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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.

[Image: Bike Lane via Shutterstock]

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.

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