Bicycle Lanes: What are they, what is the difference, why do they matter?

By Ganlin Huang

Bicycling in New Jersey is expanding for reasons that include health and environmental benefits, time and cost savings, and more and better bike lanes and paths. Through its many funding opportunities and outreach programs, such as NJ Future in Transportation, Complete Streets, and Local Aid grants, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) encourages municipalities around the state to establish bicycle infrastructure appropriate to the many different urban, suburban and rural contexts around the state. To assist officials and interested members of the public to understand the differences between the most common of these facilities, this article provides descriptions, as well as the benefits and challenges, of six types of bicycle route infrastructure. In order of most protection for bicyclists, they are: off-street multi-use paths, protected/buffered bicycle lanes, on-street bicycle lanes, bicycle boulevards, shared lane markers (a.k.a., sharrows), and signed bicycle routes. (NJDOT has also published bikeway planning and design guidelines detailing the construction of bicycle facilities.) Mileage of each type of infrastructure from a recent study of sixty New Jersey municipalities is included as well.

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Off-street path in Hoboken

Off-Street Multi-Use Lanes or Paths: Physically separated from motorized traffic by an open space or barrier, off-street bicycle lanes or paths provide bicyclists with the most protection.  According to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), off-street bicycle lanes or paths may be in the street right-of-way or in an independent alignment. This infrastructure is usually multi-functional, used by pedestrians, skaters, wheelchair users, joggers, and other non-motorized users. According to New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center’s recent “New Jersey Bicycle Benchmarking Report”, off-street multi-use lanes or paths have the highest total bicycle route mileage of all types of route infrastructure, with 213.9 miles (44.7% of the total bicycle route infrastructure). (Some of these municipalities cited mileage that included parks that aren’t necessary devoted to bicycles.)

 

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Protected bicycle lane in Newark

Protected/Buffered Bicycle Lanes: A relatively new concept in the United States, protected/buffered bicycle lanes were not included in MUTCD until the 2009 version. Separated from travel lanes with a vertical barrier, bicyclists are protected from motor vehicles in the adjacent travel lane. As a result, they are more preferred by residents, according to a 2013 user preference survey from the New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center. Unlike off-road trails, protected/buffered lanes are typically created from the existing right-of-way, decreasing costs from the acquisition of an additional right-of-ways. While still rare in New Jersey they are beginning to pop up: in 2013 Newark and Cherry Hill reported having protected/buffered bicycle lanes, with 0.5 miles and 0.4 miles, respectively (0.2%).

 

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On-street bicycle lane in Jersey City

On-Street Bicycle Lanes: As required in the MUTCD, a designated bicycle lane is marked by a solid white stripe on the pavement for use by bicyclists. As they require less right-of-way than either off-street or protected bicycles lanes, on-street bicycle lanes are easier to install, and are thus more common. Though they don’t provide physical protection from moving vehicles, they do give bicyclists exclusive space on the road. The Bicycle Benchmarking Report found that Jersey City has the most on-street bicycle lane mileage with 98.5 miles (20.6%).

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Shared lane market (sharrows)

Shared Lane Markers: A shared-lane marking, or sharrow, is placed in the center of a travel lane to indicate that a bicyclist is permitted in the full lane. In the preference survey, shared-lane markers were found to be the least popular type of bicycle facility among New Jersey residents. When a road is too narrow to add any other facility, sharrows can be a positive addition, but there are concerns that municipalities may use them instead of safer, bicyclist-preferred infrastructure. Amongst the municipalities surveyed, there were found to be 31.8 miles of shared lane markers (6.6%).

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Bicycle boulevard in Ocean City

Bicycle Boulevards: A bicycle boulevard gives bicyclists more safety than sharrows, while not taking up any further pavement. With lower speed limits and other traffic calming devices, bicycle boulevards discourage fast motor vehicle traffic and give priority to bicyclists. Due to its restriction to low-volume, residential streets, only two municipalities in New Jersey have bicycle boulevards: Edison and Ocean City. Combined, their infrastructure in 2013 totaled 4.25 miles, or 0.9% of the total bicycle route infrastructure.

 

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Signed Bicycle Routes: Signed bicycle routes are indicated by roadside signs, with or without a specific route number. As the least sophisticated bicycle infrastructure, it only urges sharing the road but provides no physical safety benefits. New Jersey has a total of 129.6 miles of signed bicycle routes (27.1%).

 

For more information about the types of bicycle route infrastructure, see NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide. In general, most municipal infrastructure in New Jersey comes in the form of either signed bicycle routes or off-street multi-use lanes or paths, suggesting that bicycling in these communities is geared toward recreational bicyclists rather than commuters. Bicycle route infrastructure is context-sensitive and should be applied based on a number of factors including population density, traffic volume and speed, available right-of-way, and adjacent land uses.

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