The Bike Law Interview: Jason Crawford, Bike Law Colorado, On Denver’s First Protected Bike Lane
By Bob Mionske
I recently came across a photograph. In the photo, a woman is riding her bike in the right lane on a street with two lanes in each direction. Behind her is a man on a bike, and in the left lane, next to the male cyclist, a car. A few pedestrians are on the sidewalk on this otherwise deserted street. Nothing like you would see in a cycling capital like Amsterdam, or Copenhagen.
Except this street scene is in Copenhagen. So where are all the cyclists? Where are all the world-famous protected cyclepaths?
There are no cyclepaths, nor legions of happy Danes on bikes, because this scene is from 1973, when Copenhagen streets looked much like the streets in any American city—completely dedicated to the automobile, with small numbers of cyclists sharing the same lanes as automobile traffic.
1973 was the height of the 1970s bike boom in both America and Denmark, and it was also the year America and Europe were thrown into an energy crisis brought on by an oil embargo from OAPEC. From that point in time, Copenhagen and American cities went in completely opposite directions.
American cities continued to dedicate their streets to motor vehicle traffic, and Americans who wanted to ride a bike were expected to continue sharing the same lanes as automobile traffic—sometimes within a painted “bike lane” squeezed between motor vehicle traffic and the door zone, but more often, within the same lane as motor vehicles.
But in Denmark, the government turned to conservation measures to deal with the energy crisis. Car Free Sundays were introduced, and the 1970s cycling boom, coupled with the energy crisis, meant that large numbers of Danes were suddenly filling the ranks of Danish cyclists. And with that renewed interest in the bicycle came demands for safe bicycle infrastructure. Gradually, Copenhagen began meeting the demands of its citizens, building protected bike lanes on main roads and developing strategies for increasing cycling in the city.
It’s as if a major experiment had been conducted, with American cities continuing to follow what had been the norm—streets dedicated entirely to the motor vehicle—and Copenhagen rethinking and redesigning its infrastructure to accommodate bicyclists. And the results could not be more stark. Some 40 years later, cycling numbers in American cities remain mired at about 1 to 2 percent of total transportation. Even in Portland, Oregon, only 6% of commutes are by bicycle. In Boulder, Colorado, the number is 12%. And those numbers were achieved only after those cities began to follow the lead of cities like Copenhagen, in which 50 percent of trips are by bicycle, and cycling infrastructure is designed to be safe and plentiful for everybody “from 8 to 80.”
And now, there’s even more evidence that protected bike lanes work. A few days ago, Portland State University’s National Institute of Transportation and Communities released the first major study of protected bike lane intersections in five American cities. The short version: People like riding in protected bike lanes, they feel safer in protected bike lanes, and they want more protected bike lanes. This information coincides with a previous study of Portland residents in which 60 percent of residents said that they would ride a bike if it felt safe, while only ½ of 1 percent felt safe riding in motor vehicle traffic. In Copenhagen, ridership surged when protected bike lanes were built into the city’s infrastructure. The Portland State study indicates the same effect on protected bike lanes here in the U.S.
Recently, Colorado bicycle accident lawyer Jason Crawford wrote about his visit to Vancouver BC, during which he had an opportunity to see firsthand Vancouver’s protected bike lanes. He followed up his observations about Vancouver with an article about Denver’s first “protected” bike lane. After reading his articles, I had a chat with Jason to go a little deeper into his thoughts on these first steps towards creating protected infrastructure for cyclists.
Bob: Were you in Vancouver for bicycle advocacy? Can you talk a bit about that?
Jason: I was actually in Vancouver with my wife, who was attending a medical seminar for pediatric physicians. It seems that Vancouver has become a preferred destination for this 2,500 + physician’s seminar because the town is so easy for people to get around without a car. Most attendees are able to walk, or use public transit, to get wherever they may need to go. This goes to show that a strong public investment in walkable, bikeable communities can attract tourism, development and future responsible growth. It can be a win/win situation where the increased infrastructure investment on the local governmental level directly contributes to the future economic development of a city.
Bob: From your articles, it’s clear that you think that protected bike lanes are the way to go. Why is that?
Jason: Anyone who has represented an injured cyclist knows that the laws of physics are strongly against a cyclist from the moment of impact. Any physical design changes that can be implemented to reduce the speed, or directional forces of this impact between the car and a cyclist can go a long way to protect cyclists from serious bodily injury or even death.
For example, the simple presence of a well-marked and physically delineated bike lane may help by reducing the speed of motorists traveling in the adjacent motor vehicle lanes. Numerous traffic-engineering studies have shown that similar “traffic calming” features have the direct effect of lowering vehicle speeds and reducing the number of accidents. Less speed also reduces the severity of injuries a cyclist may have on impact.
Similarly, bike lanes that are designed to put the cyclist in a more-visible position at intersections (i.e., adjacent to crosswalks where a motorist is more likely to expect non-motorized traffic) can reduce the potential for head on collisions between bikes and oncoming vehicles that turn in front of them. These are often the most serious accidents, in terms of injuries sustained, that we have handled for our cycling clients because the combined forces generated between two oncoming vehicles is much greater.
Bob: Here in Portland, Oregon, our first protected bike lane (technically, a buffered lane “protected” by parked cars) was both exciting (because it was our first), and disappointing (because it was only seven blocks long). What do you like about Denver’s first protected bike lane? What do you find disappointing?
Jason: My feelings were similar to yours. On one hand, we are disappointed to see that reality of the first effort falling short of what we would ideally want and need for truly safe cycling in our urban areas. However, like you, I realize that this is an important first step to raising local consciousness about the attractiveness and need for bike lanes. Many of these “unique” traffic design features are first viewed with trepidation by motorists who are unfamiliar with them.
I lived in a “New Urbanism” styled neighborhood in Denver for a few years that implemented European styled roundabouts for many traffic intersections. At first, many people complained that they were unnecessary and confusing. Yet, over the span of a couple of years, local residents soon began to prefer these types of interchanges. Especially as more accidents (including a couple of serious auto vs. pedestrian accidents) seemed to be occurring on the neighborhood’s more traditionally designed traffic intersections.
So, in terms of what I like about this first protected bike lane in Denver – I am glad it is the first of what I predict to be many such lanes added with an ever-increasing focus on protecting cyclists. As motorists see that the availability of these lanes actually help them as well by eliminating the need for cyclists to “take a lane” in order to protect themselves while riding in traffic, I think widespread public acceptance of the need to commit city resources to these lanes will quickly increase.
Bob: One thing that strikes me about using plastic bollards to separate traffic is that they are one step above paint on the street; there is almost no redesign of the street necessary, and the street can easily be reconverted back to a design that only takes the motor vehicle into account. Do you think that protected bike lanes in Denver will improve over time? Or do you think that building a protected bike lane falls into the “token improvement” category in the minds of city leaders?
Jason: I do think the plastic bollard design falls in line with the idea of a “token” improvement. The good thing is that Denver has a very strong local advocacy group, People For Bikes, which has committed funds to help improve this protected lane by adding the barriers and signage I discussed earlier. Here is a link to an article discussing the People for Bikes Green Lane Project now being advanced in several cities through the country.
The important points here are: (1) that the costs per mile of these protected lanes was approaching $100,000.00, (2) the ridership increased by 76% in these lanes. (2) that the presence of such lanes had no effect on traffic congestion and (4) that accidents were either dramatically reduced or eliminated during the study period.
This effort may represent the future for development of these lanes being in the form of a Public – Private Partnership (PPP), at least in the initial phases, so as to ease the funding concerns that city officials may have.
Bob: In Copenhagen, city leaders were initially reluctant to turn away from automobile-centric street designs, and only began to include bicycles into city planning in the wake of massive protests demanding more bicycle infrastructure. But once they began accommodating the bicycle, they began to see the benefits, and dramatically increased their efforts. Do you think we can get similar buy-in from city leadership in North America? And if so, how?
Jason: Lets go back to my recent trip to Vancouver. Over twenty-five years ago, Vancouver city leaders had entertained the idea of routing a major freeway through the heart of the Central Business District. This was proposed to address complaints within the business community that there was no major north-south freeway. This made shipping and transportation traffic either go through the heart of downtown or take a twenty mile detour around the city center.
This issue became a flashpoint for Vancouverites and a populist revolt against this plan led to its eventual dismissal. There is still no north-south freeway adjacent to the downtown core (unique among north American Cities) yet it consistently ranked the most livable city in North America. This is an example of how focusing on long-term livability issues over short-term convenience issues, pursued in the name of economic growth alone, can actually have a net positive on a cities long term.
The “buy-in” from city officials will happen organically as the increased familiarity of citizens with the benefits of these bike lanes leads to more grass roots demands for their inclusion in other areas.
Bob: What do you see as standing in the way of getting our cities interested in increasing and improving bicycle infrastructure? And how can we turn that around?
Jason: We need to have motorists involved as much as cyclists in these efforts. Once motorists see that these lanes to not result in delays to their commutes, or negatively impact their driving convenience, they too will be more interested in the inclusion of dedicated bike lanes in future traffic planning. One of the biggest complaints I hear from motorists is that bike users are currently impeding traffic because they effectively have to take a whole lane of traffic to avoid being “doored” by cars parked along the side of the street or “side-swiped” by a passing car.
Bob: Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get interested in bicycling advocacy? Is it from your riding or racing? Can you tell me about that?
Jason: I am purely a recreational cyclist. I do not race nor do I even commute to work on my bike. I ride to clear my head at the end of a long day, and to stay in shape.
I would not even call myself a “bicycle advocate” as my interests in the public sphere are more widespread than one, narrow issue. However, I am very interested in urban design and planning and have taken many continuing education courses in this area. The one constant theme in these courses is that a livable, vital city requires planning and design that is centered around the people – not the cars.
Bob: And how did you end up in a law practice representing cyclists who have been injured in bicycle accidents?
Jason: I moved to Durango, Colorado about two years out of law school (after having gained a couple of years experience with a big city personal injury law firm) and established my own law firm. As many people are aware, Durango is mountain-biking paradise and home to many professional cyclists. In addition, Durango is also home to the frequent champions of collegiate road and mountain cycling, the Ft. Lewis Skyhawks. So, while in Durango, I had the opportunity to represent a number of talented riders, both pro and amateur, who had been involved in bike crashes. After relocating to Denver, I started handling more and more bike cases as friends of former cyclist clients I had represented in the past called me after they too were involved in a crash. I honestly hope to see a negative trend in new bike cases in the future as we improve our infrastructure and reduce the number of accidents.
Bob: Do you have any specific bicycle accident cases that you want to talk about that you feel would have turned out differently had there been adequate safe infrastructure for the cyclist to ride on?
Jason: I have handled dozens of bike cases over the years and, unfortunately, in nearly every single one, simple changes in the traffic infrastructure may have either prevented the accident, or helped minimize the damages to the cyclists that flowed from the accident. So, no, I do not have a specific case to discuss. The scope of the problem is too great, and will remain too great, as long as cyclists are presumed to have secondary status on our public roadways.
Bob: Any thoughts for what comes next in advocating for plentiful, safe infrastructure for cyclists?
Jason: Get out and ride. Convince your friends, family and neighbors to do the same. And donate to groups like People for Bikes or Bicycle Colorado who are using their funding and know-how to help implement change at the local level.
Bob Mionske is a former U.S. Olympic and pro cyclist, and a nationally-known bicycle accident lawyer based in Portland, Oregon, and affiliated with the Bike Law network. A prolific advocate for the rights of cyclists, Mionske authored Bicycling & the Law in 2007, and has continued his advocacy on behalf of the rights of cyclists with his Road Rights column inBicycling magazine.