As Missoula’s City Council begins to examine the final draft of the Downtown Master Plan, one issue is proving to be a stick in their spokes.
The council is weighing whether or not to adopt the use of protected bike lanes, also known as cycle tracks. At first glance, the answer to the question—barring funding problems—seems to be a no-brainer. As Ward 3 Councilmember Stacy Rye observes, parents are more likely to ride bikes with their small children with the assurance that the little ones are protected from traffic. Danish research has also shown that cycle tracks may increase ridership 18 to 20 percent.
But local biking advocates say cycle tracks are actually less safe than well-maintained bike lanes.
“When we look at where cars and bicycles crash, they almost never happen in the middle of the block,” says Phil Smith, the city’s bicycle pedestrian program coordinator. “The concern that I have about the rhetoric around cycle tracks is this word, ‘protected.’”
Jim Sayer, head of the Adventure Cycling Association, points to a study of cycle tracks by Alta Planning and Design, a company Sayer describes as one of the premier bike/walk planning consultants in the United States. That study notes that by separating bicyclists from cars, cycle tracks are more dangerous.
“As bicyclists are not traveling directly alongside automobiles, motorists may not be aware of their presence, leading to increased vulnerability at intersections,” the study says.
Bob Giordano of the Missoula Institute of Sustainable Transportation agrees, and thinks City Council shouldn’t abandon its current bicycle network.
“At first, we thought cycle tracks were the way to go,” he says. “[But after further research] we’re advocating for wide bike lanes on all arterials away from the door zone, maintained and connected. Nobody is really getting hit in the straight sections. It’s at intersections.”