and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE). This initiative is crucial to providing better protection of current bicyclists and encouraging non-bicyclists others to start riding. The “Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide” includes details such as the definitions and methods of creating separated bicycle lanes with one- or two-way lanes. Designs for mid-block interactions such as driveways, parking, and transit stops are included. Also, road signage and signalization at intersections are considered.

The FHWA notes that “separated bike lanes can contribute to greater mobility at low cost to lower-income populations, providing a ‘last mile’ link to transit, and expanding access to employment opportunities,” and that it ”could eventually result in a more diverse ridership across age, gender, and ability.” This is of much importance, and it is one of the major focuses of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT).

NJDOT is committed to streets designed by communities through its NJ Future in Transportation initiative. Part of this initiative’s focus is for communities to customize their needs for non-vehicular transportation such as bicycle lanes. Community-oriented street design accommodates both drivers and pedestrians of all ages and various needs. Designing streets in this manner also helps ensure that transportation projects do not negatively impact minority or low-income populations. The NJDOT is committed to inclusive projects that ensure that minority populations are not negatively affected by Capital Improvement Projects. Specifically, NJDOT “evaluates and documents potential project-related impacts to communities, effects on community cohesion, quality of life, aesthetics, land-use patterns, business and employment, public mobility and access, use of public facilities, and displacements of residents and businesses.”[4] Also, NJDOT looks for “potential for disproportionate impacts to minority or low-income populations.” The NJDOT website also provides information about commuter bicycle racks located on the front of buses, storage aboard buses, and undercarriage storage. This in combination with the efforts listed above helps provide the last-mile link to transit.[5]

Design is key to making bicycling safe and feasible. Incorporating these new street design guidelines will be a learning process for both highway engineers and motorists. Currently, engineers heavily rely on AASHTO’s “Green Book” and FHWA’s “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices” (MUTCD), whose design methods focus on accommodating the automobile. However, the FHWA’s recent endorsement of separated bike lanes will be reflected in an updated version of its MUTCD coming in 2016 or 2017.[6] Motorists will have to adjust to sharing the road with bicyclists, especially if this initiative’s expected outcome is realized and the number of people using bicycles as a mode of transportation increases.

Denser infill development in suburbs and planning so that amenities and public transit are located within a bike-able distance is also key to making bicycling safer and increasing ridership. But the FHWA is taking a huge step forward in increasing bicycle usage and safety by making separated bike lanes a federal mandate.

[1] “Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide,” Federal Highway Administration

[2] “Inventory of Protected Bike Lanes,” Green Lane Project

[3] “Another Milestone for U.S. Biking: Highway Administration backs the NACTO Guide,” People for Bikes

[4] “Capital Project Procedures,” New Jersey Department of Transportation

[5] “Biking in New Jersey: Trains, Buses and Ferries,” New Jersey Department of Transportation

[6] “Federal Highway Administration to Develop Guidance for Protected Bike Lanes,” Planetizen