A movement has brought safer bicycle lanes to the United States. But it took a manual to spread them.
Steven Higashide10:37 AM ET
When I first started working in New York, in 2007, bicycling seemed like an activity best left to the pros. One of the city’s stock characters was the fearless bicycle messenger, wearing a heavy chain lock around the waist and whipping through traffic with supreme confidence.
Ten years later, the bicycle always feels like an option. It’s not my primary means of transit, but I’ve racked up 723 miles in four years on the Citi Bike bike-share service—a significant accumulation of short trips to and from the subway, after-work rides to friends’ apartments, and fun rides on sunny days.
The biggest reason my relationship with the bicycle changed is that during the last decade, New York built 98 miles of protected bicycle lanes—lanes that are painted on the street, but protected with concrete curbs, Jersey barriers, or (most commonly) flexible plastic posts that stop drivers from double-parking or otherwise violating the space.
New York was the first American city to embrace this kind of safe-cycling lane, but it’s no outlier. Minneapolis now has about 15 miles of protected bike lanes; Chicago has roughly 25, and San Francisco, 16. In the last five years, Denver; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; and Memphis, Tennessee, began to build networks of protected bike lanes. More than 100 American cities have at least one protected bike lane, according to the cycling-advocacy group PeopleForBikes. Protected lanes now exist in Salt Lake City, and Honolulu—and Tallahassee, Florida; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Springdale, Arkansas; and Huntsville, Alabama.
How did the protected bike lane suddenly become common in America? Advocates will tell you it was the result of stalwart activism. And trailblazing, politically daring transportation officials did play a part in bringing better bike lanes to the nation. But the spread of bike lanes to so many corners of the country couldn’t have happened without a simple, ordinary technology: a set of street-design standards, written down in a book so that less daring engineers didn’t have to blaze their own trails anew.