The Power of People Near Protected Bikelanes: A New Metric for Urban Cycling Infrastructure

For years, cities and governments have used the length or number of kilometers of bike lanes as a primary measure of the comprehensiveness or impact of their cycling infrastructure. However, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) suggests that this viewpoint is outdated. With the debut of the Atlas of Sustainable City Transport, ITDP emphasizes the importance of the location of bike lanes. Using the Atlas’ dashboard, ITDP introduces a more modern and meaningful way of measuring progress through the indicator of People Near Protected Bikelanes.

Understanding the Metric

The indicator “People Near Protected Bikelanes” quantifies the percentage of city residents living within a comfortable walking distance (300 meters) of physically separated bike lanes. This metric provides valuable insight into the actual accessibility and coverage of cycling infrastructure within urban neighborhoods. Protected bike lanes are crucial because they offer cyclists a dedicated space separated from motor vehicles by physical barriers, enhancing both safety and access.

The effectiveness of protected lanes extends beyond their physical boundaries—they are integral to creating safer pedestrian and transit zones, encouraging more people to cycle. This indicator highlights that promoting a shift to cycling is not only about the quantity of bike lanes but also their quality and proximity to where people live and work. By prioritizing the creation of protected lanes near residential, commercial, and transit-oriented areas, cities can foster environments where cycling becomes a safer and more convenient mode of transport, particularly as an alternative to short car trips.

Calculating People Near Protected Bikelanes

The calculation involves dividing the number of people living within 300 meters of a protected bike lane by the total population, resulting in the percentage of people with reasonable access to these lanes. ITDP defines physically protected bike lanes as either off-street trails or on-street bike lanes protected by curbs, bollards, or other materials that prevent vehicle encroachment.

The Atlas also includes the metric “People Near All Bikelanes,” which considers the percentage of people living near any bike lane, whether protected or unprotected. Unprotected bike lanes are separated from vehicular traffic solely by painted lines. Calculating these metrics requires two key sources of open data—the European Commission’s Global Human Settlement Layer (for population data) and OpenStreetMap (for the location and type of bike lanes). A significant advantage of these open data sources is that anyone can contribute to them, providing suggestions and correcting inaccuracies.

Impact of the Metric

People Near Protected Bikelanes is a high-level measure of how effectively cities integrate land use and active mobility. Unlike traditional metrics that track kilometers of bike lanes or cyclist counts on individual corridors, this indicator focuses on the accessibility of safe cycle lanes for people. For example, a 10-kilometer protected bike lane in a dense neighborhood likely serves more people than the same length of lane in a low-density industrial area. Infrastructure that does not connect places where people live with destinations will be used less often and provide fewer network benefits.

This indicator strongly correlates with nuanced measures of access to destinations and can predict ridership due to the availability of safe, comfortable lanes. In a sample of eight Latin American cities, People Near Protected Bikelanes explained 88% of the variation in bicycle ridership, indicating a high correlation between proximity to protected bike lanes and bike usage in a city.

Case Studies: Washington, DC and Seville

To understand the impact of People Near Protected Bikelanes, consider Washington, DC, and Seville, Spain. Both cities have similar population sizes and densities and boast 174 kilometers of protected bike lanes according to the Atlas. Despite these similarities, about 1 in 3 people in Washington, DC (32%) live near a protected bike lane, compared to 3 in 4 people in Seville (73%).

Since the early 2000s, Seville has focused on building a connected, citywide network of protected bike lanes and improving connections to public transit. In just two years, Seville built 77 kilometers of protected lanes connecting major neighborhoods, with an additional 43 kilometers added later. As a result, cyclist counts rose sharply from 330 per day in 2006 to nearly 2000 per day after the network’s completion. Bicycle mode share grew from 5% to almost 9%. By expanding bike infrastructure across diverse sections of the city, Seville reports over 70,000 daily bicycle trips, surpassing the Seville Metro’s reported 52,000 daily ridership.

In contrast, Washington, DC, built 160 kilometers of bike lanes (both protected and unprotected) over 20 years from 2002 to 2022. The network is incomplete, often leaving cyclists to ride on unsafe, high-speed streets for part of their trip. The densest part of the network covers downtown, supporting commute trips, but protected lanes are sparse in the northern and eastern residential neighborhoods, with almost no infrastructure east of the Anacostia River. Bicycle mode share grew from about 1% in 2004 to about 4% in 2018.

People Near Protected Bikelanes is a powerful measurement of the impact of bicycle infrastructure on urban residents and should be integrated into every city’s transport planning. The next part of this blog series will delve deeper into the significance of this indicator using real-world examples from major cities like Los Angeles, USA; Bogotá, Colombia; Glasgow, Scotland; and Santiago, Chile—all members of ITDP’s Cycling Cities campaign.

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