German-Designed ‘Bicycle Streets’ Flip the Car-Bike Power Dynamic
Originating in Germany and currently being tested in the Netherlands, the concept of a “bicycle street”—where cars defer to bikes, rather than the other (and expected) way around—is garnering interest in North America.
While the traditional hierarchy of roads places cars in the dominant position, with cyclists expected to move over and make way, “this hierarchy is not always desired,” writes Beyond the Automobile.
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“In the case of a quiet residential street with low traffic volumes, for example, why should the cyclist always yield to the motorist?” it asks. “What if that quiet residential street actually forms a major route for the bicycle network of a community, making it a ‘bicycle arterial’ of sorts?” In such a case, perhaps, “people riding bicycles should be considered the primary users of the street.”
A possible gold standard in the development of bicycle streets could be the Dutch Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic—aka “The CROW Manual”— which states that “the fundamental innovation of a bicycle street is that it changes the established power relationship between automobiles and bicycles.”
Beyond the Automobile explains that, as outlined by CROW, such a deep structural change can’t be achieved by simply putting up a sign. “A bicycle street cannot be created just anywhere—road sections designated as bicycle streets must already carry a high volume of cyclists, both in absolute terms as well as relative to the volume of motor vehicles.”
More specifically, to be designated a bicycle street, a street must have a maximum speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour, be the conduit for “at least 1,000 bicycles per 24-hour period (equal to about two bicycles per minute in the busiest hour),” and “no more than 2,500 cars per 24-hour period.” Under the guidelines, a standard local residential street in North America would not typically qualify.
The other core element in asserting (and achieving) bicycle dominance over the car is design: specifically, “narrow lanes, combined with speed control measures and a street that visually looks like a two-way bicycle path that allows motor vehicles.”
To reinforce the fact that bikes rule a particular street, design options include “mixed profile (4.5-metre single lane, on-street parking not permitted); cyclists at side of roadway with centre border strip; and cyclists in middle with border strips on each side.”
Also helpful is “a smooth red asphalt area that resembles a cycle track…plus border strips that create a rumble surface for motorists and visually narrow the street.”
As to whether bicycle streets are effective…well, not even the Dutch have that fully figured out. But, notes Beyond the Automobile, case studies are pointing the way, affirming the need for a consistent standard of design so that all users—both cyclists and drivers—are never in doubt as to what they are riding on. The article also calls for stricter adherence to the “bicycle dominance” prerequisite, better speed management via speed humps and raised intersections, and making sure cyclists are pleased, first and foremost, above all other users.