Creating Bike-Friendly Cities


Making City Streets Safer for Cyclists

Riding a bicycle should be safe, easy, and convenient for people of all ages and abilities. But in many cities, streets are designed primarily to move automotive traffic quickly, with little consideration for more vulnerable road users like cyclists. Dangerous street conditions deter people from cycling and contribute to crashes that result in serious injuries and fatalities.

Fortunately, forward-thinking cities around the world are redesigning their streets to be safer and more welcoming for bicyclists. Here are some of the most effective ways cities are working to protect cyclists and promote cycling as an everyday means of transportation.

Reduce Speeds with Traffic Calming

High vehicle speeds are one of the biggest threats to bicyclist safety. At impact speeds over 30 mph, crashes are far more likely to result in severe injuries or death. That’s why reducing traffic speeds is a key strategy for creating bike-friendly streets.

Traffic calming uses physical design elements like speed humps, raised crosswalks, chicanes, and curb extensions to slow cars down. These vertical and horizontal deflections force drivers to proceed cautiously. Traffic calming encourages consistent speeds closer to the posted limit and has been shown to reduce crashes by up to 45%.

Vertical traffic calming along a residential street. Image by Urban Engineers.

You can implement traffic calming on individual streets as well as larger neighborhood areas. Features like mini-roundabouts, chokers, and speed tables at intersections help reduce speeds and increase safety without compromising connectivity for cyclists.

Provide Protected Bike Lanes

Painted bike lanes may provide some separation from traffic, but they offer little physical protection. Drivers can still easily stray into the bike lane. That’s why cities wanting to enable safe cycling for all ages and abilities are installing protected bike lanes.

Protected bike lanes use a physical barrier to separate bicyclists from motor traffic. Barriers can include curbs, planters, parked cars, posts, and raised medians. This protection provides a dedicated space for cyclists while shielding them from collisions with cars.

Protected bike lane separated by concrete barrier, planters, and parked cars. Image by Toole Design.

Research shows protected bike lanes reduce injury risk for cyclists by 90%. They also increase bike traffic by creating a safer, more comfortable riding experience. Major cities investing heavily in protected lanes include New York, Chicago, Austin, San Francisco, and others.

Adding protection often requires reallocating space. Narrowing or removing travel lanes slows traffic while gaining space for bikes. Converting parking or sidewalk areas to protected bike lanes is another approach cities use successfully.

Design Safe Intersections

Intersections pose significant dangers to bicyclists, accounting for most crashes between bikes and cars. Conflicts occur when motorists fail to properly yield to cyclists while turning across bike lanes. Poor visibility, high speeds, and complex roadway geometry contribute to intersection crashes.

To improve safety at these critical junctures, cities are using designs tailored specifically to the needs of cyclists. Protected intersections extend the barrier along the bike lane through the intersection. This minimizes conflicts between right-turning cars and through-traveling bikes.

Other treatments like bike boxes and two-stage turn queue boxes provide dedicated spaces for cyclists at intersections. Colored pavement markings increase visibility and make clear where bikes and cars should travel. Traffic signals can also be timed to give cyclists a head start before vehicles.

Learn more about improving intersection designs for cyclists.

Build Complete Networks

Creating safe cycling routes along major corridors isn’t enough. To enable bicycling for transportation, cities must provide continuous, connected networks reaching all key destinations. Cyclists need to safely access jobs, schools, shops, parks, transit stations, and other sites throughout the urban area.

A complete, low-stress bike network allows riders of all skill levels to reach their destinations via dedicated cycling facilities. This requires routes separated from heavy traffic plus wayfinding to guide cyclists along the safest paths. A connected network makes cycling direct, convenient, and accessible to more residents.

Map of a future protected bike lane network in San Jose, California. Image by City of San Jose Department of Transportation.

Building out a complete network takes time, but cities can work strategically to connect major trip generators first. Focusing on closing gaps between existing bikeways maximizes benefits. Work with the community to identify priority routes that will serve the most people.

Embrace Bike Boulevards

For low-traffic neighborhood streets, bike boulevards provide an affordable option to make cycling safer. Bike boulevards use signs, pavement markings, and speed management to optimize local roads for bikes while discouraging through trips by cars.

Treatments like traffic diverters, chicanes, speed humps and mini-circles slow and discourage motor vehicle traffic. Other features like bike route wayfinding, pavement markings, and bike-friendly signal timing improve connections and convenience for cyclists.

Bike boulevards create direct, calmed routes for cyclists through neighborhoods, complementing separated lanes along busier streets. They attract cyclists of all ages by providing safety and comfort without the higher cost of dedicated bike lanes.

Get Creative with Public Spaces

In built-out cities, finding space for quality bike infrastructure can be challenging. But forward-thinking planners are getting creative with how existing public spaces are allocated.

Converting select streets to car-free greenways and open spaces provides new room for cycling while improving the urban realm. Market Street in San Francisco exemplifies this approach. The city transformed one of its major downtown thoroughfares into a car-free promenade with protected bike lanes integrated with pedestrian areas.

Car-free Market Street in San Francisco with protected bike lanes. Image by SFMTA.

Repurposing parking spaces helps fit bike lanes into narrow streets. Floating bus stops, raised bike lanes, and bus boarding islands maintain transit access while carving out space for cycling.

Public plazas, parks, and other car-free areas also present opportunities to integrate high-quality bike access. Closing gaps between bike networks improves connectivity.

Learn from Leader Cities

Ambitious cycling cities offer inspiration and lessons for designing safer, bike-friendly streets:

  • Copenhagen has raised car-free bridges and bicycle “superhighways” linking surrounding suburbs. Nearly 50% of the city’s residents commute by bike.
  • Amsterdam uses an extensive network of protected lanes fully separated from cars and pedestrians to achieve some of the highest cycling rates in the world.
  • Bogota built over 350 kilometers of protected bike lanes since the 1990s that now serve over 600,000 bicycle trips daily.
  • Paris created new car-free zones and hundreds of kilometers of pop-up bike lanes during the COVID-19 pandemic, cementing cycling’s place in the city.
  • Seville, Spain installed over 120 miles of protected bike lanes over the last decade, increasing cycling rates eleven-fold.
  • Vancouver constructed an 18-mile bike and pedestrian path completely separate from cars as the centerpiece of its cycling network.

See bicycle infrastructure innovations happening around the world.

Make Cycling Irresistible

Streets designed for speeding cars will never be safe or welcoming for bicyclists. But cities have a range of proven, affordable options to create bike-friendly routes. By building complete, low-stress networks separated from traffic, cycling becomes an easy choice for more people.

Investing in cycling infrastructure improves safety, reduces carbon emissions, and creates vibrant urban spaces. Follow the lead of proactive cities to make bicycling in your community irresistible.

Now is the time to redesign streets for cycling. Everyone deserves to feel safe riding a bike.

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