There are bike lanes, and then there are bike lanes. The best have something the others don't: Real protection for cyclists. They find some way of separating riders from the rest of the road—a line of parked cars, a row of planter pots, some plastic barriers.
Go to advanced cycling cities—places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen—and that's the norm. It's a major reason why those places have far higher rates of ridership than here. Because people don't have to compete with cars, cycling is something the whole family feels comfortable doing, even the very young and very old.
In the U.S., separated bike lanes are still relatively rare, though the last few years has seen a steady expansion. PeopleForBikes, a Colorado-based cycling advocacy group, counted 40 such projects in U.S. cities in 2012, and it expects at least as many this year when it's finished counting.
The non-profit recently chose its top 10 protected bike lanes using five main criteria. All are "innovative," provide a genuinely useful A-to-B connection, "transform the street," and have a certain visibility and "wow factor." All of them, also, are the product of political courage, says Martha Roskowski, the PeopleForBikes's green lane project director. Someone in the city administration had to fight hard for them.
PeopleForBikes's winning bike lane for 2013 is a 1.2-mile route along Dearborn Street in Chicago. Roskowski singles it out for one main reason: Cyclists have their own traffic signals and phases. The result has been a 50% jump in riders complying with the lights, according to the city. Dearborn doesn't have the two-wheeled bloodymindedness of most city streets. "If you make the traffic system responsive to people on bikes, then they will respond appropriately," Roskowski says. "They stop when they're supposed to, and go when they're supposed to go."
After that come projects like Indianapolis's Cultural Trail Guadalupe Street in Austin, and Linden Avenue in Seattle. Roskowski points in particular to protected bike lanes in Atlanta (10th Street) and Memphis (Overton Park Road), cities that until recently were not known as cycling standouts (in 2010, Bicycling magazine named Memphis the worst city for cycling in America).
PeopleForBikes expects to see a lot more progress in 2014. The group, which is mostly funded by the bike industry, recently invited cities to bid for its Green Lane program, which provides cities with small grants and technical assistance. More than 100 cities have applied already, and Roskowski expects three-quarters to start building separated lanes next year.
"It's moving pretty rapidly as cities realize that we're done with conventional bike lanes," she says. "The theory that if you put down a stripe of paint people will ride on big busy streets doesn't work. That experiment has yielded less than 1% of trips being made by bikes. Cities know they need to do this differently."