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Washington Bicycling Hub - Summer '06
Florida Shines Light on Bike Lanes,
Safe School Routes
State Studies Best Practices for Lane Stripes, Environments for Schools
By Charles Pekow
Mr. Pekow, a seasoned Washington, DC journalist, provides Bikexchange.com with continuing coverage of national legislative news on bicycling issues.
The Sunshine State – where cyclists can cruise all year long – brings the two latest major lessons for encouraging safe bicycling. From studies in Florida, we recently learned that you can retrofit a major roadway to accommodate bikes – and what we need to do to set up environments to encourage children to bike to school.
Striped Bike Lanes
If you shrink a wide traffic lane to put in a lane for bicycles – it works. At least it did in Broward County, Florida, when they reduced 14-ft. traffic lanes to 11 feet on roadways and striped the remaining three feet for bikes only. This led to safer margins between bikes and cars and helped bicyclists stay clear from gutters.
“Overall, this pilot study has indicated that this type of roadway striping has the potential to improve both bicycle and motor vehicle safety,” concludes the Highway Safety Research Center (HSRC) of the University of North Carolina, which studied Broward’s efforts. The South Florida county, which includes Fort Lauderdale, striped the lanes at different times on several major roads over the past decade. Roads with such lanes include State Rt. A1A, a scenic byway that runs along Florida’s Atlantic coast.
While anyone can clearly see that the lanes are designed for bicyclists, the county did not label them as bike lanes with signs or road paint. That’s because the bike lanes don’t meet any current bike lane standards. So they are referred to as “undesignated lanes” or “urban paved shoulders.” And since they technically aren’t bike lanes, at intersections they continue to the right of right-turn lanes. In many cases of striped bike lanes, bikers wishing to continue straight are directed by the stripes to move to the left of the turn lane. But not here.
The center monitored six mid-block areas to see what effect the striping had. It found that bicyclists rode an average of seven to nine inches further from the gutter (decreasing the chances of popping a tire) and motorists drove on average six to 12 inches further from the gutter. (Depending on the site examined, the difference ranged from three to 12 inches.) Where there wasn’t a curb or gutter, conversely, cyclists rode an average of two inches closer to the pavement edge. The more rural roads tended not to include curbs or gutters. The study included both four- and six-lane highways with speed limits between 40 and 45 mph.
HSRC reported its findings in a paper entitled, Conversions of Wide Curb Lanes: The Effects on Bicycle & Motor Vehicle Intersections, published in the latest Transportation Research Record by the Transportation Research Board (which is not available electronically). The study dealt with motorist and bicyclist behavior midblock – not at intersections.
The study watched traffic both at five sites recently converted to include the striped lane and two sites converted a decade ago as a control group to see if change over time (such as different traffic patterns or site conditions) may have affected results. HSRC’s mathematical analysis concluded that motor vehicles rode further from the curb because of the stripes – which is logical since they have to stay out of the striped lanes. Not much changed over time where stripes were long ago put in place.
An obvious finding was that when traffic was light, motorists gave cyclists more clearance. And while it varied by site, motorists overall gave cyclists more leeway after roads were striped. ”The differences by site are most likely due to variations in traffic volume for the periods of data collection, even though care was taken to collect data at the same time of day for all periods,” the researchers surmise.
But HSRC could not come to a definite conclusion about whether stripes kept motorists further from cyclists – at some sites they drove three to five inches closer to them, perhaps because “of an increased comfort level for both modes of transportation, in which motor vehicle drivers believe that bicyclists will ride within the striped area and in which bicyclists believe that motor vehicle drivers will not cross into their space.” But drivers rode an average of four to six inches further away at sites long ago striped.
Previous research by the Florida Dept. of Transportation (FDOT) found that when a lane is striped for bicyclists, motorists who pass them are less likely to encroach on the travel lane to their left – a situation that can cause autos to crash into each other. This study confirmed that finding.
A few caveats on the findings: the roadways involved here were “relatively high-speed and high-volume” compared to most roads designated as bike routes. “As a result, few local bicyclists currently use the routes…” Also, the county used paint that faded over time instead of thermoplastic striping. “If possible, the next study of the striping should involve routes where local bicyclists are a natural part of the traffic system,” HSRC suggests. It also would like to see research on the effects of traffic volume by lane, vehicle speed – and what would happen if lanes were narrowed to 10 feet.
Safeways to School
And speaking of FDOT and research, the department also recently released a study it commissioned from the University of Florida Dept. of Urban & Regional Planning called Safe Ways to School: The Role in Municipal Planning. The report addresses ways to implement the Safe Paths to School bill the Florida legislature passed four years ago. But the study recommends relevant strategies nationwide, now that every state is getting federal funding for Safe Routes to School for the first time this year.
The idea was to get various state planning agencies (dealing with land use, education, community affairs and transportation) to work together to create an infrastructure to get children to walk and bike to school. The report stresses that public and private organizations at all levels from the national level to individual schools, and those with interests ranging from education to construction to the environment work together, though somebody must take charge.
“With improved attention to multimodal transportation planning, coordinated school planning and Safe Routes to School programs, we may be able to halt the decline in the number of children walking and bicycling to school,” the university researchers conclude. The researchers identified some “best practices,” including some outside Florida. The practices emphasize building and maintaining small neighborhood schools instead of creating new giant ones. “The state of Maine was able to overcome public resistance and gain acceptance of smaller neighborhood schools” so kids wouldn’t have to travel so far. Doing so “also helped the community to understand the tradeoffs between higher initial costs for building smaller schools with higher ongoing expenses, like school busing for larger schools.”
Likewise, Maryland emphasizes renovating existing schools rather than building new ones further away from homes. And North Carolina gives grants to schools that use “Smart Growth” strategies such as providing bike paths to school.
Back in steadily-growing Florida, school systems often have to compete with residential developers for the choicest real estate to plop down a new educational facility – the land the developers set aside for a school may not be the most logical for transportation purposes, the study found. Local governments sometimes wind up putting a school right next to a major highway because they can’t find anywhere else developers haven’t gobbled up.
Developers aren’t the only enemies of local schools. Neighbors complain about the congestion. And legislation that encourages charter schools and school choice mean that more children are traveling further distances to school then they can reasonably bike. “Since distance is one of the most important factors in the choice to walk or bicycle to school, any policy that allows children to go to schools outside of their neighborhoods will reduce the number of children participating in Safe Routes to Schools programs,” the report says.
So what do we need to do to make the best of Safe Routes to School and create environments to get children out of autos and onto two-wheelers to get to class? The report suggests 27 strategies, including:
Appointing one office to oversee Safe Routes to School but ensuring that state, county, school board and municipal agencies work together with private groups representing not only education, but planning, health, bicycling, transportation, parent-teacher organizations, etc.
Requiring school districts to count every year the number of children who take which forms of transit to school (walk, bike, bus, car).
Mandating metropolitan planning organizations to include safe school access in their long range transportation plans. They should work with school boards and inventory sidewalks leading to schools.
Putting strategies to encourage pupils to walk and bike to school in school improvement plans. Schools should also teach traffic safety. They could fund the curriculum statewide in Florida by adding between 50 cents and $1 to the driver’s license fee.
View the report at www.dot.state.fl.us/research-center/Completed_Proj/Summary_PL/FDOT_BD545_32_rpt.pdf
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