Engineering Safe Streets: A Cyclist’s Perspective

WBK Engineering Transportation Design Engineer Matt Cave describes the issue in simple terms: “Cities are primarily designed for cars, and cyclists are frowned upon. Too often there aren’t even shoulders on roads, so cyclists must share the lane with vehicles. Cyclists don’t like it because they’re worried about getting hit, and motorists don’t like it because they get slowed down. It’s a lose-lose for everybody.”

As Matt rides his bike to work most days, he knows this firsthand, and safety is forefront in his mind.

“We’re like 1/20th the size of a car so it can be scary sometimes.”

More Bikes on the Road

The main goal of a traffic project is simple. “The mission is straightforward,” says Matt, “for everyone to get from point A to point B safely.” This has become increasingly important as commuters who bike to work increased 61% from 2000 to 2019, and in a recent survey, 10% of respondents answered that they’re more likely to bike to work post-COVID.

Dave Simmons, Executive Director of Ride Illinois, a non-profit organization committed to cyclist infrastructure and safety, has seen the growth firsthand. “Interest in biking for both recreation and transportation has definitely increased,” states Dave. “The challenge for advocacy organizations is keeping interest level high so riding a bike becomes second nature for more and more Illinois residents.”

“One of our goals is to convince more people to integrate riding a bike into their lifestyle, not just for recreation. If one asks, ‘Can I bike there?’ and the answer is ‘yes’, we encourage them to hop on their bike and go! If the answer is ‘no’ because infrastructure is subpar or there isn’t parking at the end location, we encourage them to raise their concern to decision makers.”

Increased commitment to biker safety comes as a result of increased cyclist fatalities, due in large part to unclear markings and driver inattention. Naturally, this has forced municipalities to quickly rethink safety measures on their busy streets, partnering with civil engineering firms like WBK to redesign traffic for all to share the road.

“There are a variety of different bike safety designs to choose from,” explains Yemi Oyewole, PE, WBK Transportation Practice Manager, all with advantages and disadvantages. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach as needs and available space vary from town to town. The key is collaborative partnership to determine the right solution for the specific situation of the community.”

The Evolution of Bike Lanes

Bike lanes started as simply unprotected lanes on the shoulder of a busy street. While this is still the case in many areas of the country, especially in rural areas, urban centers have strived to go further to protect cyclists from their much larger counterparts and to clarify rights of way and traffic laws for both parties to travel harmoniously.

Regardless of the approach to bike lanes, municipalities have seen success in traffic-calming techniques such as narrowing the lanes for automobile traffic, which naturally causes drivers to slow down as the space between them and other vehicles is reduced. This creates roads that feel less like wide-open racetracks through the city and more like pathway of slower travel. Lane narrowing also creates space for cyclist-only lanes, of which there are a variety for municipalities to choose from.

Buffered Bicycle Lane

Example of a buffered bicycle lane.

Image from Urban Bikeway Design Guide, by NACTO. Copyright © 2014 National Association of City Transportation Officials. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

As a cyclist and transportation engineer, Matt Cave has a unique perspective of the options available. “At the very least, a buffered lane provides some space between cyclists and cars as it is specifically for cyclists, with a visible boundary, often painted crosshatches, between it and the closest car lane,” explains Cave. This increased separation provides adequate space for both types of transportation, but still allows potential risk at intersections and by parked car doors opening along the buffered lane.

Separated Bike Lane

Another best-practice Cave recommends to clients is a separated bike lane which, as the name implies, includes some type of barrier physically separating the bike and automobile lanes. This can be as simple as orange cones or as complex as an elevation change. “While a curb naturally discourages automobiles from getting too close to cyclists, much more so than cones,” says Cave, “any separation is safer than a simple painted line.

Example of a one-way, parking separated bicycle lane.

Image from Urban Bikeway Design Guide, by NACTO. Copyright © 2014 National Association of City Transportation Officials. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Bicycle box

Example of a bicycle box at an intersection.

Image from Urban Bikeway Design Guide, by NACTO. Copyright © 2014 National Association of City Transportation Officials. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Buffered lanes and separated lanes are effective safety measures while moving along a roadway, but intersections remain dangerous areas for cyclists in terms of being seen as well as understanding of rights of way by motorists. To this end, Cave recommends a concept called bike boxes, designated areas in front of all traffic at stops serves to guarantee bicycle visibility by drivers. Automobiles are required to stop behind the bike box, allowing cyclists to wait at the front of traffic. “This is especially important in cases where the motorist is taking a right turn,” comments Cave, “which requires them to travel through the designated bike lane.”

Simmons explains that simply designing a better solution isn’t enough. “When new road infrastructure, such as a bike box, is installed there is a high likelihood that the general public may be confused,” emphasizes Simmons. “Planners, engineers, and municipal staff must include outreach to the public, prior to installation, so the public knows how to properly use the new infrastructure.”

Cycling from City to Nature

While finding safe solutions for scenarios involving city roadway traffic tend to take the spotlight, ensuring safe passage for cyclists travelling on independent paths is important as well, as uneven material such as gravel and crossing over roads and railways can cause hazards for biker safety.

For the Fox River Trail Project within the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, WBK provided engineering services to transform a 7-foot-wide gravel path into a 10- to 12-foot-wide paved pathway with rails that connects the Fox River Trail to the Virgil Gilman Nature Trail. The highlight of the new trail is a bicycle/pedestrian bridge over the Fox River constructed of four spans of pre-engineered steel truss structures supported on reinforced concrete substructures. The overall trail improvement project, designed and managed by WBK, includes 6,000 feet of bicycle path along the west bank of the Fox River, including increasing safety and visibility for three roadway crossings, incorporating solar-powered lighted yield signs for drivers.

“Being able to work with local municipalities to help them better serve the people in the communities in which we live and work is gratifying. Projects like the Fox River Trail enable us as engineers to see the difference we make in helping people to move about safely and to interact with the environment because movement throughout has been made possible.”

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