Bicycle Infrastructure Promotes Observance of Bicycle Laws

Denver, along with a number of US cities, is in the midst of a renaissance. Fueled by migration patterns in which young adults and baby boomers are choosing to move into cities for more sustainable lifestyles, Denver is growing and the people moving here are more and more inclined to walk and bike and take transit rather than rely on single occupancy vehicles for transportation. The result has been an increased vibrancy and quality of life for many urban neighborhoods. As more and more people have chosen to walk and bike for transportation in the center city neighborhoods, we have also seen an increase in conflicts between motorists and other users. 2013 has seen a rise in pedestrian/auto accidents, and I hear often of the frustration experienced by motorists as people on bicycles cruise through stop signs and lights without stopping.

In response, the city launched an awareness campaign this spring on the premise that people on bikes and people who are walking are hard to see so all users need to pay more attention.  Bright yellow billboards and spoke cards with rules of the road were produced and distributed throughout the city. Downtown Police districts increased patrols ticketing cyclists for not obeying stop signals and motorists for dangerous driving. While these efforts have their place and undoubtedly do some good in changing behaviors for people, at least temporarily after receiving a ticket, they are not going to change the behavior of the majority of people when riding bikes. For this to happen, it’s essential to understand why people on bikes ride the way they do. Why does a person who would never dream of running a red light in a car think little about briefly scanning an upcoming intersection and then riding through a stop sign or red light? As an urban cyclist, I see this behavior every day, and breaking the law is common among people riding bikes in Denver.

This is not the case in all cities. When I have visited European cities, I rarely see a person on a bike run through a stop light. So what’s the difference? The European cities have built infrastructure that allows people on bicycles to get to their destination in an efficient manner without compromising safety. In Denver, we have spent decades designing bicycle routes and paths for recreation, but only recently for transportation. The majority of our bike routes are on quiet side streets with slow speeds and frequent stop signs. This is fine if you are out for a Sunday ride to the park. But if you are actually trying to get somewhere fast, like to work or a date or school, the constant starting and stopping motions increase travel time and energy expenditure to the point that many people on bikes will no longer obey the stop signals.

To demonstrate this, I performed a little test of travel times on East 16th Avenue versus East 17th and 18th Avenues from Denver’s East High School to Broadway. East 16th Avenue is the designated bike route with bike lanes, low auto traffic volumes, and stop signs or stop lights at the majority of intersections. East 17th and 18th Avenues are the parallel one-way arterial streets designed to move auto traffic quickly.

For the test, I road both directions on 16th, 17th and 18th Avenues three times and took the average speed I was able to travel, the time it took to travel the distance, and the number of times I was required to stop while following all traffic laws. The results are summarized in the table below:

Route 1.6 miles Travel Time (minutes) Number of Stops Average Speed
Westbound 16th Ave.
East High to Broadway
11:27 10 13 mph
Westbound 18th Ave.
East High to Broadway
7:18 4 16 mph
Eastbound 16th Ave.
Broadway to East High
11:32 9 12 mph
Eastbound 17th Ave.
Broadway to East High
8:41 4 14 mph
  • Taking 16th Avenue increased travel times eastbound by 25% and 36% westbound versus riding on 17th and 18th Avenues.
  • Taking 16th Avenue required at least twice as many starting and stopping motions versus riding on 17th and 18th Avenues.
  • Expanded over a long commuting distance, the impact on bicyclist behavior is negative. People are likely to either choose another travel mode or disobey traffic laws to make commuting feasible.

The impact on cyclist behavior is easy to understand if you think about how you choose your route when driving a car. Imagine if you had to drive a 10 mile commute to work using side streets with slow speeds and stop signs every other block. At some point, the constant starting and stopping motion would become annoying. This is why people in cars do not choose to drive through residential neighborhoods for long distances. They find the arterial roadways where they can move quickly and smoothly through the city to reach their destinations. Well, people on bikes want to do the same thing. Unfortunately for people on bicycles, choosing to ride on an arterial roadway can be frightening and dangerous and very annoying to fellow road users in cars with the capability of moving at much higher speeds. So, as any species that has made it this far along the evolutionary chain, people on bikes in Denver have adapted to their environment. Far more people still choose to drive rather than bike or walk because our infrastructure does not yet support biking and walking as viable forms of transportation.

Most of the approximately 2.5% of us who do bicycle for transportation have adapted to ride the safer quiet streets in an efficient manner. This means treating stop signs and stop lights as yields. Doing so is illegal in Denver, but cities such as Breckenridge, Aspen and Dillon and the entire state of Idaho have changed their laws to make this behavior legal. In Idaho, where the law has been in force the longest, accident rates between motorists and cyclists have decreased, with accident rates dropping 14.5% the first year after implementation of the law (click here to open a PDF report documenting this statistic). Instituting the Stop as Yield law or Idaho Stop Law as it’s sometimes called, is one option for increasing compliance with the law. Just change the law to more closely match the existing behavior. This does not mean people on bikes could blow through stop signs and lights. It would still be their responsibility to yield to pedestrians and auto traffic when applicable. The drawback to this option is that having different laws for different road users can be confusing and can create a sense of unequal treatment.

Another option for addressing the issue is to engineer our bike routes in a way that makes the safest route the fastest route. Two engineering options are currently being used to accomplish this in cities around the world: bike boulevards and protected bikeways. Bike boulevards are quiet streets that have been engineered to encourage bicycle traffic and discourage auto traffic by turning stop signs toward intersecting streets, installing auto traffic calming tools such as roundabouts at intersections, and adding signage and markings that clearly denote the bicycle priority of the street.  In this scenario, the route that feels safe—quiet neighborhood streets—becomes the fastest route. The result is a street where people on bicycles can move quickly through the city without constantly starting and stopping on a street that is quiet and free of fast-moving auto traffic. Denver will see its first bicycle boulevard installed this coming year along Knox Court in Southwest Denver.

The second engineering solution is to create a system of protected bikeways on arterial streets. A protected bikeway is usually located on a busier street and has a vertical separation component between the auto traffic lanes and the bicycle traffic lanes. In this solution, the fastest route becomes a safer route. The increased separation between the cyclists and the motorists encourages people who would usually choose to bike on quieter streets and run the stop signs for efficiency to, instead, bike on arterial roadways that are designed to move traffic quickly through the city without the need to constantly stop and start every block or two. Denver has started installing its first substantial bikeway along 15th Street in Downtown Denver. The facility is scheduled to open the week of August 26th if all goes well.

Construction has begun on Denver’s first bikeway along 15th Street through Downtown Denver.

If these two pilot projects for moving people on bikes quickly and safely through the city can lead to a system of fully connected bikeways and bike boulevards, then people on bikes in Denver may just adapt again to ride legally on infrastructure that recognizes that they, just like people driving and walking, want to get to their destination in the most efficient way without compromising safety.

Infrastructure that fails to recognize this very basic concept is the root of the bicycle law non-compliance problem in Denver. Ticketing people on bikes and running promotional campaigns is like chopping the head off a weed. Unless you address the root of the problem, the solution will be temporary at best. Implementing a system of bicycle boulevards and protected arterial bikeways is an essential part of the solution. I trust that with the installation of the 15th Street bikeway and the Knox Court bike boulevard, Denver is pedaling in the right direction.

By | 2016-12-27T21:39:05+00:00 August 22, 2013|Categories: Bicycles, Infrastructure, Transportation, Urban Design|Tags: , |18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Travis Willer August 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    As a bicycle and pedestrian transportation planner, this story sums up a portion of my job. Trying to provide equity and ammenity to all users. All while trying to remind bicyclists that laws do govern them as well.

    Maybe some day I will be able to live in Denver again and be able to enjoy this new infrastructure.

  2. Nick August 22, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    This is great article and perfectly sums of the issues of using a bike as transportation. Your test was especially relevant to me as I bike from Park Hill/Stapleton to the Market St bus station en route to Broomfield two or three times a week. I either choose the safe and slow route on 16th or the fast but dangerous routes on 17th/18th. Or, I can take the middle route and treat the 4-way stops on 16th as yields. It would be interesting to time 16th using the Idaho rules, I suspect it would be faster than 17th/18th as I am very careful to stop and wait for every light on 18th/19th.

    My other route is MLK to Champa. Bikelanes almost all the way, except for a strip of infernal sharrows on MLK. Very fast as MLK doesn’t have many lights or stops. Dangerous because the average car speed on MLK seems to be 50+ rather than the posted 35.

    I am really looking forward to the 15th St Bikeway opening next week as 15th is my route to the Market St Station when I come via 16th St. It is, by far, the worst part of my commute today, between the lousy road conditions, speeding cars, lumbering buses and inattentive pedestrians. I’ll be on one of the corners next week, helping Bike Denver communicate the changes to the public.

    If Denver can fully implement the Denver Moves plan, I can see us becoming a true world-class bike city. Maybe not a Copenhagen, but certainly surpassing Portland. Before living in Denver, I lived in Arvada. A few years ago I attended a city council meeting where an innovative plan to redevelop Ralston as a high(er) density, walkable and bikeable route extending out from Old Town (and its new rail station) was discussed. Not only was it shot down with the usual outcry over loss of parking and cars having to drive too slow, the council was firm in that bikes should continue to be banned from Ralston. My thought at the time was the Arvada will be losing the next generation who would want to move to or remain living in Arvada. Denver, I think, and hope, gets this as evidenced by the Denver Moves plan and city council’s support of it as you mentioned in a previous article.

    Thanks again for the article and blog, I check it daily for new write ups.

  3. Keith August 22, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    I typically only use the existing bike paths, Platte & Cherry Creek. My question though is who pays for this extra infrastructure cost? Since there is no bike fee aka bike licensing tax? Which there should be but that’s another rabbit hole to go down.
    I realize not everyone uses the existing bike paths to go N,S,E, or ,W but I get great use out of them and use caution on the streets.
    Best of luck with your intentions.

    • Aaron August 24, 2013 at 4:17 am

      Although it’s a bit of a generalization cyclists who bike for transportation typically end up losers in the tax game. This is due to the minuscule infrastructure cost for bicycle infrastructure relative to the amount they (or their landlords) pay in property taxes that goes to ROW/Roads/Bike Facilities. These new facilities may narrow the gap slightly but we have a long way to go before we need to worry about the inverse happening.

      BTW the bike paths you ride on had their initial construction mostly funded by lottery funds.

      • TakeFive August 24, 2013 at 12:19 pm

        Aaron… You lost me, especially in reference to property taxes.

        With respect to Denver, property taxes only make up about 12% of their revenues (per the Back$eatBudgeter). Generally property taxes are not used for ROW, roads etc. purposes. The exception, though not insignificant, would be voter approved bonding issues like the Better Denver bond funding. The same would apply at the county level like in Arapahoe County.

        Colorado voters have constitutionally mandated that commercial property bear a higher tax rate burden than residential property.

        Not sure how many people who “bike for transportation” don’t also utilize cars and/or transit? Transit (which I support) is hugely subsidized by non-transit users.

        Now if you want to make the (political) argument like many things we collectively do for the public good that we should do more to accommodate bike riders, I’ll join you.

        • Aaron August 25, 2013 at 5:21 pm

          It’s not limited to just property taxes. I just focused on property taxes because property taxes and money borrowed against future revenues from property taxes is by far the biggest source of Capitol Improvement Funds money. Capitol Improvement Funds do include Denver better bonds, but it is not limited just to that. The biggest recipient of funds from the capitol improvement funds is “Public Works Transportation” which includes road reconstruction and building (and a few other minor line items).

          The site you referenced appears to only be showing the General Fund part of the Denver budget for 2012 for some reason(Back$eatBudgeter). Yes money goes to Public Works from the general fund as well, but it’s not as much as the capitol improvement fund. Additionally, the general fund money is supposed to be for things like ongoing maintenance(not always is). The general fund gets money primarily from sales tax with property tax a distant second although the gap narrows in the 2013 budget.

          • Aaron August 25, 2013 at 5:29 pm

            capitol = capital

        • TakeFive August 26, 2013 at 9:16 pm

          Aaron… there are good reasons why I never wanted to be an accountant. Yo

          As I recall the Better Denver bonds did include an annual increase of about $25-30 million. Additionally, there were some leftover funds, I believe.

          From a budgetary standpoint, discretionary dollars are about 18% of the CIP budget. For 2013 it says there was a list of $18 million in requests for $9 million in available funds. The options run the gamut to meet the needs of all city agencies.

          The good news is that “Bicycle System” has its own priority listing among ten under Public Works and new this year is an annual allocation of $50,000 for maintenance. The $9 million for 2013 was allocated among 35 projects, the largest being $1.5 million for South Platte River improvements (river vision).

          When you dig into things the list of needs is always great, the list long. On balance Denver seems to be doing a very good job of balancing priorities. The evaluaton process itself is quite involved.

          Game is over. Rockies win 6-1.

  4. Nuri August 23, 2013 at 6:52 am

    I wonder if one couldn’t modify the “Idaho Law” to create faster side street transportation. Simply create a “Yield to Bikes” all-way stop sign, and then line bike routes with Yield-to-Bikes signs. That way, cars are discouraged from using a route that is literally a stop sign every block, while bicycles are encouraged to use pre-existing bike routes that are now mostly lined with what are effectively yield signs every block. The on-street bike routes already exist on all those side-streets, and have been there since the 80’s. By making stop signs into yield-to-bike all-way stop signs, we can cheaply modify existing superstructure into an efficient bicycle transport system.

    In response to Keith’s comment, bicycle infrastructure usually pays for itself by lowering healthcare costs, and substantially decreasing costs to transportation. After all, most cyclists own cars. High cycling percentages do not tend to decrease license plate revenue, but they do tend to decrease maintenance costs on existing roads.

    • TakeFive August 23, 2013 at 11:22 am

      Nuri… all do respect but your “pay for” thinking, while fanciful, doesn’t pass the smell test. Glad to see these projects though.

  5. Nick August 23, 2013 at 7:51 am

    Who pays? To add on to what Nuri said, property and sales taxes primarily fund local roads where bikes ride, not gas taxes. Most of the gas taxes go to federal or state highways, where bikes are mostly excluded. Even then, since most bike owners also own a car, they are paying those gas taxes when they drive, plus they pay the registration fees.

  6. Ellis August 23, 2013 at 11:31 am

    As a frequent pedestrian around numerous locations in central Denver I am glad to see bicyclists but I am concerned that many people ride on the sidewalks. More than once I’ve been hit or nearly so by bicyclists going rapidly on sidewalks. I do my best to share streets and sidewalks. Improved bike lanes might help.

    • B.C. August 26, 2013 at 10:30 pm

      Agree completely! I’m all for bike lanes and all but I really wish Denver would enforce laws regarding bicycling on the sidewalk. It’s actually quite scary to walk on Cplfax or Broadway as some clown nearly runs you over – you’ve got to be combat-wary. It’s ILLEGAL to ride a vehicle on the sidewalks. I would like to see ticketing. I guess some sort of “Stand Your Ground” laws would be problematic and anti-social, right?

  7. jeffrey miller August 24, 2013 at 3:36 am

    What Ellis said. And, being a cyclist myself I get angry when a cyclist will run a stop sign and get angry at me if I attempt my auto right of way in front of them. But then, Darwin eventually takes care of the selfish.

  8. Tom A August 24, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    I find the following quote amusing. “They find the arterial roadways where they can move quickly and smoothly through the city to reach their destinations.” Many of arterial roadways are so badly engineered that not even a car can travel through smoothly. Take Colfax for example where as a motorist you could end up stopping at almost every light regardless of what time of day. Imagine how discouraging it can be for a bicyclist. 18th and 17th only work because these are one way roadways and our traffic engineers are only able to synchronize lights effectively on these types of roadways. It baffles my mind when I’ve talked to numerous traffic engineers in the city and they have no clue on how to fix some of the worst bottlenecks in the city due to horrible light timing and synchronization. Oh and roundabouts? You won’t see Denver build any roundabouts in the city or anywhere for that matter, because I was told they’re ineffective and cannot be used appropriately in our city. So if we want bikes and cars to move quickly, something more needs to be done. If other cities in the country can do it…not sure why we cant.

  9. Richard August 25, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I rode down the 15th St Bikeway today (even though it’s not officially open yet). It is nice the city has done this but hopefully they add two things in future phases:
    1) some kind of protective barrier between the bike lane and traffic lanes
    2) extend the lane further west to connect to the Cherry Creek trail (via Wynkoop), the Platte trail and all the way to Lower Highland to connect with the bike lane on Tejon.

  10. Doug August 30, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Great post, as a frequent and experienced biker, I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. I really try hard to follow the law while on my bike (maybe even more-so than when I’m driving) because on my bike I am very aware of how badly bikers are perceived by drivers, and I want to leave the best possible impression. Unfortunately, the post about Denver’s lack of true bike oriented transit routes is spot on and it breaks my heart when, after the 20th stop sign on 35th ave through the Highlands – a designated bike route – I often give up and go back to the more efficient “yield stop” described in the post.

    After reading the Bike Denver plan a few years ago, I am very excited about the specific ideas the city has to improve things, but as always is the case in this world, talk is cheap and we need to fund the changes and make them happen!

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