Degrees of Bike Lane Separation pt. 2

If people can bike comfortably in their swimsuit, you know you're doing it right. 
(Photo of one of my kids rolling up to the beach north of Copenhagen.)

A few months ago, I wrote about what we could learn from Copenhagen when it comes to raised protected bike lane design in San Francisco.

I want to focus today on another form of protected bikeway design: the street-level protected lane. As you bike nerds know, this is a far more common design in San Francisco, and the U.S. in general, though still unfortunately rare compared to striped paint in the door zone.

About a decade ago, I was part of the meeting with the SFMTA and DPW that led to the installation of the first-ever test protected bikeway in San Francisco: the north side of Market Street between 9th and 10th Streets. Not long after, I remember sitting in the Starbucks facing the lane the night it got installed to watch how it worked, and crying tears of happiness while I watched people notice and then smile with genuine delight. In fairness, I was either extremely pregnant and early postpartum with my first kid, so I was doing a lot of tearing up in those days. Even so, it was an especially bittersweet moment for me personally after hearing "no, that's impossible" or just disinterested silence for years and years. I began working in transportation advocacy in late 2001 at Transportation Alternatives in New York City, just to put that in perspective.

BUT in that meeting, I also remember explicitly proposing the use of plastic bollards and colored paint as a temporary measure, purely for testing purposes. And yet there appears to be a level of complacency about this design among San Francisco’s decision makers, a sense that hollow plastic tubes or, worse, green paint with no protection are reasonable permanent measures. This may have been true, briefly, a decade ago. But the speed, size of vehicles, quantity of vehicles and overall culture of aggressive, deadly driving in San Francisco have all increased since then, at the same time that more families have started biking in the city. So what may have worked for brave 20- and 30-somethings in 2009, definitely doesn't work for me and my kids in 2020. There was a New Yorker piece a few months ago that quoted a Chinese proverb, “the monk grows taller by an inch, but the monster grows taller by a foot” that sums up the situation.

So, in the hope of speeding up the growth of the proverbial monk in time to save the planet, let's talk about designs from around the world that can help San Francisco get better at bike lane design asap, no more plastic bollards. This time, no Copenhagen, I promise. Instead, we'll be looking at Vancouver and Rotterdam, NL, if for no other reason that they are places that have substantial numbers of street-level protected bike lanes and that I've had the pleasure of visiting.


I’ve been to Vancouver a handful of times for short visits. The city is equally far from perfect as San Francisco when it comes to transportation; the majority of what it’s building and subsidizing is car-centered and dangerous. But there are a few lanes that really get things right, and are worth studying. I’ve biked in this city as a child-free person, as a visibly pregnant person and with my two young kids in tow (literally—one on a tagalong).

Dunsmuir Street: I’m not a huge fan of two-way bikeways for the most part. However, when it’s done well, like on Dunsmuir, it’s a pleasure. Specifically, the success of the design comes from a) width (especially important since there’s some gentle elevation change) b) continuous concrete and plant protection up to the intersection c) set ahead bike box and set back vehicle stop bar. Look at the size of the motorized vehicles adjacent to the lane. Without these three design choices for the bike lane, the consequences of a fall or attention mistake from anyone, and particularly a kid, would be death. Thankfully, there is no ambiguity about this design, and ample buffer room for mistakes.

Hornby Street: The lanes on Hornby were some of the first protected bikeways to go up both in Vancouver and North America. There was a lot of drama; I’ll leave it at that. Of course, they’ve turned out to be hugely successful. Look at the design details; once again, someone(s) in Vancouver built with their heart. This is a fully, concrete-separated, wide path with multiple escape/turn points that are too small for car intrusion, with continuation and smooth pavement all the way to the intersection. And thanks to the plantings, they’re also nice looking. Inviting even. It’s the kind of space where I could let my kids range ahead of me and feel confident that, even if they fell or ran into a curb, no one would get seriously hurt.

One particular note I want to make here is that this design also promotes social safety. A complaint I’ve heard from other women is that, as much as they like barrier-protected bike lanes in general, they don’t like getting trapped in them because they’ve had men jump out and try to corner them in the lane. As someone who’s been intentionally physically blocked while biking by a dude, I get what people are saying. This is why lighting, ample width and occasional bike-size outlets are key, as well as just building a good enough network that usage is dense and passing helpers are plenty. In Holland, teen girls are the biggest bike lane users; that absolutely won’t happen in the U.S. unless we build social safety into design from the get go. 

This is another capture of Hornby in Vancouver. I’ve included it to illustrate the way that construction can work with the design to keep things continuous, even in very dense downtown. A little galleria! So if you’re a city planner gulping at the thought of the work and, especially, construction coordination, involved, remember this picture. The solutions are there if you’re creative and unequivocally clear about the boundaries of bike space. In fact, when it comes to this stuff, when you go bigger with your design and thinking, the long tail of the project is so much easier to manage. Experience continues to bear out that small thinking begets endless need for costly constant project re-iteration. And it’s not like downtown car-based circulation is working so great now, folks.


Let’s travel now across the globe to Rotterdam, a relatively unspectacular small city in Holland. It’s a much less wealthy city than Amsterdam. My brother lived there briefly back in the early 2000s, and I got to visit over a dreary Christmas week with my now-husband. I want to use this city mostly to look at design edge cases we have yet to solve in San Francisco, plus one standard case.

Like the Hornby lane I showed above, a typical large multi-use street in Rotterdam makes use of little bike outlets. Equally importantly, they’re daylighting them. Imagine if the raised pad with the blue sign was another car parking space; it would be difficult and dangerous to peak out and see whether it was safe to cross, particularly for a kid or if you had your children in the front of cargo bike. This is a fast street. Hence the need for error buffers.

Like in Copenhagen, in Rotterdam crossing the sidewalk and bike path to get to/from a parking garage almost always means you go over a raised area. The bike lane doesn’t sink and disappear as it does here. Put another way, you are crossing us, we’re not giving way to you. AND check out the three little bollards on the sidewalk preventing people from coming in and out of the garage and parking or turning dangerously on the sidewalk or bike path! There’s still enough space—I think—to be ADA compliant for the U.S. These bollards would be a fantastic addition to so many sidewalks in San Francisco where (illegal) sidewalk parking is rampant. Endemic.

OK, but what if some of your customers absolutely need to drive to your facility? Or at least your delivery trucks? Here’s a sweet solution. There’s something similar on 13th Street near Rainbow Grocery, but the difference is in the design details. Here, drivers are going over a raised space, there’s still a concrete buffer and the turning angle is sharp enough and the driving/parking space narrow enough that drivers are forced to slow down to human speeds to negotiate the turn. Of course, too much of this design, and the bike lane becomes uncomfortable for kids and their worrying parents, but the sparing use of this design is brilliant. In fact, this is the kind of thinking you need for places like the Townsend side of the Caltrain Station.

The final edge case design I want to share is the bike path interaction with a highway interchange, much like the spaghetti bowl in the Mission. When I visited Delft all those years ago, my then-boyfriend and I rented bikes and rode from the Central train station to Delft, and I remember being shocked and amazed by the way the protected bike lane literally wrapped and circled the complicated highway interchange (I believe it’s the A13 and A20?). I initially panicked that we were biking onto the highway by mistake, but in fact, we were completely separated and safe the whole time. And there were no creepy underpasses or beg buttons to push. It blew my mind.

Unfortunately, I can’t find a Google map grab of the experience. But this excellent blogger made the same trip and took one photo of the experience; scroll down to see what I mean. This is the kind of thinking we desperately need for a rethink of the Potrero/Cesar Chavez/Bayshore mess. Along with a much more aggressive policy for building vastly more affordable homes and funding even more social services. To be clear, we should be housing the unhoused regardless of the impact on any transportation infrastructure.

Finally, turning to my one not-edge case, the grab above is of one of countless protected intersections in Rotterdam, this one right in front of the mind-bending Cube Houses. San Francisco has, like, two? three?, of these right now. Better than zero, but hopefully, many more to quickly come. So this is not a new concept. But I do want to point out just how far back the stop bar is for drivers. This is a wide, fast street intersected by more wide, fast streets. It’s controlled by a red light, so different than the intersection design off 13th/Townsend in San Francisco. Still, this should be the degree of space separation we build in this city. There is such a small chance that a turning driver will be able to whip around that intersection fast enough to mow down a slow crosser as its built. Imagine, though, if that blue car was a truck or one of those house-sized pickup trucks that have become so sadly popular as of late. The faster the speed and the bigger the motorized vehicles around, the greater the set back distance needed.

Places we need this in San Francisco: everywhere. But particular such pedestrian hell holes as Van Ness Street and, heck, anywhere an Uber or Lyft driver is allowed to go.

Alright my fellow bike nerds, thanks for reading all the way through this post. I hope you use every opportunity you can to discuss and act on the basic principle of protected bike lane comfort: more threat = more physical separation and buffer space. We’ve come a long way since that first experiment on Market Street between 9th and 10th Streets, but we still have a long way to go—asap. The monster is growing out of control.

P.S. I know I promised no more Copenhagen photos, but below is a pic I took in Gentofte, a suburb north of that city. Note the striping of the car parking spaces, which both creates slightly more distance from the raised bike lane and makes it clear where people can and cannot park cars. It’s a tiny detail, but what a brilliant and simple way of discouraging door-ing and illegal parking.