For the past 40 years, planners have thought the best way to deal with cyclists was to treat them like vehicles. But that policy has left only “fearless” cyclists using the roads. Bikes don’t have to remain a rarely-used alternative. We can change the paradigm.

The oldest official bike lane in America in Davis, CA. Photo by Phillip Barron on Flickr.

Today, relatively few people commute by bike, though with new protected bike facilities in many cities, that’s starting to change. At StreetsCamp, Jess Zdeb of Toole Design showed how to appeal to a broader base.

Zdeb taught attendees of her session about the past, present, and future of bicycle infrastructure.

While these days, America is only just now cottoning on to the idea of the protected bike intersection (several cities are currently in a race to install the first one in the United States), the concept actually dates back to the 1970s.

John Forester introduced the idea of “vehicular cycling,” or treating cyclists as drivers. This led to the world we live in today, where “strong and fearless” riders are often the only ones brave enough to venture out on the roads, and we have only a 1% mode share for cyclists.

Zdeb then introduced a modern method of bicycle network analysis, based on how hard or stressful it is to ride in a given area. The Level of Traffic Stress methodology ranks streets based on the stress level that cyclists experience. Montgomery County’s Bike Plan, currently underway, is using this methodology.

Zdeb pointed out how important it can be to consider pilot projects when proposing new infrastructure. They can help residents realize what the results of these projects would actually do for their communities. Recently, Toole Design helped facilitate a demonstration project in Columbia that showed how effective protected bike lanes could be in the community. That could help Columbia decide to build a permanent facility like this.

Zdeb says if we really want to get the majority of people to bike, we have to install protected infrastructure. Treating cyclists like vehicles — and exposing them to high levels of traffic stress — doesn’t appeal to most people.

You may not believe it, but after WWII, the Dutch rebuilt their cities to be a lot like those in the US. It was only after they decided that too many people were dying on those kinds of roads that they started separating bicycle infrastructure and became the cycling haven that we know today. The change saved a lot of lives.

Those of us in the States could have made a similar decision, but we opted to continue driving. Zdeb summed it up with her most-tweeted comment of the whole presentation:

Cities to watch in the future for big bicycle projects, according to Zdeb, include Seattle, Boston and Cambridge, and cities participating in the Vision Zero Initiative.

Dave Munson is an urban planner and designer working in the Washington area. He received his masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He grew up in Pittsburgh and in western Massachusetts. He lives in Arlington, and blogs about architecture and urbanism at