Protected Bike Lanes on Summit Attracting Riders, but City Not Planning to Build More
When plans for two new bike lanes stretching from Downtown to Hudson Street were first announced in 2015, it was clear that the project was meant to be a departure from the norm for the city.
The City of Columbus, working closely with the advocacy group Yay Bikes!, had developed a plan for Fourth Street and Third/Summit Street that would include a number of infrastructure improvements that were new to the region: “bus bulbs” that provided bus boarding areas that didn’t conflict with bike-lane traffic; “queue boxes” that made it easier for cyclists to turn left on busy streets; and a new strategy for getting cyclists safely past cars merging onto freeway ramps.
The biggest news, though, was that a 1.4 mile long section of the bike lane — on Summit Street in the University District — would be a two-way, protected lane, meaning that a buffer of parked cars and plastic bollards would separate cyclists completely from car traffic.
The city presented the new lane as part of a renewed effort to encourage biking in Columbus, and the expectation among many was that we would soon see more protected lanes proposed and built.
When CU wrote about the project in February of 2015, Rick Tilton of the city’s Department of Public Service expressed optimism that more like it would be on the way: “Director (Tracie) Davies is right in line with the Mayor – we need to be looking at other locations where we can do similar projects, where the right of way that exists can accommodate it…when we can, we will.”
Columbus has since elected a new mayor, Andrew Ginther, who has not been as enthusiastic about bike issues as his predecessor, Michael Coleman. Davies is now heading up the Department of Public Utilities.
No new protected lanes have been proposed since the Summit project, and “there are none in design at this time,” according to spokesperson Jeff Ortega.
“However, they could always be considered,” he added, “if appropriate, as part of a future project.”
Meanwhile, lots of cities that didn’t have any protected lanes when Columbus started the Summit project have since added them, and other cities that already had them have greatly expanded their networks.
High Ridership and Praise, with Some Complaints
Given the ambivalence of the current administration toward building new protected lanes, we thought now would be a good time for an evaluation of the Summit lane — has it been a success?
Studies have shown that protected lanes are safer than unprotected ones and that they boost ridership, encouraging people to ride who previously had not considered it. There is also a broad consensus that the positive benefits of a single lane are increased exponentially when that lane is part of a larger network of protected bike lanes or other “low-stress” routes.
Numbers provided by the city for the protected lane on Summit show that it has been attracting riders. As part of a study for the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), which provided some of the funding for the project, the city placed bike counters at 13th, 17th, and Maynard Avenues. Those counters — tubes placed across the lane that measure the number of bikes that pass over them — have measured ridership for two-week stretches in the fall and spring since before the lane was installed.
Despite the fact that the spring counts all happened after the end of OSU’s spring semester (while the fall counts were taken during the school year), a clear trend is still discernible. The average daily ridership has generally increased over the last three years, approaching 400 people per day last fall and around 250 in the spring.
Michael Andersen is a senior fellow at Sightline Institute who has closely tracked the use of protected bike lanes across the country. “Those are indeed good numbers,” he said, when asked how the Summit usage compared to protected lanes in other cities. “Only about a dozen intersections here in Portland see more than 500 bikes per day in the summer (including cross traffic).”
There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence that the new protected lane is being used and appreciated.
“The ridership is way up, but what I’m most struck with is who is riding,” said Catherine Girves, Executive Director of Yay Bikes!. “The families, people with kids, can you imagine seeing that five years ago?”
Girves added that she was surprised to find herself modifying her daily commute to incorporate a section of the protected lane. As a “risk tolerant” cyclist, Girves used to ride on both North Fourth and Summit streets before the bike lanes were installed. “It was fine for someone like me,” she said, but the protected lane provided a new experience, one that “really is a lot more comfortable…there’s an absence of anxiety that I didn’t know I was carrying.”
That’s not to say that the lane on Summit hasn’t inspired its share of complaints from the neighborhood. Lauren Squires, a SoHud resident who also sits on the University Area Commission, recently circulated a survey about traffic and safety concerns in the area.
The survey showed a range of opinions about the lane. Of particular concern, according to Squires, is the low visibility that drivers experience when turning onto Summit from side streets. Many drivers are forced to pull into the bike lane to see if cars are coming, and some don’t realize that bike traffic in the protected lane is traveling in both directions.
The potential for conflicts with cars, combined with other issues like debris in the lane, has caused some regular cyclists to choose other routes for their commutes.
Squires stressed, though, that “people in the neighborhood on the whole strongly support bike lanes and want more safe cycling options.”
“Lots of people use the lanes on Summit and Fourth (including me), and I think many more people want to use them than currently do,” she added. “I certainly think more people would use them if the network of lanes around the city were more extensive and connected.”
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a three-part series on biking in Columbus. Read on for more about plans for an expanded network of protected lanes, and the potential impact of scooters and dockless bikes on future infrastructure decisions.