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New York City's Protected Bike Lanes Have Actually Sped Up Its Car Traffic

Don't listen to the angry drivers shouting at you. By reducing pedestrian and cyclist injuries and easing car congestion, protected bike lanes are good for everyone—not just riders.

[Photos: Flickr user Paul Krueger]

When New York City first started adding new protected bike lanes in 2007, some drivers made the usual argument against them: Taking street space away from cars would slow down traffic. After years of collecting data, a new report from the city shows that the opposite is true. On some streets redesigned with protected bike lanes, travel times are actually faster. And it turns out the new lanes have a range of other benefits as well.

For pedestrians, the bike lanes make walking safer by shortening crosswalks and making crossings more obvious to drivers. Pedestrian injuries have dropped an average of 22% on streets with bike lanes. Not surprisingly, cyclist injuries have also decreased; on 9th Avenue, for example, even though far more bikes are on the street, cyclist injuries have gone down by 65%.

For cars, a better traffic flow comes partly as a side benefit from a safety feature added with the bike lanes. Cars turning left now have pockets to wait in—so they're less likely to hit a cyclist riding straight, but they also stop blocking traffic as they wait.

"Having that left turning area, where you're able to get out of the flow, you can see the cyclist, the cyclist can see the turning vehicle, you can pause and not feel the pressure from behind to make a quick movement," says Josh Benson, director of bicycle and pedestrian programs for the New York City Department of Transportation. "That's a major major safety feature of these type of bike lanes. But it also helps the flow."

That's not to say the city hasn't gotten some complaints about the changes—in some cases, people perceived that traffic was slower, perhaps just because they expected it to be. "I think there are those people who had the perception that travel times increased just because visually they saw the roadway looked different," says Benson. "It's part of the reason we do a lot of empirical data collection, because we get a lot of anecdotal feedback."

The new data will help the department as it promotes an ever-growing network of protected lanes in new neighborhoods. "Just being able to really show an overall comprehensive benefit for these facilities is going to help us with the next generation of bike lanes," says Sean Quinn, co-director of the DOT's Pedestrian Projects Group. "We're not going to just say this is a bike facility, and it's going to help one mode of traffic—we're going to say it has the potential to help everyone in the neighborhood where we're placing the facility."

The new bike lanes even help local business; the city has found that streets with bike lanes are linked with more retail sales, new jobs, and more tourists.

Over the last seven years, New York has installed over 30 miles of protected bike lanes, but it's just the beginning. "It's our plan to do five miles of protected bike lanes every year going forward," says Benson. "That's actually about 100 city blocks of protected bike lanes, so that's a huge chunk of city streets every year."