Understanding Bike Infrastructure

Or: Thinking Like An Urban Cyclist, Part One.

Step one of thinking like an urban cyclist is learning how to use the roads. Streets that work well for car traffic are often not designed well for or useful for cyclists. Incorporating bike infrastructure is one way to make roads a little friendlier to people on bicycles. However, like any kind of infrastructure, it works best when it is well-thought-out and meets the needs of the people who will be using it. It is important that you learn to distinguish between bike infrastructure that is designed to make riding safer and easier, and bike infrastructure that is designed to make it easier and more convenient for drivers to ignore cyclists' presence on the streets.

Bike Lanes

When most people think of bike infrastructure, they think of bike lanes. Having a separate lane means that cyclists can ride safely on streets with higher speed limits, without worrying constantly about the cars behind them. Bike lanes help new cyclists gain confidence, and they encourage cyclists to ride straight lines, regardless of the varying presence of parked cars or other objects in the parking lane or shoulder. They also, by their very existence, make drivers aware of the possible presence of cyclists in the road. They often exist on fast, direct streets that get cyclists where they want to go much faster than alternate routes on low-traffic residential roads with lots of stop signs.

But bike lanes often aren't all they're cracked up to be. Bike lanes are often placed between car lanes and parking lanes, exposing cyclists to the very serious risk of being "doored" when car doors are opened abruptly and unexpectedly or hit by cars pulling in or out of parking spaces. They also force cyclists to the far right edge of the road, where drivers, especially at intersections, might not think to look for them. And drivers, who might otherwise give cyclists plenty of room when passing, may see that white painted line and assume that cyclists have plenty of room, even though the bike lane may be narrow and in the "door zone."

So use bike lanes with caution. Make sure to stay out of the door zone, and, depending on traffic, consider leaving the bike lane in favor of a car lane when you cycle through intersections, in order to be seen by drivers.

Multi-Use Paths

These paths are totally separated from roadways, for use by cyclists, pedestrians, dog-walkers, kids on scooters, skateboarders, wheelchair users, joggers, inline skaters, and others. In many places in the United States, they are built on existing disused railway routes.

Because of their distance from car traffic, they are often very pleasant routes--but also because of this distance, they are rarely the most direct or convenient routes from place to place. They're great for a Sunday jaunt or for taking the long way on a sunny day, and new cyclists may feel safe on these routes before they're ready for the roads. However, on nice days they're often crowded with distracted pedestrians and families, and at night they may be badly lit or even unsafe.

Cycle Tracks

Halfway between a bike lane and a multi-use path, a cycle track is a path for cyclists that runs directly alongside a regular roadway, separated from motor traffic by a curb, barrier, or buffer space. Cycle tracks are widely used in European cities with widespread bike use, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, but are not yet common in the United States. They protect cyclists from traffic while allowing them to use the most direct routes through their cities.

However, implementation of cycle tracks can be complex. Some studies have shown that they increase the risk of bike-car collisions at intersections, where drivers may turn in front of cyclists they cannot see or are not looking for due to their position away from the main roadway. This can be mitigated by adding special signal lights just for bikes, so that they can safely cross intersections before or after cars do.

A cycle track in Paris.

Bike Boulevards

Bike boulevards are shared roadways that have been designed or renovated to give priority to and encourage bike traffic. Bike boulevards are usually roads with lower car traffic volumes and speed limits that run parallel to major arterials. Prior to being made into bike boulevards, these routes are often used as cut-throughs by car drivers hoping to avoid traffic. In order to discourage such behavior by drivers, bike boulevards are outfitted with traffic calming devices to slow or divert cars while allowing bikes to travel freely along the route. For example, bike boulevards may have small traffic circles or speed bumps installed, or they may have diverters to prevent through traffic by cars while allowing bikes to pass. They usually have few stop signs, making them pleasant and efficient routes for bike riders.

Bike boulevards must be marked in some way to attract cyclists and alert drivers to the presence of bikes. In Portland, Oregon, small circular markings with bike symbols in the middle are placed in the road every block or so, and occasional green signs point out turns and give distances to popular destinations.

A bike box in Portland, Oregon (from Wikipedia).

Bike Boxes

Technically, these are "advanced stop lines." At intersections, cars must stop at a first line further back, while cyclists may proceed to a stop line closer to the intersection. Bike riders are encouraged to occupy the space in front of the waiting cars--the bike box--until the light turns green.

Bike boxes are usually attached to bike lanes. Bike lanes, as discussed above, have the weakness of suggesting to cyclists that they ought, at all times, to be as far right on the roadway as possible. In fact, at intersections, this is the most dangerous place to be. When the light is red, cyclists approaching the intersection may stop directly to the right of vehicles stopped in the rightmost car lane. This is a blind spot for large trucks, and even drivers of small cars might not see them if they don't happen to glance in that direction. If a motor vehicle unexpectedly turns right when the light turns green, a disastrous collision may result.

A bike box brings bikes forward, into the normal sightlines of drivers, and gives cyclists an opportunity to get safely across an intersection ahead of drivers.


Sharrows, or shared-lane markings, are markings on the roadway indicating that the road is shared by cars and bikes. They guide cyclists to an appropriate position in the lane to avoid the door zone and alert drivers to their presence in the road. They also serve as a gentle reminder to car drivers that cyclists not only can be in the lane, but are supposed to be in the lane.

Currently, more than a dozen United States cities in at least twelve states are experimenting with the markings. In the states, the markings consist of a bicycle symbol with two chevron markings pointing in the direction of traffic. In the UK and Australia, where shared-lane markings have been in use for much longer, standard bicycle symbols are used.

What if there's no bike infrastructure?

Just remember these two rules: be visible, and be predictable. Ride where drivers can see you, and signal your intentions clearly. When in doubt, act like a car.

The roads are yours. Use 'em!

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