By Mike Thompson
It’s no secret that pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure are gaining significant traction as a vital way to develop cities and their transportation network connectivity in the United States. Just one look at new initiatives championed by United States Department of Transportation and their secretary, Anthony Foxx, insinuates that the federal government is emphasizing bicycling and walking as viable forms of transportation. One of the most impactful tactics to encourage safer bicycling and walking design is the DOT’s promotion of the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide, which compiles best practices from world renowned cycling cities and looks at their application to American cities. Not only are the new initiatives aimed at improving physical infrastructure, but improving perceived safety and lowering stress for walkers and bikers as well.
For many planners and officials, the next step in expanding and improving bicycle networks around the United States is emphasizing bicycle stress. Lowering stress experienced by bicyclists while expanding the bicycle infrastructure is key to any city’s bicycle plans. The psychological stress bicyclists experience increases while biking in traffic or on higher speed roads with little or no safety infrastructure. Consequently, the higher levels of stress associated with bicycling discourage would-be bicyclists from riding. Safety statistics are most often reported in the form of crashes that result in bicyclist or motorist injuries or fatalities. Unfortunately, this metric does not take into account perceived safety by road users as there is no criteria to measure high stress bicycle networks. Fortunately, the growing awareness of this concept helps to produce some innovative solutions from researchers and planners alike.
One innovative group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a new helmet call the MindRider, which was developed by graduate students in 2010. The device’s setup is relatively simple, as an off the shelf EEG brainwave sensor made by NeuroSky is built into a standard helmet. Every second, the helmet measures the rider’s level of focus, and then sends this data via Bluetooth to a recording computer. A rider experiences an increase in focus when the rider perceives danger by intently focusing on one thing, like a car swerving into a bike lane. On the other hand, the rider’s focus decreases when the perceived safety increases. The level of focus is then ranked from 0 to 100, then correlated onto a color scale from green to yellow to red. For this group, the initial measurement takes place in Manhattan, pictured below.
It is not just researchers exploring this important concept, cities are beginning to investigate and implement their own version of bicycle stress maps. Well known for its bicycle infrastructure, the city of Portland develops and implements bike maps and legends to describe the degree of difficulty of riding along its network. The delineations that Portland makes in their bicycle network maps include categories like multi-use path, shared roadway, bike lanes, difficult connections (areas with higher speed and volume), and major streets. Taken together, these classifications help to guide bicyclists of varying experience and ability around the city in safe and effective manner. A legend from Portland’s bicycle map network can be found below.
The New Jersey Department of Transportation developed guides to assist municipalities in developing their bicycle networks in a manner that communicates safety and accessibility. These guidelines include the best roadway treatments to increase compatibility with bicycle and pedestrian movements. The NJ DOT also emphasizes US DOT standards, as outlined in this Safer People, Safer Streets manual. Additionally, the NJ DOT provides resources for bicycle and pedestrian circulation studies and plans that are tailored to each community and their specific needs. One of the most notable circulation plans carried out by NJ DOT is Somers Point, a beach community that is pedestrian and bicycle friendly.
Other initiatives by the NJDOT include safe routes to school, which aims to lower the stress of riding bicycles in car dominated suburbs of New Jersey. These programs emphasize safety in developing a more sustainable and healthy form of transportation.
Though protected bicycle lanes improve network connectivity and improve safety for all users of the road, the next step in the process to achieving higher bicycle ridership is low stress bicycle networks. The development of low stress bicycle networks in cities and municipalities around the United States is key to increasing the modal share of biking and walking. It is not just departments of transportation getting in on the act- check out this map created by biking advocates in Halifax. Developing low stress networks is something everyone can do, just go out for a ride to map your city!