Decades ago, Kermit the Frog made a guest appearance on Sesame Street and crooned about the difficulties of being green. While the popular line from the frog’s famous song, “Bein’ Green,” expresses Kermit’s discontent with the color, he does, in the end, come full circle. Will green bike lane skeptics experience the same change of heart that Kermit underwent, eventually declaring, “it’s beautiful, and I think it’s what I want to be”?
Cities across the United States have installed green (or blue) bike lanes as part of their complete streets initiatives, from Seattle to New York City to DC. Bike lanes in general have had their critics, from business owners who posit that bikes lanes will somehow impact their revenue to residents who worry that cyclists will mow down pedestrians or interfere with existing traffic patterns. Green bike lanes have cyclists asking questions as well- how do the green lanes affect the riding surface, and do they really make cycling safer and more efficient for riders?
According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Bikeway Design Guide, “colored pavement is commonly applied at intersections, driveways, conflict areas, and along non-standard or enhanced facilities such as cycle tracks.” The idea is to call out potential trouble spots to cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, which seems like a rather straightforward and noncontroversial initiative. As long as the color treatment is applied in a consistent pattern that helps to guide cyclists and alert others to the cyclists’ presence, everybody should be safer on the roads.
However, in recent months, there have been a few interesting headlines that have gotten people inside and outside of the bicycle industry discussing these green bike lanes. In Los Angeles, an attempt to paint a buffered bike lane on Spring Street drew much criticism when the paint did not adhere to the wet road surface and began to dissolve within a week. Bloggers attacked LADOT for a plethora of reasons, stating that the job was a large waste of money, was rushed to be completed in time for a press conference, and will do more harm than good because the paint covers potholes. While the plan clearly was not executed at the highest level in this case, this incident should not be taken as an indication that colored pavement cannot be applied effectively.
Another concern for cyclists is that the painted bike lanes will be slick and treacherous when they are wet. Over the past several years, as more cycleways and intersections have been painted, DOTs have altered the recipe for the paint mixture. In Eugene, Oregon and in San Francisco, engineers have added a granular sand mix to the paint to make it less slippery when wet. While all road surfaces should be treated with caution in wet conditions (and in dry conditions), a cyclist would be wise to take it easy on a recently painted lane to determine how the surface reacts to precipitation. Journalists could also select their words more carefully. A recent article announcing new bike lanes in Las Vegas described them as “bike lane[s] covered with a green plastic film,” which, not surprisingly, sparked lively discussions on local bike forums about the safety of these new film-covered lanes.
There is no perfect solution for integrating bicycle paths into our well-established urban traffic patterns, and there will always be people eager to criticize the latest efforts. Some of the criticism is legitimate and can lead positive improvements. Some of the snarky language demonstrates that we still have a long way to go to improve our infrastructure and our attitudes about infrastructure in many of America’s cities. However, as traffic engineers improve the materials used to create the green lanes and commuters understand how to navigate the new patterns, I think that many of us will eventually agree with Kermit when he sings that “green can be cool and friendly-like.”