Practical Thinking: Buffered vs. Protected Bike Lanes

Background Reading


Wabash Buffered Bike Lane © John Greenfield

Wabash Buffered Bike Lane
© John Greenfield

Buffered lanes are my preference for practical, sustainable and easily maintenance bike routes. Their major contribution is the extra width that allows cyclists to avoid the Door Zone Collision.

They add some valuable practical twists:

  • You can clear one easily with a plow. Cars do not have to be moved to maintained the route in winter.
  • Riders can avoid the Door Zone Collision. This makes them far less dangerous when cyclists and motorists alike are not paying attention.
  • Left turns are easier to navigate. You can easily move into the left turn lane at an intersection. And of course right turns are still possible.
  • Low maintenance is their strength. Minus the pretty green paint the lane is less slippery  and the absence of those darned PVC pipes makes it easier to avoid “losing” real estate when plows take them out.
  • Riders are more visible. You really want riders to be uppermost in the minds of motorists. Being seen is how you achieve this.

Some ChainLink Feedback

Reply by We all have an inner Beast… on January 5, 2013 at 3:04am
I like the “buffered” lanes (like in the picture) better.
More area/space to react to various incidents, than in the Dearborn lanes. Especially with people trying to cross streets from in between vehicles (or ignorant bicyclists that blow through red lights at intersections).
Has anyone been on the Dearborn bike lanes when they are busy? How much traffic is on them at that time? Seemed like it would be tight for bicyclists to ride on them while busy. Will you be set in the speed of the person at the front of the lane, like on the expressways during rush hours, until you can find an “off-ramp”/cross street?
I rode it for the first time during December’s Critical Mass. It seemed very narrow. And when we were riding back (at the end of CCM) you can’t really ride side-by-side to have a conversation, because we had a few of those “bike ninjas” come speeding down the oncoming lane with no lights/helmets wearing dark clothing, yelling at us to get out of their way. Just wondering what the benefit of such narrow lanes is ? I would feel safer with the “buffered lane” (in pic) on both sides of the street (following the “rules of the road” by riding on the right side of the road).
(also, it would allow me to pass “slow-pokes” like the dude with the training wheels in the pic…LOL ! Just kidding ! I would protect him from traffic.)
As far as the city (CDOT) renaming “buffered” as “protected” lanes (or vice versa), it seems like they (just like society in general) is trying to NOT have to do the necessary work ! If they add all the “buffered”/”protected”/other bike lanes, they will achieve their goal of “X” amount of miles of biking infrastructure sooner (making them look good in the “public’s eye” for finishing a project under budget-attempt to save money that they really aren’t, and finishing a project earlier than expected. Both of these sound good in a news blurb, yet no one will ask where the savings went ! We will still be short of our amount of “protected” or “buffered” lanes, and someone within the city will pocket the money.)
Someone is trying to do a magic trick. “Look ! We got you all 100 miles of “protected”/”buffered”/other bike lanes done before the 10 yrs is up !”
And in reality, they will have only done 10 new miles, and just repainted the old lanes (which, obviously, do NOT add up to 100 miles, or they would never have had to make the Dearborn lanes !)

Just my opinion.



Reply by Jennifer on the lake on January 5, 2013 at 4:35am
If fiddling with the nomenclature is what it takes to get all the major bike routes restriped finally, I’m all for it.

Reply by Nancy L. Fagin on January 5, 2013 at 10:00am
Many thanks – I think there should be zones – denser populated areas need protected lanes (downtown), then phasing into buffered (with good coats of paint) in out lying areas. Gradually, those buffered zones could be reconfigured into protected lanes (curbside or not).

For example, if Elston was completely protected, I’m sure more people would commute on it and even move closer to it…but economics and financing may not be with us for now. Street usage can change overnight – I remember when parts of North and Division Avenue were basically industrial (Old Chicago Brewing?), the streets were bare. Not today. Build a shopping mall and forget about pedestrians and bikers – build suburbia in the “inner city”.
Also education must be part of the plan.

Yes, I’ve thought of using Theater/Drama class 101 – grabbing my chest, dragging my damaged leg, swinging a twisted hip. Sometimes just making a good note of their license plate works

Reply by prof.gfr on January 5, 2013 at 4:47pm
I’m fine with either, but I think I actually prefer buffer-protected rather than barrier-protected. I feel as if cars are MORE aware of me in a buffer-protected lane than if I’m segregated off to a side-channel, and I think increasing car-awareness of sharing the road with other vehicles (be it buses, bikes or vespas) is important. That said, I don’t know if there is a one-size fits all solution to a city with as many differently-sized roadways as Chicago. So I’m accepting of the existence of a variety of approaches. Then the bigger question becomes driver and cyclist education on how to react to these different approaches. I think the most important element in Chicago’s bike infrastructure will be integrating a LOT MORE bike safety components to basic driver’s ed and driver’s exams.

Reply by Anika on January 5, 2013 at 11:09pm
Right now the type of bike lane makes little difference to me. What does matter is education – both for cyclists and cars on all aspects of the roads. With the various different types of lanes going in, drivers (and even cyclists) don’t know how to properly/effectively use them. And that’s aside from general “share the road” etiquette.

My 6 year old rides the side boulevards regularly in Logan Square with me. Sidewalk riding for her is just too dangerous at the alleys with me and her sibling on the street. But drivers are so anxious coming down those streets trying to beat out the actual traffic on the main thoroughfare that we have yet to take a ride in the last 2 months without a driver laying on the horn at her. It’s sad. When people are educated enough to know it is not ok to honk or intimidate a child and to give them the space they deserve as a cyclist, then types of bike lanes might start to matter more.

Reply by Caitlin Drake McKay 6 hours ago
Buffered vote.

This winter has been a strong indication of the maintenance of protected lanes – terrible! They’re filled with debris! I’ve seen some of the white barriers broken off lately. How much does that cost to repair?
If you’re not comfortable biking a buffered lane like the one pictured then you probably shouldn’t be on the road! How about educating those part-time weekend warriors about biking defensively?

What does matter is education – both for cyclists and cars on all aspects of the roads

Anika is right in urging Education as a component of any meaningful development of Bicycle Infrastructure. Let me explain why this is the case.

The right way to think about Bicycle Infrastructure is as Traffic 2.0. We have been using Traffic 1.0 for quite some time now. But when bicycle infrastructure is introduced it serves as an “update” to the software program we know as the Rules of the Road. And as with any iPhone app there is always a “learning curve“.

The Dutch and Danes are “old hands” when it comes to Traffic 2.0. We are not, so much. They have had time to not only disseminate their knowledge of Traffic 2.0 to their children but they are now working on doing the same for immigrant women whose exposure to bicycling Traffic 1.0 is virtually non-existent. So before they can understand Traffic 2.0 they have to undergo training in “The Basics“.

Many of these women have come from cultures where bicycle riding was not allowed by women. So the first thing to offer them in their newly adopted lands is an understanding of how to actually “ride a bicycle“. I am not talking about how to “ride in traffic” but rather:

  • How to push off from a dead stop and pedal a bike forward so as to maintain their balance.
  • How to turn a moving bike so that you can steer left and then later to steer to the right.
  • How to signal a turn or a stop.
  • How to determine if your bike is “roadworthy“, i.e. if the tires are properly inflated, whether the brakes are working and what the names of the various parts of the bike are.

It is safe to say that many American women and men (depending on their upbringing and circumstances) might need the same basics. Many of us have not learned how to ride a bicycle as children. It can be a terrifying ordeal to learn as an adult. And again all we are talking about here in riding the bike around a parking lot or perhaps up and down an empty street. We have not yet begun to talk about Traffic 1.0.

How To Succeed With Traffic 2.0

As was stated earlier Bicycle Infrastructure is literally a software program upgrade. You can easily understand why it makes a world of difference for bicyclists to learn the nuances of the “new program“. But it is doubly important that the people driving cars be equally at home with the program upgrade as those on bicycles. The Cycling Movement has a “blind spot” where the question of Education is concerned.

For many in The Movement the notion of having to register your bicycle and take a written test and then a road test (in the same manner as operating your automobile) smacks of government control. I would offer that what it really suggests is that bicycles have “come of age“. When you have to have a license to operate a vehicle you know that it is now a serous participant in the Traffic 1.0 scene. It is the culmination of the long hard fight to be acknowledged as “both permitted and intended users of the roadway“.

But we are now updating the software application to provide a separate set of lanes on roadways for slower traffic. I phrase it this way because it is probably likely that eventually motorized wheel chairs and other electric-assist vehicles will become part of the conversation. So the conversation has to be between users of the roadway regardless of their system of propulsion.

Traffic 2.0 Is Not Intuitive

Here in America the transition to Traffic 2.0 is taking a few “twists and turns” as we attempt to find out what works and does not work in our surroundings. We are like awkward junior students learning to dance with members of the opposite sex in a class taught to learn formal dances like the Fox Trot and Waltz. Everyone is likely to be all “left-footed” until we grow comfortable enough to enjoy the experience.

Cyclists have to learn to navigate in Buffered Bike Lanes as well as Protected Bike Lanes (PBL). For instance if you are riding along in a PBL how do you execute a Left Turn? In a Traffic 1.0 setting you would merge left from the Traffic Lane into the left-hand turning lane. When using a PBL you must now consider the use of a Bike Box. Drivers and bike riders must both understand the use and purpose of these green/blue squares.

But sometimes these Bike Boxes have been omitted by the DOT planners. Then what? That is where Education comes in. Cyclists and drivers alike need to know when to transition back to a reference mode consistent with Traffic 1.0. It is somewhat like getting a new iPhone App and suddenly realizing that there is a “bug” in the new version. You only alternative is to download the old version and use it until the new version is “fixed“.

Subtle Nuances Need To Be Explained

Zebra Sidewalks and dashed lines that are intended to allow automobiles to merge into the bike lane to execute a right turn are new modalities. Even bicyclists are under the impression that pedestrians are sometimes “in their way” when they “block” the bicycle lane on streets like Dearborn. But the fact is that when a pedestrian puts their toe into the lane all traffic must stop and allow them to cross unmolested. And all traffic means all traffic, including bicycles.

Some dashed lines are intended to allow bicyclists to make left hand turns from the left lane. This is a new paradigm for both cyclists and drivers. Everyone needs to be on the same page.

In fact in San Francisco it is becoming increasingly clear that the PBL is dangerous in that it does not mitigate the conflict between drivers and cyclists properly where Right Hooks are concerned. The new protocol for Traffic 2.0 is require that motorists “take the bicycle lane” at about 200 feet from the intersection and execute their right turn from it. Bicyclists are to move to the next lane to their left and continuing through the intersection. This is something new to both groups and needs to be taught.

America Is Moving At A More Rapid Pace

As with most technology transitions it moves quicker in those areas where less infrastructure has to be “undone“. For instance if you want to put into place high speed fiber optic internet grids it works better to begin where the old style copper telephone lines do not have to be removed first.

Likewise we have not history of years of bike lanes spanning nearly half a century. We are in the early stages of our shift to Traffic 2.0. It is quite likely that we will have patches of Traffic 3.0 in place long before the Europeans ever get there. But again these transitions have to be clearly and well understood by both drivers and cyclists and electric-assist users alike. In fact we will probably have driverless cars on our roadways in short order and that will mean that the programmers for these vehicles will need to understand what Traffic 2.0 expectations look like. And then of course they will need to understand or perhaps help develop the protocols for Traffic 3.0.

We are on the brink of a Brave New World and being “stuck in the mud ruddy-duddies” will never do. We have to free our minds about the role of Education and Registration and Written and Road Exams sooner rather than later. We need to pull on our big boy pants and accept that maturation towards Traffic 2.0 and beyond will require that like those immigrant women who needed to learn to bicycle well past their 30th birthdays we too will need to readjust our thinking and adapt to the next iterations of Traffic 2.0.