Chicago may be the only U.S. city that gives cyclists their own traffic signals, the safest but most expensive way to ensure safe vehicle/bicycle interaction at intersections. Photo: Stephanie Johnston

My bike-crazy hometown is also bike-deadly.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to build 645 miles of on-street pathways that’ll put every Chicagoan within half a mile of a bicycle facility by 2020. The city’s halfway to its goal of installing 100 miles of protected bike lanes. Our bike-sharing program is the nation’s second-largest.

Yet 4 of every 10,000 cyclists are killed every year. That makes us the second-deadliest city after New York City (8.58 deaths per 10,000 cyclists).

Everyone’s on the bandwagon about improving health and lowering pollution by adding more bicycle and pedestrian facilities. So if your public works department’s going to plan, fight for, design, build, and then maintain a bicycle network, you’d better make sure people actually use it.

They will if they feel safe. The best way to do that, according to a study conducted by the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium for People for Bikes, is installing protected lanes.

Most bike lanes have cyclists riding between parked cars and traffic. In addition to being hit by a car, this makes them vulnerable to “dooring”: being slammed by drivers exiting their vehicles after parking. Also known as “cycle tracks” or “protected bikeways,” protected lanes reduce the possibility for negative bike/car interaction by physically separating the two modes of transportation.

In Chicago, a bike-only lane next to the curb is created by moving parking a few feet away from the curb. I think it looks weird, but I’m not a cyclist. And while driver-side dooring is eliminated, the design makes being doored by passengers a possibility.

At any rate, research on protected lanes in Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore; San Francisco; and the District of Columbia as well as Chicago proves the design increases the perception of safety. A 1.2-mile stretch in downtown Chicago, for example, saw a 171% increase in cyclist traffic within one year.

Fortunately, the physical buffer doesn’t have to be expensive. A line of flexible posts works as well as planters or, say, Chicago’s solution.

The study also looked at the safety of various intersection designs. You’ll have to register, but you can get a FREE copy of Lessons from the Green Lanes: Evaluating Protected Bike Lanes in the U.S. at http://ppms.otrec.us/media/project_files/NITC-RR-583_ProtectedLanes_FinalReport.pdf.

What's your take on the whole Complete Streets, walk/bike-to-work, healthier-living-through-infrastructure thing? Is the effort worth the reward? E-mail me at sjohnston@hanleywood.com.