Trying To Get Past The Hype on Americanized PBLs – Green Lane Project Musings

Background Reading


Perhaps we should focus less on trying to look like Copenhagen or Amsterdam and take a long hard look at Munich? At least that is the premise of a recent article by one Zach Vanderkooy. He writes:

Bicycle-specific traffic signals are a standard sight on Munich’s streets today, but were rare 15 years ago.

Bicycle-specific traffic signals are a standard sight on Munich’s streets today, but were rare 15 years ago.

Looking to other places for inspiration and a glimpse of a possible future is a critical part of the path to better bicycling in U.S. cities. That’s why it’s a big focus of the Green Lane Project. The best Dutch and Danish cities have been working diligently to make bicycling safe, appealing and convenient for about 50 years, but Munich’s dedication to bicycle transportation really took hold in the 1990s. The German city’s bicycle infrastructure is not yet world-class, but it’s more advanced than anything yet achieved in North America. In 1990, the percentage of trips made by bike in Munich was about 5% (comparable to today’s best U.S. cities, though some neighborhoods have much higher use). Today in Munich, bikes make up more than 15% of all traffic, a remarkably rapid transformation. The rise of bike use during the last two decades was no fluke —focused public and private investments in infrastructure, thoughtful policy decisions, and economic, social and legal incentives made it possible. Like in the U.S., these changes weren’t driven by the passion of select individuals, but by rational decision-makers seeking practical and cost-effective urban transportation. And like American cities, Munich’s traffic professionals struggled with design challenges and cultural inertia while adapting proven practices from other places to their unique streets. The parallels are strong between Munich’s bicycling growth during the 2000s and the current trajectory of U.S. cities.

He is positing the following:

  • Germany is on a trajectory just slightly ahead of where we are in North America
  • Munich in specific now has one trip in twenty made for everyday necessities using a bicycle
  • Munich traffic shows that for every 25 vehicles on the road almost 4 of them is a bicycle
  • Munich has used an admixture of public and private investments to build its bicycle infrastructure
  • Munich politicians have use an amalgam of:
    • Policy decisions
    • Incentives that represent economic, social and legal enticements
  • Rational decision-making was used rather than social activism to arrive decision for cost-effective urban transportation
  • Munich’s bicycle infrastructure design had to be adapted from various best practices across Europe
  • Munich’s bicycle infrastructure design was often difficult to “get right” because the work was often met with “resistance to change
  • Munich’s bicycle infrastructure while adopted from elsewhere has not been adapted to its specific street situations

What this means is that as we have learned in Chicago, street design is not a “cookie cutter” process. Careful attention has to be applied to each street to make certain that the situations on the ground match the design itself. In addition we have learned that maintenance and upkeep are essential ingredients in a pleasant user experience. Chicago winters tend to be harsh when compared to Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Yes they get snow but perhaps not as often or as much as we experience in Chicago.

Munich’s Characteristics When Compared To Chicago

Munich has a population (1.3 million) that is smaller than that of Chicago (2.7 million). This would make it more comparable to cities like Washington D.C., Boston or Seattle. Vanderkooy goes on to write:

Munich’s infrastructure toolbox consists of the familiar three basic ingredients: protected bike lanes (what we like to call green lanes), quiet neighborhood streets and off-street bike paths. It forms a far from perfect network — evidence of earlier failed design iterations that had since been improved were easy to spot — and that’s reassuring for practitioners in the U.S. The rate of progress with American green lanes has been tremendous in the past few years, and what took 20 years to achieve in Munich could happen in 10 on our side of the Atlantic with the right mix of political support, smart design and modest investments.

Chicago has an abundance of PBLs either “in place” or “coming soon“. And while it does have quiet neighborhood streets most commuters appear to  favor the much busier diagonal thoroughfares like Milwaukee and Elston perhaps because they shorten commute times. But what is clear from his statement is that we should expect “failed design iterations“. That is good news because it means that we are going to struggle to get things right and that we can afford to let the general public know that what we are proposing may not work as well as anticipated.

This makes it far easier to deal with the kinds of “safety setbacks” that New York has experienced. Perhaps our cycling advocacy groups need to scale back the hyperbole and acknowledge that it might take 10 years of reworking the system before we are comfortable with all aspects of it.

1 Comment

  1. When I went around Lake Michigan in 2006 I followed the trails from Zion to Chicago, don’t know which ones, but I went through Great Lakes & Ravina. The following is what I wrote on Crazyguyonabike.


    The trail route ended at Kenilworth but there were route signs on the streets directing me to Chicago’s Lakefront Trail. I rode through Evanston and the Northwestern University campus and got a little lost. There were lots of bike trails on campus. Just stay near the lake. I got my first look a Chicago’s skyscrapers in Evanston.

    I entered Chicago, again following the signs. I rode through quiet residential streets that had 4-way stop signs at every block. There were even a few roundabouts. With stop signs! A couple of roundabouts had two one-way streets entering. Again, with stop signs!! Give me a break!!! Slow going.


    Give me the arterials any day.

    I took a bike commuting survey yesterday that was a project of a grad student from Colorado. I answered the questions from my experiences in my 25 years of commuting and concluded that I mostly rode on arterial roads. Sure, there were other ways of going, but if you just wanted to get to work and not waste time, take the shortest route with few stop-lights and stop-signs. Yes, I stopped at lights and slowed down to 3 mph at stop-signs, just like cars.

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