Michael Andersen, PlacesForBikes staff writer
Washington Avenue, Minneapolis – our No. 8 pick. Photo: Hennepin County.
One hundred years ago, something momentous happened in U.S. cities: They started connecting their first full networks of paved streets.
Link by link throughout the late 1910s, cities from coast to coast turned mud and gravel to asphalt and concrete, creating the first continuous routes for people to comfortably roll in private cars from homes to jobs to shops to recreation.
As those networks filled in, city life changed rapidly and permanently. Getting around by car suddenly made much more sense.
Today, hundreds of those same streets are being tweaked to create a new network: continuous low-stress bike routes. As protected bike lanes, off-street paths and neighborhood bikeways link up, they’re letting bikes and autos gracefully coexist and complement each other for the first time in U.S. history. The evidence from other countries and our own past suggests cities that connect networks well will see big payoffs.
That’s why, every December, we at PeopleForBikes scour news reports and public records and talk to experts around the country to recognize the most impressive new links in those networks. Here are the brightest gems we found in 2017.
1) PATH Parkway, Atlanta
Photo: City of Atlanta.
Atlanta’s 1.5-mile reimagining of Tech Parkway and Luckie Street is named for the PATH Foundation, the visionary group behind Atlanta’s big new investments in an off-street trail network. (The private group split the cost of this project with the Georgia Institute of Technology.)
But though the 14-foot-wide bidirectional bikeway and separated walkway that officially opened this month are as comfortable to bike on as the country’s best recreational paths, there’s nothing winding about this crucial network connection between downtown and the Georgia Tech campus: it’s all business. Look no further than the new street-facing entrance and 1200-square-foot locker room that Coca-Cola remodeled into its global headquarters to take advantage of these changes, immediately to its east.
Coke’s interest? The beverage giant wanted “better experiences for our employees than getting in your car and trying to drive through Atlanta traffic,” global site services director John Sadlo said.
With network connections on both ends, six new bike-optimized traffic signals and a clever reuse of the former roadway median to divide bike and auto traffic, the PATH Parkway is world-class. And though it drew the usual dire predictions of traffic backups before its construction — which repurposed two auto travel lanes and 150 curbside parking spaces — city bike czar Becky Katz says that in real life it’s created no new traffic delay. Thousands of Atlantans, meanwhile, have just been offered a new escape from congestion.
2) MoPac Mobility Bridges, Austin
Now that’s a bikeway: a brand new bridge (in green) below the MoPac Expressway. Photos: City of Austin.
When Texans bet, they bet big. It’s hard to imagine a more durable investment in bike transportation than this $14.5 million, mile-long bridge route over Barton Creek, accurately called an “unprecedented commitment to cycling in Austin” by the local newspaper when it opened in August.
Together with related off-street investments, the bridges “will be opening up probably hundreds of thousands of possible commutes into downtown,” Austin bikeway planner Nathan Wilkes said. “It’s hundreds of thousands of people who will live wihtin a 50-minute bike ride of downtown who currently live within a 50-minute drive of downtown.”
3) Jackson Street, St. Paul
Photo: Toole Design Group.
Minnesota’s capital is clearly looking to end years of lagging behind its bigger sibling, Minneapolis, on quality bike infrastructure. Its newly branded “Capital City Bikeway” on Jackson Street, finished in October, is a well-designed trunk line for a newly planned downtown network. It runs from St. Paul’s Mississippi River path network through downtown and directly across Interstate 94 to the Capitol Building, a hospital and another trail. Color-contrasting asphalt and custom signals define this 12-foot-wide sidewalk-level bikeway built entirely with local money.
4) 3rd Street, Austin
Photo: City of Austin.
A squad of creative bureaucrats in this central Texas boomtown have spent 10 years quietly reinventing urban road planning for the 21st century, and last year voters gave them the cash to put that knowhow to use. 3rd Street, the final link in a continuous five-mile chain of all-ages bikeways across Austin’s central city, is a sign of much more to come.
5) Williamsburg Bridge approaches, New York City
Everybody knows bikeable bridges are crucial to citywide networks, but it takes a truly thoughtful city to carefully design the approaches to these bridges. NYC’s transportation department reshuffled parking lanes and whipped out its creative paintbrush to make the streets that lead to the country’s second-most-biked bridge comfortable and intuitive.
6) Jay Street, New York City
Photo: Mike Lydon.
This single block of protected bike lane with a new bike signal shows the big power of closing a small gap. It links Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood and waterfront with protected bikeways on Sand Street, Jay Street and the Manhattan Bridge, and therefore a network all the way to the Bronx. By serving more than 10,000 jobs in just a few square blocks of DUMBO, this one block of bike lane matters to more people than some cities’ entire networks. It’s a reminder that bike lanes should go where people are, instead of simply where cars aren’t.
7) 7th Avenue, Ellensburg, Wash.
Traffic diverters make bike and foot crossings comfortable while preventing cut-through auto traffic. Photo: Barb Chamberlain.
In June, this little college town in rural Washington did something on its first neighborhood bikeway that big cities often can’t seem to muster the courage for: it installed five traffic diverters in 1.7 miles. The forced turns prevent cut-through auto traffic from taking advantage of the new bike-friendly stop sign layouts, while improving pedestrian crossings of five busy streets. The result: a truly low-stress side street that joins many of Ellensburg’s important destinations. By July, a former skeptic was calling it “a joy and a blessing.”
8) Washington Avenue, Minneapolis
Photo: Hennepin County.
One of the best-looking projects on this list, the main reason this didn’t rank higher is that it’s only five blocks long, with a stressful door-zone bike lane immediately to its east. But Hennepin County (which did this project) deserves credit for its first Copenhagen-style mountable curb design on an important street where, until now, most people wouldn’t have dared to roll.
9) Bancroft Way, Berkeley, Calif.
Photo: Karl Nielsen.
Another small project — just three blocks, though a bigger network is planned — this bidirectional protected bike lane just across the street from the University of California campus opened in September with an important backer: the local business district. Executive Director Stuart Baker explained that the district’s more than 100 members pushed wanted it easy for people to reach their shops from the nearest subway station, half a mile away, via bike share. “In part it’s access, in part it’s image,” he said.
They teamed up with AC Transit, the local bus operator. It backed the bike lanes because (as transit planner Stephen Newhouse put it in one public meeting) the transit agency wanted a dedicated bus lane on the street but worried that it couldn’t get one without strong support from biking advocates.
Buses, bikes, local businesses: that’s a coalition we can get behind. Turns out Berkeley’s city council could, too.
10) New York Avenue / Michigan Avenue couplet, Indianapolis
Photo: Austin Gibble.
After installing the country’s most beautiful downtown bike network a few years ago with the Indy Cultural Trail, Indianapolis has sometimes seemed to rest on that leafy laurel. Then this curb-protected couplet, 2.4 miles in total, opened in late fall and extended Indianapolis’s all-ages bike network well outside the city’s booming downtown. The only thing missing is a calming dose of green … but wait, the medians are about to get a series of trees and flowerbeds.
Every year, a handful of good projects narrowly miss our list.
One that stood out this year: the 3.5-mile protected bike lanes on Detroit’s Michigan Avenue, the latest in a series of massive projects that show the Motor City’s potential but have, so far, struggled with maintenance and poorly parked cars. Another: Northern Boulevard in Queens, NYC, a useful bridge project that survived a political whirlwind but nonetheless ended up narrow and not yet well connected to other facilities.
Nobody ever said building networks was easy — the country’s best bike projects just make it look that way.
Correction 2/20/18: An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed the Williamsburg bridge as the nation’s most biked. It’s the second-most biked, after the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.
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