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The perfect is the enemy of the good; making lemonade is sufficient

Some bike paths serve as semi-icons for their city. The Creek Path in Boulder, Colorado (US) ranks up there with the Seattle’s Burke Gilman Trail and the Chain of Lakes network in Minneapolis (both US). But the origin of the path’s construction had some rough beginnings.

A bit of history: The area around the path was originally called for in Boulder’s Creek Corridor plan (1984), which stipulated the use of the creek corridor as a linear, topographically sensitive park. This park would incorporate riparian zones and wetland sensitive elements[1]. The creek comprised one of the primary watersheds for the city and a few years later, the city purchased adjoining land to the creek for a wetland and greenway program. This led to further integration of habitat restoration and water quality augmentation elements into the use of once forlorn features of Boulder’s ecological fabric. But over time, community-wide momentum was building for how the area could also enhance flood mitigation efforts together with more “mainstream modes” of transportation such as walking and cycling (in addition to kayaking)[2].

Rather than scour for the pennies that were available at the time to build bicycle facilities, the city tapped into federal grants for flood control and environmental remediation; these coffers were three to four times larger. The city creatively parlayed bike trails into this process. The flood mitigation efforts were considered to have largely passed the extreme test that the city experienced owing to biblical floods in September of 2013.

But the specific planning of the bike portion of the Boulder Creek Path was somewhat of a separate issue. And, Gary Lacy, a recreation planner for the city at the time, approached it with vengeance. He focused on ensuring it got built—not planned for—but built. Lacy considered formal permits a nuisance; conscientious and collaborative plan-making was too time consuming. He relied on a “Robert Moses-esque” philosophy and sometimes took a page out of Chicago Mayor Daley’s planning playbook[3]. Rather than abide by city protocol, he went solo and blazed sections of the trail by moonlight. He took to the backhoe to move obstinate boulders along the way. Where the earth would not move, he built the path around it.

Lacy’s semi-barbarian approach to make the path is etched into local folklore. And the path itself would have made the hair stand up on the neck of the authors who penned the 4th edition Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities by the American Association for State and Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO)[4],[5]. Sight lines are jeopardized, travel lanes were inconsistently wide, and some right-angled turns (frowned on in bike path planning) continue to be sprinkled throughout. Friends in town claim the trail is hazardous and a downright safety hazard. But the path got built—the city has since smoothed out some of the path’s rough edges—and it now serves as a beacon for the city and a seminal spine for the rest of the its cycling network.

The development of Boulder’s Creek Path represents a planning story where the perfect was not the enemy of the good. Things got done, despite not being perfect. There were some issues along the way—some of them safety oriented, others process oriented. But its evolution begs the question in the world of bicycle planning, when is a facility “good enough.”

Similarly, the “so-called” bicycle facility outside my home in Bologna (Italy) is a meandering stripe that bobs and weaves, literally at right angles between newsstands and trees. It sometimes pinches the rider down to mere inches. I presume it was laid by an Italian public works employee after too much grappa. But do these sketchy attributes warrant it as a non-useful facility? Is providing substandard bicycle facilities worse than none at all?

The dilemma reminds me of a scene in Cher’s 1987 Academy award winning film, Moonstruck (the movie, likewise shares Italian origins). The father, Cosmo Castorini, is a plumber who is explaining to a client in his deep Italian accent his philosophy of preferred plumbing materials.

“There are three kinds of pipe. There’s what you have [aluminum], which is garbage – and you can see where that’s gotten you. There’s bronze, which is pretty good, unless something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. Then, there’s copper, which is the only pipe I use. It costs money. It costs money because it saves money.

Did Cosmo have it right? Are there problems in the bike planning world that stem from constructing the equivalent of ‘aluminum’ or ‘bronze’ facilities?

The biggest risk of substandard facilities are the unmet expectations that they create. Cyclists, seeing signs, markings or other might are comforted into letting down their safety guard, for example. There is subsequent confusion about the role, rights, and responsibilities in the transportation hierarchy. Cyclists are all too familiar with the bike lane painted within mere inches of the impending car door opening. Or the bike facility that, in a pinch, mixes you with pedestrians and then switches the side on which bikes are supposed to ride. Then there is the blissful cycling corridor that abruptly dumps you into four lanes of auto traffic. In my own research, I found that users particularly struggle with these later situations when facilities end at bigger intersections, locations with on-street parking, and locations with relatively narrow travel lanes[6].

With most transportation networks being surface oriented, mainly along streets and primarily occupied by cars, it is useful to have prescriptions, guidelines, and even sometimes standards to guard against these situations. In an ideal world, a planner would take stock of the context, consult the guidelines, prepare the design, and execute. If only it were that easy. History gets in the way. Cultural peculiarities get way. Nature gets in the way.

There are many cities—almost all of them in industrialized countries—who are moving toward this consistent model. If you ask Dutch cycle planners, they immediately pull off the shelf their tattered Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic[7]. They leaf to dog-eared section 4.4.2 where they point to a figure with two axes—how many cars are along a particular route (e.g., traffic volume) and the speed of those cars. Five different types of suggested facilities are depicted based on these two factors alone. Adhering to some core principles put forth by the prototype model is gaining steam in the US[8] and cycling treatments are approached with increasing method and consistency.

At the other end of the spectrum lie cases where bicycling treatments are less than satisfactorily completed. That might be an overstatement. They are downright dangerous. These might consist of the cavalier bike path that was laid through a stretch of road—lacking attention to its connecting points—to enable a politician could deliver on a promise to a constituency. It might be the case where road engineers are blindly following a city’s guidelines; they might measure three feet from a street curb’s edge, lay a stripe, and call it a day regardless of the context. It might be the proverbial case where a bike facility passes over a storm sewer with drainage slots that miraculously measure the same width as a bicycle tire. No self-respecting transportation professional would endorse these outcomes. They present unexpected conditions, safety hazards, and problematic signals to both cyclists and car drivers.

In the broad spectrum of bicycle facility planning contexts, there are environments that are shy of falling into the above category. But, they don’t lend themselves to rigid standards (or expectations) offered in guidebooks. Try finding room for a bike path in the historic center of any city that was inhabited by the Romans. The typical right-of-way might be three meters wide and shared between five or more different modes each traveling in two different directions. While most situations are not this stark, the bulk of planning contexts—especially in historic cities across the globe—are in situations where the bike planner is dolled a bunch lemons. Cosmo might have had it wrong. Realizing that not everywhere in a city can be built with ‘copper pipe’ cycling conditions, bike planners must make due and prescribe treatments that are far from perfect. They must make lemonade, even thought it carries some risks.

Otherwise, what are their options? They could sharpen their pencils designing the perfect intersection which might come to fruition once the political will arrives. Alternatively, they could do nothing.

Making lemonade means that formal standards might be abandoned. Cyclists need to adjust their expectations. Car drivers need to acclimate. Life goes on. Bike facilities need to start somewhere. They need to be granted freedom to experiment without backlash. What might be considered a substandard intersection treatment today will eventually graduate to something more mature. For example, a painted stripe that winds through a parking lot, might be upgraded to a perimeter route next year, which would then eventually be dovetailed into a larger separated network. A green swath at an intersection now would convert to a bike box next year which would then be complemented with a prioritized cycling traffic signal in the following year. Doing “something” provides a much-needed nod to the cyclists. It is usually better than doing nothing at all and helps set in motion a process whereby facilities can mature. Cities are constantly evolving. This includes their transportation infrastructure. That is, over time, the lemonade gets sweeter and sweeter. Cycling treatments usually pale in comparison to the costs of auto or transit infrastructure. As long as lives are not gravely put at risk and accidents largely avoided—a big caveat, I admit—cycling treatments are inexpensive experiments. If they succeed, they are built on and further developed. If they clearly fail, they can be erased.

[1] A portion of the creek was reconfigured as a white water recreation park, thereby incorporating another level of complexity to the flood mitigation strategy. Gary Lacy, a recreation planner for Boulder and an avid kayaker, would reportedly boat to his downtown work location along the creek.

[2] Greenways Master Plan.   City of Boulder2001 update. Accessed January, 2012

[3] Daley’s playbook: Meig’s field was a fully functioning private airport runway strip on Chicago’s pristine lakefrong. Citing security concerns in 2003, Mayor Daley ordered the bulldozers tear up the runway and they did so in the middle of the night to avoid obstruction and protesting efforts.

[4] American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (2012). Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, 4th Edition. ISBN: 1-56051-527-2.

[5] This is a document that ASHTO was so proud about that they produced a video for its release, see:

[6] Krizek, Kevin J. and Rio Roland (2005). What is at the End of the Road? Understanding Discontinuities of On-Street Bicycle Lanes in Urban Settings. Transportation Research, Part D. 10(1): p.55-68

[7] This report is the world’s most authoritative manual on bikeway design and is published by CROW—a Dutch acronym of the Information and Technology Platform for Transport, Infrastructure and Public space, a Dutch non-profit collaboration between government and businesses.

[8] As is evidenced by AASHTO publishing their 4th edition, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (2012). Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, 4th Edition. ISBN: 1-56051-527-2.

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