bicycle vs transit problems

Bicycles have always had an anxious relationship with local-stop street-running transit, both bus and streetcar.  On a street without separate bike lanes, bikes and local-stop transit tend to end up sharing the "slow" traffic lane — typically a lane that's either next to the curb or next to a row of parked cars.  The difficulty lies not just in the obvious ability of rail tracks to throw a cyclist, but more generally in the fact that many cyclists like to move at something close to the average speed of local-stop transit — generally 10-20 mph.  With buses at least, the pattern is often for a local bus and a cyclist to "leapfrog," passing each other over and over, an uncomfortable and mildly risky move for both parties. 

Streetcars are much less likely to pass a cyclist than a bus is, and this, come to think of it, may be one of the many little reasons that streetcars often end up being slower than buses when you control for other differences (in right of way, fare handling, signaling, enforcement, etc).  Cyclist friends have often told me that they prefer cycling alongside streetcars rather than buses becuase streetcars don't make surprising lateral moves.  This is true, though of course the lateral motion of buses is a normal part of how they get through traffic, and how they often keep moving in situations where a streetcar would get stuck.

Mia Birk has a good article today arguing that bicycles and streetcars can be friends.  So far, though, the only examples she cites of really successful bicycle-transit integration are from streets where there's plenty of space to separate the two modes, such as Portland's King/Grand couplet.  She's involved now in a consulting team looking at how streetcars will interact with cyclists along a proposed line on Seattle's Broadway, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with. 

Birk is clear that the basic design of the starter streetcar lines in Portland in Seattle — operation in the right-hand (slow) lane next to a row of parked cars — didn't provide good options for cyclists needing to avoid the hazard of the streetcar tracks.  She wants to see better separation, but when looking at a dense urban street like Seattle's Broadway, it's hard to see how they'll deliver that without undermining either on-street parking or pedestrian circulation.  She notes one situation in Portland (14th & Lovejoy) where the streetcar-cyclist conflict was arguably resolved at the pedestrian's expense:

… and she's clear that this isn't the outcome she's after.  (This idea of a bike lane that passes between a transit stop and the sidewalk is common in the Netherlands.  It can work well as long as there's ample sidewalk width.  It's less nice in situations like this one where the remaining sidewalk is constrained.)

If I sound a little cynical about the prospects for harmony between local-stop transit and cyclists, it's because this is a geometry problem, and geometry tends to endure in the face of even the most brilliant innovation.  The examples in Mia's post seem to confirm that if the street is wide enough, it's easy to separate cycles and transit, but that if it isn't, it isn't. 

When the problem is this simple, it's not hard to reach a point where you're sure you've exhausted all the geometric possibilities.  At that point, you to make hard choices about competing goods, producing something that all sides will see as a compromise.  Hoping for new innovative solutions can become a distraction at that point, since no innovation in human history has ever changed a fact of geometry. 

Finally, if a streetcar ever does go down Seattle's Broadway, it had better be compatible with buses as well.  Broadway is an important link in the frequent transit network, with lines that extend far beyond the local area and thus make direct links that a starter streetcar line cannot replace.  What will happen to these buses?  If they share the streetcar lane, what will their role be in the streetcar-bicycle dance?

Photo: Mia Birk

41 Responses to bicycle vs transit problems

  1. CroMagnon January 19, 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    Again, I appreciate your geometric approach to this issue. A “critical” point not usually recognized or considered.

  2. Dave January 19, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

    I like the Melbourne approach on this one. It’s only really effective where you have multiple parallel roads fairly close together, but basically adjacent roads give different priority to different modes. So in a given corridor, you might have one road that favours cars, one that favours trams, and one (typically a secondary road) that favours cyclists. So that can help
    So the geometry needn’t be confined to just the one street, but the corridor through which people are trying to move. Of course, it starts being limited to just a street in some circumstances (hills, rivers etc) and also when different levels of govt have responsibility for different roads (ie arterial/freeway vs local streets).

  3. Simon January 19, 2011 at 6:35 pm #

    Hard choices about competing goods? You’ve framed the problem as one of streetcars competing with bicycles, but the obvious thing taking up all the space is motor vehicles, both travelling and stored. If there’s any “compromise” to be made, surely it’s the motor vehicle users who should have to compromise most.

  4. Chris B January 19, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    I am a little curious as to how the game of leapfrog between bus and bike (one I know all too well) is dangerous for both parties…

  5. J B January 19, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    Mixing pedestrians and bikes seems to work well in Japan as well, though it took me a little getting used to. Perhaps a good solution on narrow streets would be cutting down the speed limit to 20 or even 15mph and raising the penalties for car “accidents”, thereby making biking among cars somewhat safer. Separation could be limited to wider roads.

  6. Jonathon January 19, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    See Toronto’s redesigned Roncesvalles Avenue- a narrow four-lane street with average sidewalks and high volumes of pedestrian, bike and streetcar traffic (every 2-4 mins during rush hours.) The new design converted the street to 2 driving lanes, with parking on either side, and bump-outs from the sidewalk for streetcar stops, each with ramps from the road for cyclists.

  7. EngineerScotty January 19, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    The “Melbourne” approach is found in Portland. In the streetcar segment between NW 23rd and the Pearl; streetcars run on Lovejoy and Northrop streets, and bikes get Marshall Street (in between) mostly to themselves.

  8. Edward January 19, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    I agree with Simon. The answer is to take away that lane of parked cars. With a little imagination, you find there is plenty of space.

  9. Not wanting my name on this one January 19, 2011 at 11:29 pm #

    Here’s a cynical comment, sorry: I have the impression that there is a division between the bike advocates who are seriously interested in safety, and those whose agenda is to assert the right of aggressive bikers to be wherever they want to be (which I agree with in principle, but there is that geometry issue sometimes). The safety crowd will look for opportunities to segregate bikes into their own channels, or designate separate streets for bikes where there aren’t so many cars and buses. The “assert our rights, take priority over cars” crowd wants to place bikes (and everyone else) into the same channels on principle.
    As always, there are those who care about outcomes, and those who care about making a statement regardless of the outcome. Which is why most people who care about outcomes sometimes end up having to fight hardest with those they supposedly agree with.
    Broadway may be a great example. There’s limited room. Cars are part of the retail environment, and buses are frequent. 12th is a wide-open alternative route for through-traffic and bikes, but not so much for buses. Is anyone willing to assign different uses to different streets, or will it be more important to assert everyone’s right to occupy the same space – making things slower and more dangerous for everyone? I guess we’ll see.

  10. GD January 20, 2011 at 2:12 am #

    demand-based parking pricing might just create the opportunities to free that significant lane in which nothing moves to begin with.
    Then again, I guess the feasibility of this is somewhere between little and nil in most cities.
    Back here in Vienna we do have some cycling routes along otherwise really quiet streets that don’t see much car traffic. The obvious upside is that a bike rider who knows that route will have an option that is pretty safe and reasonably fast.
    Too bad that there are intersections in which car drivers don’t expect you unless they know the specific nature of the street they’re crossing. And it’s the bicyclist who gets the yield sign each and every time. Not to mention the occasional/casual bicyclist has to first find out about the route’s existence.
    Still, it seems like a feasible model to increase the convenience of commuting by bike and raise the number of people who might realistically choose that option. With more people using bikes, authorities might then be more inclined to provide even more and better structures for them.
    At least, that’s the (my) theory.

  11. PhilC January 20, 2011 at 5:12 am #

    In your picture the sidewalk doesn’t seem to be much more constrained in width at the stop. It’s the lateral car parking which disappears to make way for the bus stop+bike lane. However boarding/alighting passengers will just have to learn to watch out for bikes zooming by…a common problem for all pedestrians when dedicated bike lanes are built in a dense downtown environment.

  12. Martin H. Duke January 20, 2011 at 5:49 am #

    A streetcar down Broadway isn’t a matter of “if”. It’s in the advanced planning stages and will open in 2013.
    I’m a little confused by your comment that Broadway is a crucial part of the frequent transit network. There’s a 4-block stretch where a trolleybus currently runs, but other than that the road itself just has infrequent service. There are tons of frequent routes that cross Broadway, though.

  13. Daniel Sparing January 20, 2011 at 5:56 am #

    In Europe, trams usually use the middle of the road, and often buses too (buses should stop in the tram stop as well as long as capacity allows it), for geometry reasons ­čÖé (so they can turn at intersections).
    This usually keeps cyclists far away from the rails, or at least not parallel to the rails.
    When there is a lack of space, it all boils down to political priorities: ideally, cars should be allowed to a street after accommodating pedestrians, transit and bikes and there is still space and a good reason.

  14. Tom West January 20, 2011 at 6:03 am #

    If your buses have nice bike racks on the front, you have wo wonder why cyclists are spending so long travelling on the same road as the bus.
    The other problem is cyclists are veryvaried in travel speeds and willingness to deal with traffic. You get some who will trundle along at slow speed and really don’t like heavy traffic (so could use the sidewalk), and some who want to as as fast as possible along major roads.

  15. Daniel Sparing January 20, 2011 at 6:07 am #

    @Tom the fact that you have a transit offer on a street (with or without bike racks) does not mean that you do not have to make sure that the street is convenient by bike too.
    @J B mixing pedestrians and bicycles is generally a very bad solution (divide and conquer from the Big Oil perspective), except for when cycling is tolerated (at low speeds) in pedestrianized areas.

  16. Daniel Sparing January 20, 2011 at 6:10 am #

    @Not wanting my name on this one
    you do not need to accommodate bicycles on virtually all streets because some advocates are aggressive, but because cycling (and walking) is the last mile access to transit and as such needs to reach every single address, if on a busy street then there.

  17. Zoltán January 20, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    That cycle lane pictured is actually a terrible design, of a sort to watch out for.
    It puts the cycle lane in the “door zone” of parked cars – such that a car door being opened can very dangerously knock a cyclist onto the traffic on their right. (An informative if quite biased article: )
    You can’t really get around this without simply providing another three metres of space between the parking and cycle lanes.
    Another option is to place cycle paths on one side of the pavement, as Helsinki does on the side nearer the road. However, a study there makes it clear that there is a huge risk of accidents at the cross streets where cycle lanes are configured like that –
    It seems generally evident that safety is greatest when assertively riding in mixed traffic – the question for transit is of how to avoid that making transit unreliable. My money is on questioning whether transit should be in the lowest-priority curb lane by default.

  18. Zoltán January 20, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    p.s. As an example of transit being away from the curb, here is K Street in Washington, DC;,+washington,+dc&aq=&sll=62.895218,27.597656&sspn=10.670883,39.331055&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Connecticut+Ave%2F+K+Street,+Washington,+District+of+Columbia,+District+of+Columbia+(DC),+Yhdysvallat&ll=38.902484,-77.041689&spn=0.001108,0.002401&t=h&z=19&layer=c&cbll=38.902484,-77.041689&panoid=k79xl5kWHRqZzSivRQvpCw&cbp=12,100.26,,1,3.09
    The two leftmost lanes serve for:
    – Right turns
    – Bicycles sharing the lane (as no one stays in it for more than a block, it isn’t a problem that they’re a bit slower)
    The reservation serves for transit stops.
    And the two rightmost lanes serve for mixed traffic, including transit.

  19. Biking in mixed traffic is for safety January 20, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    @Not wanting my name on this one
    The reason why many experienced cyclists ride in mixed flow traffic isn’t to be “aggressive,” it is that statistically, the risk of a car-bike collision is much lower when the bike is in the car’s line of sight, both on the roadway itself and especially on the crossing roadway at intersections.

  20. Daniel Sparing January 20, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    @Zoltán mixed traffic design of cars and bikes only makes sense if car traffic is relatively low and speed is no more than 30 km/h.
    Of course, proponents of the concept “Vehicular Cycling” will always claim that bicycle infrastructure is evil, but vehicular cycling ideology was never successful to attract significant number of people on the bike.
    this might already be off topic, so maybe have a look here:
    great blog, Zoltán, by the way!

  21. Cascadian January 20, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    Oran’s new map of Seattle’s high-frequency bus network shows the 49 as coming every 15 minutes on weekdays along Broadway as far as Pine.

  22. Martin H. Duke January 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Yes, that’s four blocks from John to Pine, like I said.

  23. anonymouse January 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    In this case, maybe it would make sense to have a “safety island” style of platform for the streetcars, but instead of a car lane on the outside, have only a bike lane. The important thing is to have a strong marker (like a step down) to mark the fact that this isn’t sidewalk anymore. And on Seattle’s Broadway, it looks like there are large sections with three lanes, where island platforms would work, and other sections with four lanes, where center running streetcars with bike lanes on the outside would work. Or for that matter vice versa: put the bikes in the middle and the streetcars on the outside.

  24. Zoltán January 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    @Daniel Sparing
    I’m not sure that providing for safe vehicular cycling is such a bad thing, despite the negative tone of the article you linked to. It fails to attract a lot of cyclists, but there is much evidence to indicate that it’s the safest.
    So, I’d make these two arguments about the alternative of investing too highly in flashy-looking cycle facilities:
    – They attract a relatively large number by providing them with a false sense of security, assuming that they’re safe using those facilities.
    – Those people they attracted to it evidently come largely from transit (see again ). That suppresses transport demand, and therefore frequencies, and therefore the usefulness of transit. See the downward spiral in action?
    The more I study the seeming impossibility of making segregated cycle facilities safe in places where road traffic continues to dominate (the cycle+transit-dominated cities of the low countries are a very different matter), the more I come to the conclusion that the priority should be making those that already want to cycle as safe as possible, and then focusing on good transit as the main way of serving everyone else.

  25. CroMagnon January 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    To those who think all the cars should move: when you’ve got a 38′ wide street, with no setbacks, parallel parking on boths sides, except the right side at rush hour (and one-way)and your street is a major arterial with traffic at 80%+ capacity at rush, you can’t just take a whole lane away from the vehicles. That could easily reduce capacity by over 50%. I want to hear how that will work.

  26. Daniel Sparing January 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    @CroMagnon sometimes (not always but sometimes) reducing road traffic capacity reduces demand too.
    Very often (not always but very very often) building new roads and new lanes induce additional traffic which fills up new space so you end up with the same level of congestion, plus one more lane of congestion.
    There will be exactly as much car traffic in a city as much space there is for it.

  27. Future Bus Rider Union Member January 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    SF just implemented a green wave on Valencia. (setting the traffic lights to provide green lights at 13mph) which makes it pretty easy for bike and buses to just keep hitting green lights.
    I suspect this is probably the best way to reduce the problem of bikes and buses continually overtaking each other. While bikes and buses often travel at roughly the same average speed, they don’t have the same acceleration profile. When you set traffic lights at the same speed you tend to ameliorate the jockeying for position problem.

  28. Daniel Sparing January 20, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    @Zolt├ín I agree especially with your second argument, I’d like to add just one thing.
    Transit and cycling are not disjunct choices, pretty much the opposite. Transit only works if it is convenient to access the stops on foot and by bike, and in a big city you can only use bicycles if you can jump on transit too for longer or hilly trips.
    Ignoring one weakens the other too. In my view, the goal is not to get more people on the bikes or more people on transit, but to get less people driving, by giving any and all other options.
    (p.s. it is possible to design safe _and_ attractive infrastructure, as done in the Netherlands, but that is really off topic here. See for example

  29. CroMagnon January 20, 2011 at 6:58 pm #

    Sometimes. But we’re necessarily talking about new roads, just existing traffic levels on existing roads. Traffic goes somewhere, even out of existence. But then so does economic output. Some trips can’t be substituted for others.

  30. jack whisner January 20, 2011 at 8:27 pm #

    the advanced stage of design on the First Hill Streetcar is finally getting to the critical issues of its interaction with the electric trolleybus network. SDOT will learn how costly that will be and will face a tradeoff between the ETB network, that they want to expand, and the FH streetcar, of very limited merit.
    I am skeptical that the two-way 10-foot cycle track suggested by SDOT has enough width to deal with the grades on Broadway that will have cyclists going at widely different speeds and making turns in a constrained space.
    one thing ST did not seem to do, in recommending the First Hill streetcar, was consider changes to the bus network that would be prompted by the Capitol Hill Link station. ETB routes 43 and 49 will no longer need to go downtown via Pine-Pike streets; instead, they could extend to Pioneer Square via First Hill via the new Yesler Way overhead. Then the frequent network would conflict with the streetcar further south to Madison Street. It already conflicts on South Jackson Street with routes 7, 14, and 36. Their combined loads today are 8K on that arterial. The forecast daily ridership on the streetcar in 2030 is only 3K. SDOT is proposing to reduce South Jackson Street to three lanes and have the eastbound modes share a single lane while using two separate overhead systems. Silly!

  31. Jase January 20, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

    In Melbourne, bike – tram interactions are the most common.
    Bikes are supposed to stop if the trams are stopped, to let the pedestrina corss the outrside lane to get on and off the vehicle.
    Often the cyclists stop. Just as often someone tries to scoot through at the last minute, and a transit rider gets quite a surprise.
    Bike tram track interactions are probably more dangerous than bike-tram interactions. everyone has a wet weather horror story.
    Bike-bus interaction are more varied and more frightening. On an uphill, you can end up with a bus right behind you for quite some distance. In the CBD (especially on Lonsdale St) there’s not a lot of space for them to overtake a cyclist. It’s a motivating way to really get a good burn going in your quads.
    Pulling out into the middle of the road to overtake a stopped bus can also be dangerous, especially when the driver turns on his indicator and comes out at you while you are midway through overtaking. I guess they are more likely to spot a car.
    There’s no doubt that in Melbourne cycling and transit “compete” – many bicycle journeys terminate/originate in the CBD, so do many transit journeys. That’s a function of excellent bike and transit infrastructure, bad traffic, and high parking costs. In reality the modes are complementary, as transit is packed at peak hour (when bikes are banned) and bike lessen the load. Outside peak you can put your steed on the train no problem.

  32. J B January 20, 2011 at 9:19 pm #

    Mass transit and bikes have higher capacity than cars, so by removing car lanes you may actually increase economic output.

  33. teme January 20, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    Jarrett, to get back to basic geometry, streetcar lanes that have busses or cars running in them are actually often wider than a streetcar would require, because obviously streetcars run straight and thus there is less need for margin, and they are also often narrower than busses. It is often possible to fit a streetcar lane AND a separate unidirectional bike lane in little more than the same space that a car lane would require.
    Ofcourse depends on the width of the street cars, lane separation (the better, the less margin needed), etc. but the basic geometric fact is that streetcars usually require less width than cars or busses and bikes of course much less.

  34. GD January 21, 2011 at 2:47 am #

    The argument that several posters have alluded to is made in more detail in Tom Vanderbilt’s book “Traffic” and on his website, so check ’em out if you’re interested.

  35. CroMagnon January 21, 2011 at 8:25 am #

    They MAY, but not usually, have more practical capacity than cars. It’s whether the trips taken by car or other auto are reasonably transferable to transit or bike. In many constrained road network situations, the idealized scenario won’t materialize. I realize the point some are making (I make it myself sometimes), but it shouldn’t be assumed to be a priori. It must be determined on a case by case basis–and this is what i don’t think happens often enough with certain advocacy groups propoganda.

  36. Alon Levy January 21, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    Usually, the car trips that are most transferable are precisely those in the most congested areas: they have enough job density to become transit destinations, or enough overall density to be walkable and bikable. Even an auto-oriented edge city, like White Plains or Tysons Corner, has enough job density that if it rebuilt its streets to be more walkable and ran more buses and trains it could be a major transit destination.

  37. Doug Allen January 21, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

    An example of an upcoming geometric compromise is the “50s Bikeway Project” in Portland, Oregon. See
    Also see BikePortland’s coverage at
    For a significant portion of the project that coincides with the Number 71 bus line, travel lanes will likely be narrowed to 10 feet (3 meters) in order to allow retention of automobile parking on one side of the street.
    Because this stretch is flat, and carries modest auto volumes, it is not clear if or how much bus travel times or safety will be compromised.
    Cyclists will not be satisfied with the 6-foot bike lanes, and homeowners will not be happy that parking will be removed from one side of the street.
    Between Powell and Foster, I forsee significant traffic conflicts arising on this route.

  38. Alexis January 27, 2011 at 11:09 pm #

    I could say a lot about this whole issue and the particular choices being made in the Lovejoy area right now, but forbthe moment I’ll confine myself to mentioning that the intersection is 13th and Lovejoy , not 14th.

  39. jack whisner January 28, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    second post. consider the posts of Dave and “not wanting” regarding the parallel arterials of Broadway and 12th Avenue East on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Seattle has adopted a “complete streets” ordinance. but as Dave asserts, some speciallization may lead to more optimal solutions. a city cannot provide “priority” to multiple modes. all aterials should provide for pedestrians. but there is friction between transit and cyclists unless the bicycle lane is placed on the left side of the arterial; in the US, bus doors are on the right side. all arterials should be friendly to local cycliing trips. but longer through trips are better provided on arterials that have more priority through bike lanes or even cycle tracks. the SDOT streetcar plan attempts to provide priority to BOTH cyclists and the streetcar on Broadway. will a 10-foot lane be wide enough for two-way travel; I doubt it. As Dave points out, 12th Avenue East would be great arterial to emphasize through trips by bicycle. likewise, east-west on Capitol Hill, Pine Street has frequent transit service, yet SDOT also have bike lanes striped; why not shift the bike lanes to Pike Street where there is no transit? in the University District, Brooklyn Avenue NE could be a bicycle emphasis arterial; it is wide has a gradual grade and connects the Burke Gilman and Ravenna trails and two future Link stations. a bit of modal specialization would be good for complete streets.

  40. Louis February 8, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    The worst thing for the pedestrian in this example is the proximity of the stop to the corner. If the stop was placed mid-block, there wouldn’t be the many intersection issues, and the only pedestrian-bike conflict would be from sidewalk to stop, not a huge deal, and really a very common treatment throughout the world.
    In New York City, bikes are almost always placed on the left side of the street, opposite the bus lanes. Paris has an entire network of WIDE, CURB-DIVIDED shared bus/bike lanes, and they work great I always found.

  41. Nathan Landau March 24, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    I just saw this blog and thread, which is very interesting to me.
    Valencia St. in San Francisco and the green wave is a good bike project. Valencia is a parallel streets project–Muni discontinued a bus line on Valencia St. There are several bus lines on Mission St. a block to the east (and two BART stations) and a light rail line along Church St. three blocks to the west. Therefore the city is free to optimize Valencia for bicycles without interfering with transit.