Last month San Jose embarked upon a major transformation of its car-choked downtown streets – converting general travel lanes on several blocks of 3th, 4th, 10th, and 11th streets, all running north-south streets and all with (formerly) three lanes in each direction to extra wide bike lanes separated by painted buffers from the remaining two lanes of vehicle traffic.
A total of 8 miles  of travel lanes were painted with white buffers to create 12-ft wide bike lanes, resulting in four-travel-lane streets instead of six-travel-lane streets. Why?
San Jose City Council member Sam Liccardo explained in his most recent blog post, Why Bikes Matter, how the innovative new bike lanes will benefit everyone, not just bicyclists, by making streets safer, improving health, and boosting local businesses.
The new buffered bike lanes are just the first examples of one of the most exciting elements of what the city’s Bike Plan 2020 (adopted late-2009) calls “Primary Bikeways”, which will comprise a network of enhanced cross-town bikeways (bike paths, lanes, and routes) featuring bike boulevards, green bike lanes, urban trails, and physically separated bike lanes. Similar to how our network of freeways and expressways provide convenient routes for high volumes of motor vehicles, Primary Bikeways are designed to support greater numbers of bicyclists of various skill levels. San Jose hopes to double its existing network of bikeways to 500 miles by 2020, investing over $20 million of funds to be provided mostly by federal, state, regional, and county grant programs .
Unfortunately, San Jose’s new buffered bike lanes on 3th, 4th, 10th, and 11th include a new hazard – they’re partly located in the door zone of parallel-parked vehicles. Cyclists are encouraged too far to the right, next to those parked cars, which is extremely hazardous due to the risk of “dooring” – crashing into a suddenly-opened car door or even getting thrown left into the path of vehicles approaching from behind, resulting in sometimes fatal crashes.
Aside from the door zone design flaw which can be corrected when the streets need to be re-striped again, most people riding bikes in downtown San Jose feel that the buffered bike lanes are a HUGE improvement compared to the six-lane “mini-highways” of the former car-traffic-maximizing design.
Alright, sounds nice for biking. But how does that benefit everyone else? What about residents who might never even ride a bicycle? What if someone drives a car for every single trip? How does that person benefit from buffered bike lanes?
Less Traffic Congestion, More Available Parking
A comprehensive, city-wide network of such high-quality bike lanes would reduce traffic congestion and free up vehicle parking spaces because many residents who currently drive would feel safe bicycling on city streets. Motorists and pedestrians also benefit from better bike lanes because providing a safe, comfortable space on the streets for bicyclists results in fewer people riding bikes on the sidewalks.
On most streets, bicyclists simply have no place to ride that they feel is safe. Santa Clara St, for example, is five lanes wide with parallel-parked vehicles on both sides and heavy car traffic. Of course people are bicycling on the sidewalks there! Quality bike lanes will draw cyclists off the sidewalks because the street is a much safer place to bicycle – if the bike lanes are well-designed.
Fewer Traffic Accidents
Converting vehicle lanes to wide buffered bike lanes also makes our streets safer for everyone, since these “road diets” have been consistently shown to reduce average vehicle speeds, and each 1 mph of speed reduction results in about 5% fewer traffic accidents . Speeding is a factor in about one-third of all traffic fatalities, killing over 10,000 Americans every year (the leading cause of death for those under age 35), and costing over $40 billion dollars per year .
Better for Local Business, Higher Property Values
Reducing traffic volumes and speeds (and therefore, noise), also increases sales for local businesses since the streets become more pleasant and attractive places for shoppers to visit and spend time (and money). Residential property values also increase because such streets are more desirable places to live .
Cheaper Transit and Road Maintenance
More pedestrians and bicyclists also increases transit ridership, since residents who walk or bike often include the bus or train in their trips. This helps reduce public subsidies needed to operate transit systems. More walking, bicycling, and transit use also saves public dollars spent on fixing streets, since there’s less wear and tear on street surfaces and fewer car accidents that damage public infrastructure and require police and fire services.
Lower Transportation Costs
Being able to walk, bike, or use transit for more trips would also reduce transportation costs, since many residents could spend less on gas and car insurance, and some individuals and families could own fewer vehicles or even choose to live car-free, as many younger workers, especially those living in or near downtown, are choosing to do. In fact, per capita vehicle ownership peaked nationwide back in 2007 and has been dropping ever since .
Making streets safe and comfortable for walking and bicycling also improves our health by enabling more residents to get exercise without even thinking about it – while walking or bicycling to work, shopping, or entertainment destinations. This helps reduce our alarmingly high and still increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, and the high health care costs associated with treating those diseases.
Will It Work?
But will enough residents actually choose bicycling to make it worth the investment in the required bikeway infrastructure? Other American cities have shown that constructing a great bikeway network is very cheap compared to other transportation investments, and it doesn’t take much to get a lot more people bicycling.
In 1990, only 1% of Portland, Oregon residents used bicycles as their primary (longest-distance during commute) mode of transportation to work, but that figure has jumped to about 8% now , or about 50,000 residents. That’s tens of thousands fewer cars driving around creating traffic congestion and polluting the air, for $60 million. That’s what city planners estimate Portland has spent on bicycle-related street improvements in the 20 years since 1990. They estimate that cost is roughly equivalent to the cost of constructing just a single mile of new urban highway .
Other large cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York have also seen substantial increases in bicycle use. San Jose is just beginning to join the ranks of these and other bicycle-friendly cities by installing innovative bikeways that are safe and comfortable for many more residents.
If San Jose’s Bike Plan 2020 vision of 500 miles of cross-town bikeways is actually constructed, everyone will benefit from safer and quieter streets, cleaner air, and lower transportation and health care costs – even those who may never ride bike at all.
1. New Bike Lanes Introduced to Downtown Streets, Kim Diaz, San Jose.com, August 13, 2012.
2. San Jose Bike Plan 2020, Tables, Final, Table 4, Bicycle Facilities: Past Expenditures & Future Financial Needs, City of San Jose, November 19, 2009.
3. Speed, Speed Limits and Accidents, D.J. Finch, P. Kompfner, C.R. Lockwood, and G. Maycock, Transport Research Laboratory (www.trl.co.uk), Report 58, 1994.
4. Traffic safety facts, 2008: speeding. Report no. DOT HS-811-166, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, US Department of Transportation, 2009.
5. Traffic Calming has Positive Economic Effects on Small Businesses and Property Values, East Arlington Livable Streets Coalition, July 25, 2009.
6. Highway Statistics, State Motor Vehicle Registrations, Table MV-1, Federal Highway Administration. Monthly Population Estimates for the United States: April 1, 2000 to December 1, 2010 (NA-EST2009-01), U.S. Census Bureau.
7. ‘Youth Magnet’ Cities Hit Midlife Crisis, Conor Dougherty, The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2009.