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Research Round-up: Cycletracks, Commute Trips and Low-Stress Streets

When talking with people who are interested in biking more but haven’t yet overcome their reservations, one of the things that comes up a lot is the challenge of one particular intersection or stretch of road. It’s too busy, or it just feels uncomfortable and dangerous.

I often remind those folks that they don’t need to ride to their destination along the same route they would drive. Sometimes there’s an alternate route that can avoid the dicey parts, but we’re just not used to looking for it. Route selection is an important factor in encouraging more people to hop on their bikes.

How do different environments impact safety and comfort? What features are people looking for it their route? Several new studies have come out that address these questions. Knowing what routes people on bikes choose will help communities deliver more bike-friendly streets – for existing and potential cyclists.

Cycle tracks and quiet residential streets increase safety

A widely reported study in the American Journal of Public Health by researchers from the University of British Columbia’s Cycling in Cities Research Program found that infrastructure reduces the risk of injury.

  • Major streets with parked cars and no bike infrastructure had the highest risk.
  • Cycle tracks – bike lanes physically separated from automobile traffic – alongside major streets and residential street bike routes were the least risky.
  • Major streets with bike lanes and no parked cars had about half the risk of major streets with parking and off-street bike paths had about 6/10 the risk.
  • The authors also note that streetcar tracks, downhill slopes, and construction added noticeably to riskiness.

“The only shocking thing about this study is just how blindingly obvious the results are, and that it has apparently taken 40 years for us to figure this out!” says League President Andy Clarke, referring to reported safety benefits of cycle tracks. The lesson, Andy notes, is that poorly designed facilities in the early 1970s did tremendous damage to the reputation of bicycling infrastructure, which set back the growth of bicycling networks. Cycle tracks and bike lanes still need to be used in the right places with careful attention to detail to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.  “Fortunately, we have learned a whole lot more about good design that does work and we’re starting to see the results,” Andy says.

On the topic of route selection, the researchers compared their safety data to the results of an earlier study on the stated-desirability of different bicycling conditions. Not surprisingly, the safer routes were also the most popular:

(Source: University of British Columbia, Cycling in Cities Program)


Distance, geography & comfort

If you want to know what types of roads people on bikes prefer, you can ask them, as the British Columbia researchers did. Or you can watch them. Portland State University researchers Joseph Broach, Jennifer Dill, and John Gliebe equipped cyclists with GPS units and tracked their actual routes. They then compared the route with other of plausible options to determine what factors impacted the choices cyclists make.

The resulting paper — “Where do cyclists ride? A route choice model developed with revealed preference GPS data — shows the results. Here is a Powerpoint presentation of the results and an excellent article from the Atlantic Cities.

Bicyclists, it turns out, like short trips. This is especially true for commute trips, but also true for other utilitarian trips. People on bikes were, however, willing to add on extra distance to avoid turns (especially difficult lefts), traffic lights (except when crossing busy intersections), and hills.

Like we saw in the study above, traffic deterred bicycling in a big way. Non-commuting bicyclists would only ride on a busy road without bike lanes if the next best option was more than twice as long or up a steep hill.

The most intriguing find was how much riders preferred off-road bike paths or traffic-calming bikeways (a.k.a. “bike boulevards”) to traditional arterial bike lanes, Atlantic Cities noted. In terms of rider preference, a path was like reducing a route 26 or 16 percent (non-commute versus commute) and a boulevard was like reducing it 18 or 11 percent (same). A bike lane on a high-traffic street, meanwhile, was no more attractive than riding a low-traffic street with a lane.

Low stress routes

The third recent study related to this topic hits on what I think may be the bike concept of the year: low-stress routes.

Whether riding on neighborhood streets or well protected bike lanes, people do not want to be bullied by traffic. “Low-Stress Bicycling and Network Connectivity” by Drs. Maaza Mekuria, Peter Furth, and Hilary Nixon, makes the case that it doesn’t matter how good some of you streets are to ride if you can’t get to where you’re going without feeling in danger. As a rule we don’t like stress. People on bikes want a comfortable, low-stress way to travel. But it also needs to be efficient.

The key, the research suggests, is creating connected networks.


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