It’s time to stop building black diamond bike lanes

January 06, 2014

Martha Roskowski, Green Lane Project director


Photo: Andrew Catellier

Imagine if every ski trail at Vail was a black diamond advanced run. Gone would be the easy runs marked with green circles and the intermediate blue square runs.

Expert skiers would rejoice. Every trip down the mountain would be an adrenaline-charged workout -- unfettered by kids, beginners or out-of-shape vacationers from the flatlands.

The only problem is that Vail Resorts would probably go out of business, because only about 20% of skiers are skilled enough to navigate advanced runs. Instead of hosting more than 1.6 million visitors a year, they’d attract one skier in five. It would be a terrible business decision and the smart people at Vail Resorts would never consider it.


Photo: Brian Wilson.

In most U.S. cities, riding a bicycle is a black diamond adventure. A combination of skill, daring and training is necessary to feel comfortable riding in traffic on big busy streets.

Of course, not all city riding is challenging. There are a lot of greens and blues in the system, including quiet neighborhood streets, greenway paths and rail-trails. But they often don’t connect, and that’s a problem.

Let’s go back to the top of a ski hill for a moment. Imagine you could start out on your choice of easy greens and intermediate blues -- but then halfway down the mountain, every run dumped you into a section of steep and bumpy expert terrain. Once you reached the bottom, you’d likely opt for hot chocolate at the lodge and look for a different vacation spot.

The same holds with biking. A potential journey is judged by the most challenging section of the route. Riding a bike down a quiet neighborhood street is easy and fun, but if you have to cross a busy road without a safe intersection, or you have to ride in heavy traffic before you get to a greenway path, it’s not a green circle experience and less-confident riders are not going to do it more than once.


Photo: John Luton.

Most people don’t have green or blue routes from their front door to work, play, shopping or school. And even the best efforts of cities haven’t solved the problem. For years, cities have been adding conventional bike lanes on their big busy streets – it’s what the engineering manuals say to do. But for a lot of people, a single stripe of white paint and some bike symbols isn’t enough to change the street into a comfortable place. It’s still a white-knuckle ride.

Cities are realizing that making it easier to ride a bike is a smart business decision. Today’s cities are working to become more vibrant, sustainable places that attract employers, move people efficiently and serve the growing desire for bikeable and walkable places. One of their key tactics is to beef up the bike lanes on busy streets, adding physical separation between the bike lanes and moving traffic. New protected lanes (often painted green) are coaxing more people out on bikes, with numbers doubling on Dearborn Ave in Chicago and tripling on 15th Street NW in Washington, DC.


15th Street NW in Washington, DC.

Most people won’t ever be black diamond skiers and they won’t become black diamond bikers. While technique can be honed through training and experience, nerves of steel and quick reflexes aren’t easily taught.

The expert bikers don’t necessarily welcome beginners, kids and out-of-shape visitors intruding on their terrain. Some even oppose proposals for protected bike lanes, saying “I’m a cyclist, and I don’t want these.” When cities understand that these highly skilled riders make up about 1 percent of the population, it helps them move projects forward that serve a much broader range of people.

The experts, meanwhile, can take solace that plenty of city streets will offer black diamond biking for years to come.

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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