Selling biking: Better language for better bike lanes

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November 11, 2013

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer


Cycle track? Protected bike lane? Advanced bike lane? Separated bike lane?

Fourth in a series about opinions held by the “swing voters” of bicycling.

So far in the last week, we’ve dug into a new survey suggesting that physically separated bike lanes are a solution to biking’s biggest recruitment problem, and that they can appeal emotionally even to those who rarely bike.

But what are we supposed to call them?

Randy Neufeld, founding director of Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance, likes “advanced bike lanes.” Streetsblog religiously uses “protected bike lanes.” At the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, “separated bike lanes” is standard. Among U.S. engineering professionals, the most common term is “cycle track,” a literal translation from the Dutch “fietspad.”

And here’s what ordinary people in San Francisco and Portland called them:

Were taking two lessons from this:

  1. Though the one option with “paths” was the most popular, most people chose some sort of variation on “lanes.”
  2. “Cycle track” has simply not caught on with the general public.

Jennifer Dill, a transportation planning professor at Portland State University and a leading scholar on bikeway design, said she’s recently decided not to use “cycle track” for general audiences.

“I’ve had a couple instances lately when people (not working in this field) think it means something like a velodrome, e.g a race track setting,” Dill wrote in an email.

“Protected bike lane” has downsides, too, she said. “I’m sure some people would quibble with the word ‘protected,’ e.g. how protected is it? Some extra paint and flex posts may not seem like protection.”

Doug Gordon, who blogs about “relaxed biking” at Brooklyn Spoke, also avoids “cycle track.”

“The two words separately, cycle and track, sound very sporty,” he said. “It’s just a really unfortunately loaded term.”

Then there’s the buffered bike lane. Gordon said he thinks these should be described as “separated” but not as “protected.”

Here at the Green Lane Project, we’ve thought about this issue a lot. And for on-street bikeways that are physically protected from auto traffic and separated from sidewalks, our style is to refer to these as “protected bike lanes.”

Here’s why:

  • Emotionally resonant: “Protected bike lane” conveys to people, whether they’re in cars or on bikes, the reassuring feeling of safety that these lanes offer.
  • Technically precise: “Protected bike lane” also conveys the other two key characteristics of these lanes: they’re just for bikes and they’re part of the roadway.
  • Easily modified: One type of protected bike lane is a parking-protected bike lane. Another type is a bollard-protected bike lane. A third is a curb-protected bike lane.
  • Popular: Among English-language news mentions tracked by mention.net, the phrase “protected bike lane” is consistently about 3.5 times more common than “separated bike lane.”
  • Non-alienating:In focus group tests by Wild Alchemy, the word “separated” carried a negative connotation, while “protected” was neither strongly positive or strongly negative.
  • Embraced by peers: “Protected” is the style at Streetsblog, the leading national news source on urban transportation. Various other sites have followed.

Though “cycle track” will probably remain the technical term for professionals, this survey and interviews with leaders around the country suggests an emerging national consensus around either “protected bike lane” or “separated bike lane” for most audiences.

David Vega-Barachowitz, who as director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Designing Cities Initiative helps shape the professional terminology, sounded a similar note in an email last week. “We recommend the term ‘protected bike lanes’ because it is illustrative and can be easily grasped by those who like bike lanes, but want additional protection or separation from traffic,” he said.

This is just the beginning of the survey and focus group’s findings about language. Among the others:

  • Of 332 respondents, every single one reported positive feelings about the word “facilities” as it relates to biking on city streets.
  • “Advanced” was popular with 329 of the respondents.
  • One of the most negative words, according to the group: “safe.” Twenty percent reported negative feelings about the word.

Surprised by that last finding? Us too. Respondents’ complicated feelings about safety are the subject of our fifth and final post on this survey, publishing tomorrow.

If you’d like, you can download the raw results of the survey and a full PDF report of our findingsThe Green Lane Project writes about the ways cities are building better bike lanes. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or sign up for weekly emails of our latest news here.

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