The City of Milwaukee has constructed the nation’s first raised bike lane east of Eugene, Oregon. As part of what was the Wisconsin DOT’s Bay View to Downtown Bike Route, the City of Milwaukee designed a project to add bike lanes and to resurface Bay Street from Russell to Kinnickinnic and construct a raised bike lane from Potter to Lenox. This pilot project is the first raised bike lane in the Midwest and one of only a very few in the country. The only other raised bike lanes in North America that I am aware of are in Vancouver, British Columbia; Eugene and Bend, Oregon.
While the contractors are still buttoning up a few punch list items on the project, Bay Street is open to motorized and non-motorized traffic, so you can pedal through and give the raised lane a try.
As mentioned above, the raised bike lane is a pilot project and, as such, only runs from Potter to Lincoln, while standard bike lanes were installed on the rest of Bay Street out to Kinnickinnic Ave. Bay Street had very low traffic volumes south of the Lincoln Street Viaduct, which allowed the City to put it on a road diet, and install the raised lanes.
You can see the “before” and “after” plans (click images for enlarged views) of the raised bike lane in the photo to the left and in the cross section of the project plans below. The bike lane is raised about 3.5 inches and separated from the motor vehicle travel lane with a 31 inch wide rolled or “mountable” curb. This will serve to keep cars from driving in the bike lane, but still allow them to get into the curbside parking lane.
Although raised bike lanes like this have been used in other cities in the US, in Europe for decades, and they are in the City of Milwaukee’s adopted bicycle master plan, the pilot project status allows the City to test the facility in a real world situation using Milwaukee DPW maintenance equipment such as snow plows and street sweepers. Prior to approving the design, Milwaukee DPW contacted a Wauwatosa street maintenance manager who advised them that the raised parking lane and rolled curb on State Street is the easiest road they have to plow and sweep. That manager said the rolled curb is much easier for plows to negotiate than a traditional vertical curb face.
Raised bike lanes fall into the class of “protected” bike lanes or “cycle tracks” as they are called in Europe. Protected bike lanes remain “on-road” facilities, but they offer a higher degree of segregation from motor vehicle lanes than typical bike lanes solely defined by a 6-inch painted white line. The additional level of segregated protected bike lanes have been proven to attract a wider audience of people who ride bicycles. Protected bike lanes or “cycle tracks” have been credited with transforming the streets of New York City from a bicycle desert into one of the best large cities for cycling in the country.
Not to be outdone, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has pledged to install 25 miles of protected bike lanes each year he is in office. Chicago has already had great success with their first protected bike lane on Kinzie Street. You can see in the photo that in the Chicago protect lanes on Kinzie, like in NYC, and Washington, D.C., they have chosen to place the bike lane next to the curb and have placed a buffer zone of flexible bollards and the parking lane to further protect people on bicycles.
This kind of design is in Milwaukee’s bike plan too, and was considered in the early scoping meeting for the project, but was abandoned after WisDOT had concerns, at the time, that the design was not in the state bicycle facility design handbook or any other commonly used bicycle design manual commonly used in the US (such as the American Association of Highway Transportation Officials bicycle design handbook (AASHTO Greenbook) or federal Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD)).
Since those scoping meetings, the Federal Highway Administration and the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) have released their Urban Bikeway Design Guide, which does include a number of different designs for protected bike lanes or cycle tracks, including raised lanes and bollard separated lanes. This new facility design guide should make it easier to get innovative projects approved by WisDOT, and remove some of the concern felt by more traditional traffic engineers who are used to dealing with approved design standards.
The number of people on bicycles has increased dramatically in every place protected bike lanes have been installed, from Manhattan to Washington, D.C. to Chicago. Bike traffic increased 55% on the Kinzie Street lanes while motor vehicle travel times have increased by only one minute. Traffic studies have shown that not only do you get more bicycles, the overall crash rate goes down, motor vehicle traffic volumes remain the same and speeding is reduced. That is a win-win-win. While Bay Street has not been a particularly popular route for people on bicycles before, some of that may have been due to the poor condition of the pavement. The new smooth asphalt and raised bike lanes should attract some of the people on bicycles who used to head west on Russell or Lincoln, out to Kinnickinnic before going north.
Give the new raised bike lane on Bay Street a try and let us know what you think in the comment section below.