Some Thoughts on Outdated Bikeway Designs

(This is a non-Eagle Rock specific post mostly consisting of thoughts on bicycle infrastructure design standards that dictate bikeway design in Los Angeles)

When bicycling on the streets of Los Angeles I am expected to ‘share the road’ with motorists. On quiet residential streets this is rarely an issue, cars seldom go above 20 miles per hour. But even on residential streets there is the occasional pressure to speed up or move aside when a motor vehicle approaches from behind. However, residential streets are pretty manageable and subjectively safe for myself, and the many people I see who simply enjoy to go for a ride around the block. Intersections are not an issue either as residential streets are usually narrow with little traffic.

However, the comfort utilitarian and recreational bicyclists feel on residential streets quickly disappears when traveling on major, commercial streets. One of the biggest hindrances to people choosing the bicycle for travel is how dangerous larger streets with greater amounts of traffic feel.

Now I am an everyday bicyclist and I have no problem negotiating with motor vehicle traffic, or making left turns like a motor vehicle. I expect motorists to needlessly discriminate me by shouting, honking, and telling me to get out of the way. But this is not the reality I want to experience. When traveling by bicycle I’d prefer to be separated from motor vehicles traveling over 20 miles per hour;I do not want to breathe in exhaust, feel cars zoom by, or put up with the noise pollution and increasingly distracted drivers. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are many more who cite their number one reason for not bicycling more often being how unsafe and unpleasant conditions are, being forced to mix with motorized traffic to go to the grocery store, a friend’s house, or local restaurant.

So what is being done to address the concerns of the many people who want to get on their bicycles but don’t? Well, here locally in Los Angeles the city has a Bicycle Master Plan which seeks to create a 1,600 mile network of bicycle facilities over the course of the next 30 years. The city hopes that in those 30 years bicycling will eventually make up 5% of the city’s traffic.

Almost half, 700 miles, of the 1,600 miles of bicycle facilities will be on the a backbone network– that is, this backbone of the bicycle network will be on the heavy traffic streets many are currently afraid of. So what will the facilities on these major streets look like? Currently bike facility designs are largely dictated by: The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO); California Highway Design Manual (CHDM); and the California Manual of Unified Traffic Control Devices (CAMUTCD). What these design guides recommend will likely dictate what LA’s backbone network of bicycle facilities on major streets will look like.  What do these manuals have to offer?

Facilities offered in AASHTO and CAHDM are:

  • Class I Bike Path: Completely separated right-of-way for exclusive use by bicycles and pedestrians
  • Class II Bike Lane: Provides a striped line for one-way bicycle travel on a street or highway
  • Class III Bike Route: Provides shared use with pedestrians or motor vehicle travel

It is well known that the majority of people will refuse to start bicycling unless safe, separate facilities are provided. Anecdotally, when I ask my non-bicycling friends, my grandfather, my sister and mother– they all answer that they would love to cycle more if they had separated bike paths to use. This can also be observed where people do cycle most– bike paths such as the LA River Bike Path. Admittedly the majority of users on LA’s bike paths are recreational riders, but a few points can perhaps explain why: Current bike paths are largely isolated and are difficult to integrate into any kind of travel other than recreational; current bike paths are often linear, uninterrupted paths, optimizing them for sporty recreational travel; the facilities feel safe enough to use for recreational purposes (unlike any parallel streets).

Naturally, it seems bike paths would be recommended for installation on major streets, right? Let’s see what the CAHDM say about providing bicycle facilities…

“Pavement markings alone will not measurably enhance bicycling.”

The CAHDM admits that mere painted bike lanes are not too effective in enhancing bicycling. While painted bike lanes not physically separated from motorized traffic have been shown to increase bicycling marginally and enhance the experience a little bit, they are unsatisfactory to the majority of people. The existing bike lanes throughout Los Angeles demonstrate this very well.

So perhaps we could provide bike paths adjacent to motorized traffic to enhance the bicycling experience and get more people riding? After all, bike paths are the most desired kinds of infrastructure among non bicyclists and they are the most utilized pieces of bike infrastructure that do exist despite their lack of accessibility to the majority of people. Well, not according to the CAHDM:

“Bike paths immediately adjacent to streets and highways are not recommended. They should not be considered a substitute for the street, because many bicyclists will find it less convenient to ride on these types of facilities as compared with the street, particularly for utility trips”

The reasoning for not providing bike paths adjacent to streets is in complete contradiction to the reality. Many potential bicyclists would find bike paths adjacent to streets more convenient (and safe, and pleasant) than mixing with motorized traffic, given that the facility is designed well. One of the greatest concerns people currently have with cycling is lack of subjective safety from being required to mix with motorized traffic. Adjacent bike paths would reduce moments required to mix with motorized traffic to intersections and driveways.

Alright, so maybe no bike paths adjacent to streets. Perhaps bike lanes can be placed between the curb and parked cars to make facilities that feel safe enough for everyone? I frequently hear this as a solution from people who would like to cycle more or at all but currently don’t. The CAHDM doesn’t think so:

“Bike lanes shall not be placed between the parking area and the curb. Such facilities increase the conflict between bicyclists and opening car doors and reduce visibility at intersections. Also, they prevent bicyclists from leaving the bike lane to turn left and cannot be effectively maintained.”

Again, the reasoning surprises me. Given the average number of people traveling in a car is less than 2, bicyclists are more likely to have conflict with car doors opening from the driver’s side, where bike lanes are currently placed. As for reducing visibility at intersections, parking is seldom allowed close to intersections for this very reason– visibility. Additionally motorists already have to look for pedestrians on their right-hand side. This should not make it difficult for motorists to look for bicyclists at intersections, if parking is not permitted and the potential pedestrians need to be taken into consideration already. Left-turns are certainly not an issue for pedestrians, why would a bike lane between the curb and parked cars be much different? A similar motion can be made by bicyclists. In fact this is the solution often offered  in the Netherlands and Denmark where bicycle facilities are placed between the curb and parked cars.

Example of left-turn for bicyclists in Copenhagen, Denmark. Credit: Between Yellow and Blue

Example of how cyclists make lefts in the Netherlands. Credit: Mark Wagenbuur

Cyclists are hardly ‘restricted’ when placed between the curb and parked cars if the facilities are engineered properly like in the Netherlands and Denmark, the countries with the highest levels of bike usage in the western world. Additionally, just as there are mid-block crossings for pedestrians, the same could be provided to bicyclists if placed between parked cars and the curb. This could arguably allow greater freedom of movement than when cyclists are forced to use the same lanes as motor vehicle traffic where mid-block U-turns are often not possible or allowed.

One wonders, how are intersections to be handled according to the CAHDM? Here is more, general discussion of intersections:

“Most auto/bicycle accidents occur at intersections. For this reason, bikeway design at intersections should be accomplished in a manner that will minimize confusion by motorists and bicyclists and will permit both to operate in accordance with the normal rules of the road.”

This sounds good in theory, but the reality is that there is ZERO evidence of intersections in Los Angeles and much of California where any thought has been made to minimize confusion by motorists and bicyclists. In fact, the CAHDM at current suggests two ways for bicyclists to make left turns at intersections, with or without bicycle infrastructure.

“A prevalent type of accident involves straight-through bicycle traffic and right-turning motorists. Left turning bicyclists also have problems as the bike lane is on the right side of the street and bicyclists have to cross the path of cars traveling in both directions. Some bicyclists are proficient enough to merge across one or more lanes of traffic to use the inside lane or left-turn lane. However, there are many who do not feel comfortable making this maneuver. They have the option of making a two-legged left turn by riding along a course similar to that followed by pedestrians.”

The CAHDM shares two ways for bicyclists to make left turns. Knowing there is inconsistency in how bicyclists make left turns seems it would INCREASE confusion. Credit: CAHDM

The above excerpt is interesting for a couple reasons, it admits that there is trouble with through cyclists and right turning motorists as well with cyclists turning left. The first problem, through cyclists conflicting with right turning motorists has already been addressed in the Netherlands and Denmark– both these countries have made efforts to mitigate this type of conflict. If safety is the highest priority, the issue could be dealt with by reducing speeds at intersections by requiring a sharper turn from motorists through design, as is seen in the Netherlands. It could also be dealt with  by having separate signal phases for through cyclists and right turning motorists altogether.

The second problem, that of the left turn, the Highway Design Manual admits that most people would rather not have to cross one, two, or some cases three lanes of motor vehicle traffic to make a left turn like a motorist. This is especially true where speeds are between 30mph and 50pm, as they are on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock.

Yet despite knowing the majority of people would prefer to make a two-legged left similar to pedestrian design, seldom have intersections in California been designed to accommodate, encourage, or guide this style of movement. Interestingly, the diagram from the CAHDM showing the two-legged left displays a movement very similar to the diagram showing a left turn for cyclists in Copenhagen and it would only require paint on the ground to mimic this treatment.

Furthermore, by having two different ways for cyclists to navigate an intersection, a cyclist’s movement is more ambiguous and arguably increases the potential for conflict with motor vehicle traffic because there is no consistent way to expect a cyclist to navigate an intersection.

So what can we do when implementing bicycle facilities in LA?

Well, the Danish and the Dutch have addressed the concerns the CAHDM by experimenting with bicycle facility design for well over 30 years. Contrary to what the CAHDM implies are drawbacks of bicycle facilities that physically separate cyclists from motor vehicle traffic, bicyclists in Denmark and the Netherlands are the safest in the world… and they are frequently separated from motorized traffic on major streets, and they have no trouble making left turns.

It is time to raise the bar for bicycle infrastructure design in California. We know what will create more bicyclists, separated facilities. We know how the majority would be comfortable making left turns, it is written in our state Highway Design Manual. There are several places around the world (and increasingly here in the United States) to look for design solutions yet we do zero to accommodate, encourage, or pursue this.


23 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Outdated Bikeway Designs

  1. Great post!

    A big reason for the way things are now can be attributed to the advisory role well-placed Vehicular Cyclists have played in the crafting of many of these manuals (especially the CAHDM). It’s not that conservative, auto-oriented engineers are in an evil cabal with the VC crowd to deny folks real infrastructure. It’s that said engineers are already predisposed to being skeptical of new designs, and the objections presented by the VC crowd give them enough cover to not do anything about it.

    We don’t get street-adjacent Class I’s because of a decades-old study waved around by VC folk that “sidepaths” are dangerous and create fatal conflict points at roadway crossings. There’s also the latent fear that, by providing a street-adjacent Class I, bicyclists will be legally compelled to ride in it instead of the street. To me, however, that’s a completely different legal issue, to be taken on separately. We shouldn’t let the fear of something _possibly_ happening preclude us from creating real, safe, and inviting infrastructure.

    The explicit ban on parking-buffered bikeways is, again, a product of VC objections coupled with engineering malaise. They equate it with sidepaths, and as such, parade out the same increased-conflict-at-crossings argument.

    The transitional space for the two-stage turn is often equated with the “bicycle box”, which draws VC objections because they believe it increases the likelihood of right hooks from turning drivers. On a more philosophical level, they don’t like bike boxes because it creates a travel movement for bicyclists that has no equivalent for cars – a fundamental conflict with the VC tenet that bicyclists should act like drivers at all times to reduce driver confusion and increase bicyclist safety.

    AB 819 would have allowed cities to use the NACTO guide to implement these proven types of infrastructure, but CABO lobbying got it watered down to a pilot-project procedure contingent upon approval from a committee similar to the CTCDC. Nobody knows how the application/approval process will work, and who will make up the committee body, but seeing as it will be run through Caltrans, I don’t have high hopes for an ambitious, progressive slate of approved projects.

    On the bright side, it seems like real, substantive discussions about progressive bicycle infrastructure are taking place at municipal and state levels. Hopefully this will translate into reduced suspicion from the engineering community and a greater willingness to implement such projects in the future.

    • Thanks Chris,

      The CAHDM, CAMUTCD, and AASHTO all certainly read like they were written under heavy VC influence– “Rules of the road” is frequently thrown around to justify lack of infrastructure. The problem I have with that though is that while bicyclists and motorists share surfaces now, to assume that bicyclists need only adhere to the rules made for motorists in order to be safe is unrealistic. But of course, you know all this.

      Here’s to hoping the conversation about bicycle infrastructure continues, and that VC’s will eventually see the light and not serve as roadblocks towards change. They’ll point to the infamous cycle track study in Copenhagen to no end while completely ignoring the larger picture and of course claiming we can never have anything like the Dutch.

      • Nice work! Very informative.

        I didn’t realize that there was another manual that LADOT traffic engineers were adhering to. Now I understand where the rule that you cannot have a bike lane in-between the curb and parked cars came from. I thought that there was a way to get around that by making the bike lane into a bike path, which is explained in the CAMUTD.

        Well, that pretty much tosses out my idea of having Metro use some of the Measure R Rapidway funds–set aside for Van Nuys Blvd–to create partial cycle tracks. This would be a 100-ft long traffic island for bus stops–with a width of 7-8 feet–placed on the near side of a intersection. It would start 5-6 away from the existing curb for the placement of a bike path to keep cyclists to the right of cars and buses. The traffic island would be wide enough for bus benches and shelters, which would free up space on the sidewalk for pedestrians and wheelchairs. It would also shorten the distance to cross the street. If this traffic island was extended a few feet into the intersection, then the cyclist could make a right-hand turn into the cross-street bike lane without having to stop. This is very similar to what I’ve seen for bike infrastructure at major junctions in the Netherlands.

        The problem with my idea is not only the current rules, but also the 2011 draft of the CAHDM states that the minimum width of a single direction bike path should be 8-feet and it requires a two-foot wide shoulder. That’s great for the improved comfort of cyclists, but it makes it a lot tougher to squeeze in a parking lane width for the traffic island and use a standard bike lane width for a cycle track running along side it.

        There is a good chance that Chicago will produce data that will show that protected bike lanes are not more dangerous than unprotected lanes, if their new mayor is able to put anywhere close to the 100 miles of protected bike lanes as he has promised. Unfortunately, it would take three years of accident data to show if this created any safety issues. Then, it would take several years after that to get the restrictions against this design removed in the CAHDM.

      • Thanks Dennis,

        Based on what I read in the CAHDM and the CAMUTCD it does seem that we could create Dutch style infrastructure at bus stops and intersections, just a matter of interpreting the manuals and using judgment.

        I found it interesting that Rock Miller said at the BPIT meeting that Long Beach said they were installing Bike Paths on the street and it was that easy, just needing to conduct an experiment to determine the safety of placing a bike path adjacent to the street. Also, as we see in Long Beach their on street bike paths turn into bike lanes at some intersections. It’d be great to hear from Millar more about how Long Beach went about implementing their facility and what it would take to get similar ambition and experimentation in LA

      • Out of curiosity I checked Streetsblog-San Francisco, and sure enough, Long Beach ain’t the only city putting in a cycle track in this state.

        Check out these preinstallation photos of a soon to be cycletrack on JFK Dr. in San Francisco:

        Frankly, it’s embarrassing to see these other cities do cycletracks in this state and yet Los Angeles thinks it would be experimental to do it. There was a mention of putting in a cycletrack on Main St.–the section that’s one way and runs parallel to Spring St.–in downtown LA, in a previous PBIT meeting put forth by the traffic engineers (it’s listed as one of the in-design streets that is found on the LADOT Bike Blog website).

        Knowing that funding was a problem to get extensive treatment for something like a cycletrack, I thought why not see if Metro would be willing to use part of their funds for a Rapidways project on Van Nuys Blvd to create traffic islands for bus stops that would also incorporate a cycletrack running next to it. My sales pitch, or gimmick, was that it would create room to get the bus benches and shelters off of the sidewalk, freeing up space for pedestrians and wheelchairs. It would also shorten the distance that pedestrians would have to cross the street and eliminate having to pull in and out of traffic to make a bus stop.

        If this could be done, then the approach to the intersection would be very similar to what is shown in this video of bike lanes turning into bike paths–to get around bus stops–along secondary streets in the Netherlands that was made by Mark Wagenbuur:

        Of course it would be much better if the entire street was a cycle track, but I thought that would be too outrageously bold to try and get LADOT bikeways to do something like that with very limited funding available. So, I just came up with only having the nearside approaches to the intersection having a bus stop that would enable a bike lane to switch over to a cycletrack. If they flip the parking with the bike lane in-between the intersections, then the entire 10-mile section of Van Nuys Blvd for the Rapidsways would have a cycletrack. Then, this would be a example, or template, of how to do cycling infrastructure projects on other arterial streets in Los Angeles.

        I still believe that mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s bold step of installing 25 miles of cycletracks per year will compel other cities to try and follow this if he gets large increases in bicycling for Chicago. I calculated the ratio of bike lanes per total street miles that Chicago will be doing for what they call year one bike projects and it turns out it’s the equivilent of Los Angeles doing about 40 miles for their year one projects. So, you can get a pretty good comparison of the effectiveness of attracting bike riders by installing higher quality bicycle infrastructure by comparing the Census community surveys of bicycling commuting rates of these two cities for the next few years. If cycletracks on primary streets are more effective in attracting riders than unprotected bike lanes, then Chicago should get a much greater percentage increase in bike commuters on these surveys than Los Angeles.

    • ” .. the advisory role well-placed Vee Cees have played in the crafting of many of these manuals…”

      In his books and webpage, Forrester brags about blackballing the CalTrans commissioned UCLA/UCDavis study that recommended Dutch style infrastructure in the 70s. High priests of the dogmatic anti-cycle track anti-Dutch sect are still ensconced in the CalTrans Bike Advisory Committee – as chair and vice-chair.

      How do these positions get appointed? They’re probably in the CalTrans District committees too. And CalTrans is still paying VeeCee idealogues/instructors to give them ‘cycling training’. Read the notes from the CBAC meetings and you’ll see they are running the show. The meetings are in Sacramento, but you can attend by by conference call. As StreetsBlog just noted – To Change Your Community’s Streets, the Action Is in the Statehouse

      These guys need to be exposed and legislators, governor, and top staffers told what they are up to and that people are against them.

      • Thanks for your comment, Go Dutch. You seem to have done the research I hope to do, exploring the origin of the VC ways of bikeway design in California. It will be interesting to look at the notes from the CBAC meetings.



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  4. Here in Beverly Hills, we’re currently planning for a major development on Santa Monica Boulevard at Wilshire, spanning both west and east of that intersection. Read more:

    Our concern is that the city in permitting new development here may effectively preclude bike lanes on the corridor (on street or off). SM Blvd. is a regional route, of course, on the backbone.

    Regulations aren’t fixed yet (a next hearing on it tomorrow, Thurs 3/22) and we in the bike community could advocate for 1) off street path as part of an active transportation corridor; 2) on-street Class II lanes; or 3) both. (The latter is truly pie-in-sky.)

    At Better Bike we’re putting practical emphasis on regional connectivity: on-street lanes at a minimum. This would be a stake in the ground for a boundary-to-boundary facility. But from a mobility/circulation perspective, an integrated bike/ped solution would be much preferable, esp. as it could be our city’s first signature multimodal mobility project.

    Question: when it’s a regional route and both options aren’t on the table, go for the VC on-street lanes? Or roll the dice and press for the politically more difficult Class I option that would require setbacks/easement/dedication from the applicants?

  5. I recently rode the new Expo line bike path/lane from Ballona Creek to USC, and I was flabbergasted at the missed opportunity to create Class I paths along the majority of the route. There are long stretches of the route where there is no curbside parking, so it seemed to me it would have been a no – brainer to offer a separated bike path by simply extending out the curb. No huge engineering feat required, but I guess this helps explains why that wasn’t done (that, and of course, the fact that a stripe of paint costs less; at least until someone ends up in the hospital).

  6. There’s some interesting information about the CHDM manual from the California Bicycle Committee Meeting that was held on December 1, 2011. On page 5, it states that the HDM is meant only for Caltrans officals to use on state facilities, although it can be adopted by local agencies. It has no legal force and local agencies would not be held liable if it is not used:

    It’s the CAMUTCD that must be followed in California, which states nothing against using cycletracks. In fact it states that bicycle lanes can be converted to bike paths. So, that makes my idea about creating traffic island bus stops on the near approach to intersections doable and not experiental.

    • Nice find, Dennis. Perhaps the LADOT has adopted the CHDM then, since they cite difficulty in implementing bold and unconventional infrastructure. This traffic island bus stop thing should be explicitly brought up at the next BPIT and see how they respond to our research of what can and can’t be done.

      • Here’s another interesting link to some inquiries about bicycle facilities and the answers to them from the Federal Highway Administration:

        Under the heading “Cycletracks”, for the answer to questions about protected cycle tracks, or raised cycle tracks it states: “Not a traffic control device, so no MUTCD restriction on its use.” None of the answers pertaining to cycle track question have any restrictions on the use of them, no would it be considered experimental to do so.

        I will be at the BPIT meeting next month and am hoping that cycle tracks are listed for discussion again as I requested.

        I’m also hoping to become a member of the 1%. Where one out of the first one hundred of my ideas is implemented by the LADOT. So far, I’m batting zero.

      • I’ve seen that FHWA link, though that’s the national MUTCD and LA follows the CAMUTCD, I believe. I’m not sure ow the state one coordinates with the national one. One would think that the national MUTCD would supersede the state one.

        According to LA Bike Plan they are following the CHDM, CAMUTCD, and AASHTO bikeway design guide with the occasional ‘experiment’ sprinkled in the implementation of the plan.

        I unfortunately cannot attend the April BPIT unless it is held the saturday before CicLAvia. But I hope you raise the points that you make here and see what the next roadblock LADOT throws at us (hopefully they can’t!). Perhaps mention what SF has done and ask “why not here?”

        Here’s to hoping you join the 1% 😉

      • While there aren’t legal obligations to follow the CHDM in the same way as the CAMUTCD, the CHDM provides liability coverage for cities building bikeways, which is just as difficult to combat at times. Engineers can be a skittish bunch when there isn’t a legally vetted design to fall back on.

      • A new study led by Harvard School of Public Health researchers shows that bicycle riders have fewer injuries when riding on a cycle track–than in the street:

        Their conclusion is that cycle tracks decrease, or at least do not increase, collison or injury rates compared to riding on the street and that people should not be dissuaded from building them.

        Los Angeles traffic engineers have a wobbily leg to stand on with a belief that cycle tracks are more dangerous or are a experimental design.

      • I hope you give em hell at the next BPIT, I really wish I could make it over but you’ll have to do the work for the both of us! Cycle tracks are safer, encourage more cycling and LA is getting left behind Long Beach and SF and their cycle tracks!

  7. The 1972 UCLA and UCDavis study, “Bikeway Planning Criteria And Guidelines – A Study Of Bicycle Pathway Effectiveness” requested by the state legislature, commissioned by the CalTrans predecessor, investigating “the most feasible
    and least expensive methods by which existing and future public streets and thoroughfares can more safely accommodate bicycle riders.”

    It focused heavily on German and Dutch studies and experiences. Sort of like lost wisdom. A tragedy that this got buried, and not just for California since the whole country was influenced by the paranoid VeCe sect and the technocrats who listened to them.

    “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Churchill
    “Science progresses, funeral by funeral” Max Planck

  8. We can dream that American cities will follow the Dutch example but, there is just not enough momentum at this time in history. If we focused on lower speed limits, say 20 mph on all city streets then making it a law then people might feel safe. Speaking from experience, I bike ride in Minneapolis and prior to that Boston and Indianapolis, building infrastruture or separate lanes has not made bicycling safer or created a bicycle revolution. The plain fact is people in cars have all the power over bike riders. As the years go by a few pockets of cycling has taken hold in America where basically people already have a pretty good standard of living. Bicycling adds to these places. It’s where there is no bike riding that needs a good look at. What is the will of the people in these places? And if we live in a place like that we should ask ourselves do I really want to spend my life where bike riding is not fun and should I just get up and move.

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