Last year, New York City had a 35 per cent increase in commuter cycling. Much of that increase was attributable to New York City’s Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), which has been experimenting with innovative bicycle facilities based on European models. In the last three years, they’ve added 200 new miles of bike lanes, giving New York City 600 miles of bike lanes, paths and trails.

The expansion allowed the city to tie the existing network together. Previously, the 400 miles of bike lanes weren’t linked, so the NYCDOT focused on making connections, thereby integrating the network. In the process, the NYCDOT was able to design 200 miles of streets for cyclists, drivers, buses and pedestrians.

In the U.S., design guidance comes from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). Unfortunately, the Manual is limited when it comes to bicycle facilities, only providing simple configurations often consisting of two striped roadways on the street.

“There are different kinds of streets and the design guidelines don’t give you any help,” said Joshua Benson, Acting Director of Bicycle & Pedestrian Programs for the NYCDOT at the Toronto Bike Summit last Thursday in Toronto organized by the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation.

“In Manhattan, where there are a lot of one way streets with five or six lanes of intense traffic levels, it’s not possible to bike safely with a striped roadway, especially with high demand for curbside access for deliveries, loading and parking.”

To deal with unique situations, the NYCDOT borrowed designs from other cities in the U.S. and around the world.

They created buffered bike lanes (which are perceived as being safer than conventional lanes) that separated cyclists from motor vehicle traffic, constructed shared lanes and bike boxes, also known as advance stop lines allowing cyclists to get in front of cars so they can make turns without getting run over.

In New York City, on-street bike paths, green coloured bike lanes that make paths more visible to motorists, and wider parking lanes were established to make cycling more enjoyable and safer for commuters.

Creating a 5 foot bike lane – with a 3 foot buffer – in between a 9 foot parking lane and an 11 foot moving lane keeps cyclists from getting “doored” by drivers getting out of their parked cars, while ensuring a safe distance between bikes and moving cars.

The safety of the new bike lanes is attracting a lot of new cyclists while dramatically reducing the amount of sidewalk cycling.

Nine out of ten NYC cyclist fatalities and eight out of ten serious injuries occur in intersections. But new left-turn bays and intersection markings have reduced cycling accidents by telling cyclists where they should be as they proceed through an intersection as well as alerting motorists when a cyclist will be making a left-turn or advancing through a crossway.

Even with these changes, Benson said the demand for more robust bike lanes (especially in Manhattan) continues to increase due to enforcement problems, typically intrusions into bike lanes by delivery vehicles, pedestrians, jaywalkers, vendors or trash for pick-up, forcing cyclists to weave into a traffic lane.

In Copenhagen, bike lanes are raised up three or four inches from the roadway to help prevent intrusion.

Benson said the new, unfamiliar road configurations “kind of freaked people out” at first. Paving marking signs and islands were reconfigured at a rate of one block per week. In the beginning, there were also problems with motorist compliance. People were driving into the bike path, but that resolved itself over time.

Keeping the bike lanes swept clean of debris was a challenge too, so the paths had to be the exact width of the street sweeping vehicle to ensure that they would be cleaned on a regular basis. The NYCDOT worked closely with the fire and police departments to make sure they were still able to access a burning building.

Standard metered parking was changed to “truck loading zones only” because the NYCDOT didn’t want a truck double parking in one of the traffic lanes. That created a huge uproar with retailers until the NYCDOT discovered that the merchants themselves were the ones using metered parking.

Off-street bike paths in parks are extremely popular with cyclists and indicate, said Benson, the potential for a bike facility that doesn’t have to share the roads with cars, pedestrians and public transit.

Despite the astronomical growth in bicycle facilities, the number of people who commute by bicycle is still only 1 per cent, climbing as high as 4 per cent in some of the denser neighbourhoods of New York City.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.