Bike history: In 1972, California warned against paint-only bike lanes

February 12, 2014

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer


Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Last month, my boss argued in a much-shared post that "it's time to stop building black-diamond bike lanes," those painted lanes right beside parked cars or high-speed streets that make relatively few people feel comfortable biking. The other day, we linked to a Los Angeles columnist's call for his city to be more ambitious, building physically protected bike lanes that will appeal to more than 5 percent of the population.

The arguments are compelling. But they're far from new. The other day, Green Lane Project program manager Zach Vanderkooy came across this passage on page 10 of a 1972 bikeway guideline commissioned by the California Department of Transportation:

Almost all of the international "cyclepath" systems provide separated lanes exclusively reserved for bicycle and, sometimes, moped use. Painted lines or stripes to demark bicycle rights-of-way are generally not recommended owing to the ease of encroachment by motorized traffic. International "cyclepaths" for the most part separate bicycles from motorized traffic by barriers, hedges, physical separation or grade separation.

The predominant method of "separation" employed in the United States to date has amounted to symbolic separation. With several notable exceptions the majority of United States "bike routes" currently consist of little more than signs to guide bicyclists along a scenic route and and the same time warn motorists of their presence.

California and the rest of the United States, of course, didn't follow this recommendation. Despite a few physically protected bike lanes in cities like Davis and Champaign, some of which were poorly marked and maintained, the cities that built bike lanes stuck mostly with low-cost "symbolic" paint or thermoplastic stripes. And they got what they paid for.

The Green Lane Project is a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write michael@peopleforbikes.org.

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