There appears to be two lines of thinking about bicyclists and pedestrians in the modal mix.
On the one hand, there is a growing movement for separated bicycle facilities – not just bike lanes but ones with a physical barrier offering true separation from automobile traffic.
On the other hand, there is the idea of the “woonerf,” which has been around for a while now but keeps coming up again, taking slightly different form. In its most recent iteration, the woonerf would get rid of all barriers amongst modes, pedestrians included. Yes, in this scheme, even curbs would be eliminated.
So which is it – are our multiple modes better off separated or together?
Clearly, the answer isn’t so simple, as we must consider two different kinds of spaces – travel corridors and activity nodes.
In the former, the emphasis is on movement. In New York City, advocacy for separated bikeways touts their potential to increase the speed of both cars and bicyclists while ensuring the safety of both.
Contrast that against activity nodes in which the emphasis is on interaction. There’s a lot to absorb in places with pedestrians, sidewalk cafes, attractive store windows, the corner guitarist, and the smell of a nearby bakery. Bicyclists and autos are part of the mix. The theory behind the woonerf is that eliminating all guidance (signage would be removed) and barriers (like curbs) forces everyone to be on a heightened state of vigilance, resulting in the environment being more safe.
Okay, now it’s time for me to weigh in. As a cyclist, I really like the idea of separated bikeways. For one thing, I think higher volume roadways are safer when boundaries are clearly delineated between modes. In an era of distractions, from car radios to smart phones, and a delusional belief in our ability to “multitask,” I like predictability of separated facilities – every mode in its place. In addition, the ability to move faster helps give cycling a competitive edge against driving and thus makes it an even more viable and attractive mode. The car may still get you there faster, but with the bicycle, you don’t have the hassle or expense of parking.
As for the woonerf treatment, thinking of Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts (not some quiet residential street), I am uncomfortable removing all barriers.
If the aim is to slow cars to a pedestrian speed, why not eliminate them entirely and create an auto-free zone?
I think it’s risky enough traveling in busy centers with signage and curbs. As a pedestrian, I feel safe walking along the sidewalks but more anxious when it’s time to cross the street.
With all the activity going on, will cars stop at traffic lights?
Will they yield at unsignalized pedestrian crossings?
At the same time, it’s stressful being a motorist, or even a cyclist in places like these.
Will someone dart out midblock?
Will I manage to get through the congestion safely?
Our urban spaces aren’t all created equal and therefore needed tailored strategies to create a safe environment for everyone. What strategies we select will depend on the right-of-way available and the tradeoffs we are willing to make. If the right-of-way can accommodate wide sidewalks, separated bikeways, and vehicular traffic, then we can achieve both separation and safety. If, on the other hand, it cannot, which is the more common scenario, then tradeoffs need to be made.
Give up on-street parking for protected bike lanes?
Or eliminate cyclists from the roadway altogether and move them to a parallel street?
Good questions to spur community dialogue.