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Cycle Tracks: A “Road Diet” that Can Pay off

Cycle tracks, also known as “bike lanes,” encourage exercise and using alternative means of transportation.  They are a major reason why highway planners and local communities are going on “road diets,” which is a term for reducing the number of lanes available for vehicle transportation in order to repurpose the area for bicycle riders and pedestrians. 

As western countries continue to struggle with health issues caused by poor diet and sedentary lifestyles, cycle tracks are becoming more popular.  Along with shared-use paths as well as walking and hiking trails, they are intended to achieve the following goals:

     1. Enhancing public health by encouraging citizens to use non-motorized forms of travel when possible.
     2. Reducing carbon emissions and thus lessening the risks associated with global climate change while also improving air quality. 
     3. Lessening dependence on nonrenewable energy sources and improving the nation’s security by helping to free it from reliance on foreign sources of oil.

Cycle tracks take different forms, depending on factors like local traffic patterns and budget constraints. Two of the most common types include:

     1. Striped lanes painted directly on the road surface.  These lanes are generally referred to as “bike lanes.”  There is no physical barrier dividing this strip from the portion of highway used for vehicular traffic, so motorists are relied on to notice the markers and adjust their driving accordingly.  Whether bike lanes enhance cyclist safety is a matter of debate.  Some studies show that they have a beneficial effect.  Others dispute this claim.  Since it’s difficult to determine how many cyclists use these lanes as opposed to other types of paths, gaining precise and accurate data is challenging.
     2. Segregated lanes separated from adjoining roadways by physical barriers like raised concrete, curbing and delineators, or other means.  In Europe, these are usually referred to as “cycle tracks.”  Since they create specifically devoted areas for bike riders, these tracks enjoy a good record of preventing car/bicycle wrecks. 

Road Diets: How Well Do They Work?

There is a limited amount of space available to serve the needs of pedestrians, bike riders, and motorists, which makes the job of balancing available resources against competing demands a tricky task.  This is especially true when it comes to “road diets,” or reducing the number and/or width of car lanes to serve other purposes.  Such an approach can achieve its goals with a minimal amount of disruption, however, as long as some basic guidelines are followed.  These include:

1. Measuring the volume of traffic on the street.  In general, roads with a daily average of 19,000 or less motor vehicles are good candidates for a road diet.  Sometimes a road with daily volumes as high as 23,000 can be successfully repurposed, but this usually requires the addition of traffic calming devices, roundabouts, and/or other measures.
2. Considering public transit use and prevailing needs.  For example, city busses often run on tight schedules, making the use of road diets along their routes impractical.  Also, certain facilities, such as hospitals and law enforcement offices, depend on direct access to roads for emergency vehicles.  While these factors are not necessarily disqualifiers for adding cycle tracks and implementing a road diet, they must be considered during the decision-making process.
3. Soliciting public input.  A road diet will likely encounter strong opposition if local citizens feel that it will deter commercial development or impose undue burdens on their lifestyle.  On the other hand, residents may enthusiastically support construction of a cycle track or similar measures if the benefits of a road diet are explained to them.  In either case, communicating with those directly affected by the repurposing of streets is always vital.

Conclusion

The environmental and public health benefits of cycle tracks, walking paths, and similar projects are obvious, making their construction a priority for communities of all sizes.  At the same time, the potential gains must be weighed against any drawbacks that may occur.  With sound judgment and careful planning, though, ways can be found to meet the needs of everyone who uses the national road system.