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Do Bike Lanes Actually Speed Up Car Traffic?

As New York City redesigns its streets to be more bike and pedestrian friendly, the people who are still driving are getting a bonus: they're going faster.

There’s few surer ways of stirring controversy in a city or neighborhood than to bring up the topic of new bike lanes. Cyclists love them obviously, but drivers will get all riled up about the road space or parking space they are giving up. Dare to peek at comments on a listserv, and it can be all out warfare between two- and four-wheeled partisans.

New data from New York City’s Department of Transportation, however, could help calm tensions. Bike lanes and pedestrian improvements are actually good for drivers too: They ease congestion and speed up traffic, the agency's analysis of GPS data from taxi cabs shows.

Streetsblog looked in detail at the data from the city’s annual "Sustainable Streets Index," which reports traffic trends since 1990.

In the congestion nightmare that is midtown Manhattan, cars moved faster through the area since the city added protected bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly zones to five avenues. From Streetsblog:

In Manhattan below 60th Street, predictions that reallocating space to walking, biking, and transit would only worsen traffic have not come to pass. In fact, average traffic speeds have picked up. GPS data from yellow cabs below 60th Street show that average speeds are up 6.7 percent since 2008. The average speed of a taxi trip, which was 8.9 mph in 2011, inched up to 9.3 mph last year.

The slightly faster trips weren’t the result of fewer cars on the road either, which has remained about the same from 2008 to 2011.

The cycling culture wars, which in New York have been exacerbated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hard push to remake the streets in favor of cyclists, mass transit riders and walkers, are unlikely to ease with merely more data.

Consider the reactions of hardened drivers Abdullah Muhammed, who spoke to the New York Times: "They cut the streets in half to have people sit." He then gave the reporter a "lengthy smirk" and a nod at the clogged traffic, when the paper asked if this made driving more difficult. A representative of the Automobile Association of America in New York suggested to the paper that if congestion is down, it’s because drivers are simply giving up trying to get through the area. No one will say it out loud, but maybe that's the real point.

[Image: Bike Lane via Shutterstock]

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  • Rubén Carbonero

    Correlation doesn't imply causality. I've read the DoT report and I can't find how they explain this causality. So even if I believe bikes are great for traffic, I would not ascribe this "effect" to bikes alone.


    That bikes and bike lanes are even an issue only serves to illustrate the impatience and narrow-mindedness of the Australian motorist. Why is it in Europe, where the traffic density can be far worse in much busier cities, that cars and bicycles share the roads without the animosity? I've travelled far and wide, living in many countries and have never witnessed the level of intolerance of cyclists that exists here, anywhere else in the world. In additon to that, Australian driving skills are also some of the poorest I have witnessed, and maybe the inability to co-exist with other road users is a by-product of not being equipped to drive appropriately to the conditions. P.S. I am not a cyclist.

  • Norm Gray

    In built-up areas bike lanes might help to avoid motor traffic slow downs during busy times, but still require drivers to avoid the same 1.5 meter area when passing. Also, it also exacerbates the 'them & us' attitude of ignorant drivers who simply refuse to acknowledge that a bicycle has equal entitlement to road use. To make matters worse, here in Australia bike lanes are very poorly maintained, generally covered in glass & rubbish, and more often than not, a rougher surface than the roadway itself.

  • Greg Flint

    Of course. Cars slow to crawl often enough, without adding another reason which is avoiding bikes. If you attach a GPS to a car, you'll discover that you've done an average of 15 - 35km/h for the day (depending where you are). On my bike, I average 25km/h for a day.

    The key to success (ie. keeping cars moving, and avoiding bike rage) is to allow the two streams to maintain speed, which means keeping them separate, which means bike lanes.

  • Final_Word

    They ease congestion if the freaking bikers stay in their lane.  My experience in areas that have put in bike lanes is that the bikers still do whatever the hell they want.