Finally! Cities are beginning to recognize the many public health benefits of developing a strong bicycling culture, and some are starting to make bigger investments in bike infrastructure. And more federal money for these investments may be on the way soon: Congress has included in the infrastructure bill a 60% boost to the budget of the Transportation Alternatives Program, the primary federal program that provides funding for bike and pedestrian infrastructure. But if cities focus on building networks of bike lanes along city streets, they may not develop a broad base of users because we have failed to create places that nurture new and infrequent cyclists. As a result, cities may fail to reap the benefits of widespread cycling—less car traffic, cleaner air, and a healthier, happier population, to name just a few. Shared-use paths may complement a network of on-street bike lanes in ways that help a city develop a strong cycling culture.
Shared-use paths are what most people think of when they think of a “bike path.” Typically, shared-use paths are paved, bi-directional, and freestanding. Ideally, a shared use path crosses few roads or driveways because automobile encounters are a hazard for cyclists—over 800 cyclists have died in crashes involving motor vehicles in the U.S. every year since 2015, and almost 50,000 are injured per year in such crashes. In particular, planners avoid routing shared-use paths along major roadways where a path would cross numerous streets and driveways and drivers might not look for cyclists, particularly those riding against the flow of car traffic.
Shared-use paths provide fertile ground to nurture new cyclists, not just a new option for existing ones. They create a safe space for cyclists with a wide range of skill levels and abilities, including children, novice adults, and the elderly. As new and novice cyclists gain experience (and perhaps speed and stamina), some will graduate to more frequent and intensive use, including use of the city bike lane network. Thus, shared use paths may play an important role in developing a broader base of cyclists, and perhaps in sustaining the increased interest in cycling that has developed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even in Montreal, a city with a strong cycling culture where over a third of people aged 18 to 74 cycle at least once a week, a 2014 study showed that less than a quarter of those cyclists—a group the researchers called “dedicated cyclists”—tended to be indifferent to nearby cars and physical separation from traffic. All other types of cyclists preferred routes with physical segregation from car traffic, and many preferred paths. The authors concluded that this majority of cyclists would likely cycle more often if the network of physically segregated bike routes were enhanced.
Other research confirms the notion that cyclists, and particularly those who are less experienced, prefer shared-use paths. A 2007 study used GPS data to record the routes of 164 adult cyclists in Portland, Oregon. The study participants were mostly regular cyclists who rode their bikes more than one day per week. The study showed that they went out of their way to use bike paths, using them more than twice as much as they would have if they had taken the shortest routes to their destinations. Less experienced cyclists were even more likely to go out of their way to use a shared-use path.
The Oregon study also found that women tended to avoid riding on busier streets, even those with bike lanes. The authors concluded that “[w]ell-connected low-traffic streets, bicycle boulevards, and separate paths may be more effective than bicycle lanes on busy streets at getting more women and new adults bicycling.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that most cyclists prefer shared-use paths to on-street bike lanes. First of all, shared-use paths are generally much safer than riding on the street, according to studies compiled by the Federal Highway Administration. A study in the 1990s found that cyclists had 40% fewer crashes when riding on a bike path than when riding in the street. Another study that compared injuries of path cyclists to on-street cyclists showed an even starker difference: adults’ risk of injury was seven times lower when riding on a bike path than when riding in the street.
Safety features and good street design can reduce that safety gap but are not likely to eliminate it. A helmet can only do so much to protect a rider from a two-ton SUV travelling at high speed. When a car and a cyclist collide, the cyclist is going to lose just about every time. Because drivers aren’t perfect, a cyclist risks serious injury every time he or she is exposed to traffic on a busy street. Tucson recently got a jarring reminder of this fact when its longtime city administrator Chuck Huckleberry, an avid cyclist, was struck by a car while riding on the streets in downtown Tucson and suffered injuries that put him in an ICU in critical condition. Ironically, the backbone of the city’s shared-use path network, the Chuck Huckleberry Loop, is named after Huckleberry, who championed it and was instrumental in its development. Details of the accident have not been released, but early reports indicate that two cars collided and one of them ricocheted into Huckleberry.
Shared use-paths have benefits beyond safety. Paths can provide a more aesthetically pleasing riding venue than the street, where cyclists may experience exhaust fumes, road noise, and a monotonous streetscape scaled to motorists travelling at much higher speeds. Unlike bike lanes, shared-use paths can accommodate a wide range of uses, including use by runners, walkers, people in wheelchairs, and so forth. In that way, shared-use paths increase the equity of a city’s transportation infrastructure in ways that bike lanes do not. And unlike one-way bike lanes where face-to-face encounters may be limited, people see each other’s faces on two-way shared-use paths. People may recognize people from their neighborhood or other regular users, and they may say hi or even stop and chat. Even just a wave or a smile from a stranger may help reduce feelings of isolation. Paths thus may promote feelings of social connection and belonging, making for a happier and healthier community.
None of this is to say a city should not create and improve bike lanes along its streets. As cyclists graduate from occasional, recreational cycling to regular, utilitarian cycling, speed of the commute may become the cyclist’s priority. Bike lanes along streets may provide the most direct and efficient routes and the best access to the places where people work, shop, learn, and play. Indeed, streets are often the only feasible corridors to reach these places. And through safety features and good design, cities may make bike lanes safer and also make cyclists more comfortable when riding along busy streets. But it’s hard to beat a well-developed shared-use path network to encourage people to begin cycling and to cycle more often—a vital step in creating a culture where cycling is the norm.