Bicycle Traffic and Infrastructure Planning: Signage Change or Culture Change?

ARTICLE | Dec 15, 2015

Bikes, cyclists, bike parking and bike lanes have been part of the community planning conversation for many years and they continue to grow in popularity. Communities across the United States are seeking solutions for planning and implementing bike amenities. When it comes to implementing bicycle infrastructure that truly supports mode change, the US is lacking. But how are some top cities making biking an attractive option without disrupting existing traffic?

America’s love affair with bikes does not trump its ongoing love affair with the automobile. It is true that this dynamic makes it more difficult to execute a successful bike plan. While cities are successfully increasing the investments in recreational bikeways and off-road paths, it is now time to take it to the road.

The Gradual Approach

One strategy is the gradual approach, simply inching towards encouraging bike use by touting reasons such as increasing physical activity, countering chronic illness, battling congestion… or simply being trendy.

This gradual process usually includes slapping sharrows onto primary roads, adding signage to make drivers somewhat aware that they need to “share the road,” or creating bike routes through neighborhoods that give the illusion of dedicated cycle space.  (Sharrow is short-form for "shared lane bicycle marking". This pavement marking includes a bicycle symbol and two white chevrons and is used to remind motorists that bicyclists are permitted to use the full lane. There are no striped bicycle lanes on streets marked with sharrows.) These options, however, are not inviting or convenient enough to make real shifts in mode selection.

While the gradual approach is not optimal, the reasons municipalities choose this approach makes sense. Consider:

  • It is dangerous for cyclists to travel on high-volume, high-speed roads without proper bike infrastructure.
  • In most cases, installing bike infrastructure involves redesigning roadways, which is expensive… or removing vehicle lanes, which is controversial.

These considerations put communities in a tight spot: Should they invest in a program that truly promotes mode shift by making it appealing for residents to choose to bike, while almost guaranteeing public pushback; or can they get away with simply posting signs and calling themselves “bike friendly”?

While initially attractive because of its simplicity, the easy road of a poorly planned bike system can be very dangerous. Incomplete facilities or misplaced signs and striping can give riders a false sense of safety, which may lead to more accidents between bikes and automobiles.

All of this inhibits any significant mode shifting among commuters.

The Complete Approach

In order to truly move towards making biking a part of community culture, a complete plan must be implemented -- addressing all aspects of the public right-of-way and ideally including a public education campaign. This not only moves a community towards change, but does so in the safest way possible, while maximizing the return on public dollars spent.

Developing a successful biking plan requires the following:

  • Ensuring your routes and investments are made on corridors leading to and from major destinations. Having alternate routes on side streets and backroads are great for recreational riders, but in order to encourage more riders to use biking routes, they must get people to where they need to go. It is also critical to mark these routes in a clear way, making it easy to navigate the bike routes and obvious to both cyclists and motorists that the roads are shared.
  • Reducing automobile access points along chosen routes. Riders have to be aware of vehicles in the lanes traveling parallel to them and the vehicles approaching bike and auto route intersections. Limiting the number of automobile access points along bike routes will greatly reduce rider stress and crash potential, encouraging ridership.
  • Making winter maintenance of bike facilities a priority in snowy climate areas. Making sure your bike infrastructure is a year-round investment will keep riders moving and motivated.
  • Going for the sign and marking “gold standard,” especially when first introducing the plan. Double-up on painting your bike lanes/boxes and posting signs. This will help your community get the hang of sharing the right-of-way with cyclists. Eventually, road striping or signs, alone, may suffice in certain areas.
  • This is especially prudent in urban areas with higher numbers of unlicensed drivers and foriegn drivers that may not be as familiar with local pavement markings.

  • Using buffers. Buffer your on-road bike facilities when possible. This encourages more ridership and increases safety. Get creative with on-street parking, bollards, striping, planters etc.
  • Using sharrows appropriately. Sharrows aren’t all bad. They can bridge the gap between where one dedicated bike lane ends and another lane picks up again. On major routes, these are useful options for pinch points and areas where right-of-way is truly limited. These are also good solutions for lower vehicle volume routes.

  • Educating the public. Get the word out that your community is paving the way for a healthier and bike-friendly future. Public education campaigns for both riders and drivers are crucial in bringing understanding to the rules of the road and how they affect automobiles and bicycles.
  • Planning for crossings. Intersections where there are a combination of through lanes, right and left turn lanes and bike lanes can be confusing, especially for first time riders. Be sure to sign appropriately and clearly. Use pavement markings and arrows to better direct automobiles and bikes, alike.
  • Including bike amenities. Bike parking, lockers and comfort stations show you are really serious about your biking plan. Communities that offer top-tier systems plan for these amenities. Additionally, priority treatment at transit stops and in downtowns for bicycles may be the key to getting residents to leave the automobile behind… at least once in a while.

By following these guidelines, your biking plan will more successfully shift automobile traffic to bike traffic.

Biking should not just be considered a recreational activity to planners and the communities in which they work. It should be a priority mode of transportation -- just like the automobile, bus, or train -- and should be included in planning decisions. All modes of transportation should be layers of the overall Community Plan – each working together in the right-of-way and building upon the surrounding land use contexts.

For Information, contact Caitlin Mallory-Marcon at 248-586-0505 or Visit for more information.

Since 1992, SAFEbuilt has provided full-service building department programs, building code plan reviews, complete project support, building code inspections and code enforcement for cities, towns, counties and other public agencies. As of today, we work with more than 250 public communities.

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