Opinion: The Path Towards a Greener and Healthier Transportation System for Irvine
We rightfully take a lot of pride in our trail system in Irvine: We have one of the most exhaustive networks of trails in Orange County, and as a result, we are one of the most bikeable cities in the region. Many trails offer grade separation, where there is no interaction at all with motor vehicle traffic for miles at a time. The City has many exciting upcoming projects, such as the completion of the Jeffrey Open Space Trail and the Venta Spur Bridge that will connect Great Park to Woodbury.
Bike Lanes Need Protection
We must recognize that trails are only one-half of the equation for safe cycling. There is also that first and last mile on roads that is necessary to reach those trails (assuming there is one that will take you to your destination, which is not always the case). This is where our bike infrastructure has its largest shortcomings. Bike lanes today put you exposed to cars going up to 60 miles with little to no separation. This is one of the largest roadblocks for people who might wish to take their bikes to their daily destinations. While the trails provide a high degree of comfort, the roads completely fail at it. Imagine letting our children (let alone an adult) bike on Irvine Blvd., where the speed is 55 mph, and only a white line of paint separates you from cars. It is this type of infrastructure that makes it clear that cycling was (and is) an afterthought in our transportation system, and the only method of transportation that is taken seriously and our city was designed for is the private automobile. We must elevate our understanding of cycling not as a recreational activity but as a serious means of everyday transportation. In other words, we must facilitate utilitarian cycling. This means ensuring that all bicycle infrastructure must be safe enough from start to finish, even on our roads. Protected bike lanes offer that first/last mile comfort when biking to the trails.
Utilitarian cycling will also have meaningful impacts on traffic congestion: In the United States, the understanding of how to curb traffic is severely flawed. The idea that more lanes = less traffic is false. This is because of a concept known as “induced demand”: the more supply there is for traffic lanes, the more demand will follow. When there is a certain amount of traffic at a given time on a given day, people will decide to take their journeys at other times (before or after rush hour) or not at all. The increased capacity simply allows for a small number of those people to join the gridlock and quite quickly it’s back to square one. The relief is very short-term, temporary, and very expensive for what little it accomplishes.
Twenty-first-century urban planning recognizes that the fundamental reason why traffic exists in most cities is car dependency. A city that is completely dependent on cars as the only viable method of transportation will never see traffic congestion fully relieved. The effective and permanent solution to traffic congestion is to make it convenient, easy, and comfortable to get to their destinations in any way other than the car. In a low-density, a euclidean-zoned suburb like Irvine, walking and public transportation will be hard to facilitate without changes in our land-use patterns (New developments in Spectrum, Irvine Business Complex, and Spectrum should have density and mixed-use zoning where walking, cycling, and transit can succeed, but that is another topic). Therefore the best hope and most realistic path for our city to relieve congestion will be cycling. We must start the process of building a network of protected bike lanes on top of the already existing trails, so the infrastructure is accessible to people of all ages and abilities and not reserved for the few fearless, sports-enthused cyclists. In doing so, we will see a significant change in the way we see people choosing to get around town, will live healthier and happier lives, and will be less dependent on their cars.
One study by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that 52% of daily trips of all modes in the United States were under 3 miles. 3 miles is roughly a 15-minute bike ride. Another study found that a huge portion of our daily trips are short enough that when our roads become bikeable, a huge portion of people will be using their bikes instead of cars. While those statistics represent the nationwide patterns, I highly suspect it even more true for Irvine because of our village + plaza concept followed in our master plan. Irvine is in a particularly unique position where most of the city is within a bikeable distance of commercial centers.
But as previously mentioned, nearly no one feels comfortable riding on our roads. At its worst, roads today only separate bikes from cars going up to 60 miles per hour with only a line of paint. This makes cycling stressful and unpleasant for virtually all ordinary people (except a small minority of sports-enthused cyclists) and ultimately further incentivizes car usage, and thus exacerbating traffic congestion and carbon emissions. According to the city’s own diagnosis, most of Irvine’s bike lanes today fall under Level of Traffic Stress 4: only 1-3% of people feel comfortable riding on these lanes. This map made by the City is really telling at how stressful it is to cycle in Irvine outside of the trails:
The solution is protected bike lanes, also legally referred to as “cycle tracks.” These lanes provide physical separation from high-speed moving cars, often using things such as concrete, planters, trees, or plastic posts (in Irvine, we already physically separate sidewalks from cars very well, which is why bikes choose to use them over the bike lanes). In this environment, there is no fear of a car drifting into the bike lane and hitting cyclists at high speeds, dramatically increasing the safety of cycling. Here are some visual examples of them:
A protected bike lane is what people of all ages and abilities will feel comfortable riding in. Under the LTS grading system, 60% of the population feels comfortable riding in protected bike lanes as opposed to the current 1% on most of our painted bike lanes. Polling from the National Association of City Transportation Officials also shows that 60% of the population are “interested but concerned about biking,” and of those, “80% would feel comfortable riding in a protected bike lane”. This is yet another exciting piece of information because it shows just how enormous the potential is for a place like Irvine if we have more protected bike lanes in the city on top of our already extensive trail network. If riding were safe enough from start to finish (not just on the trails but on the roads as well), people would choose to bike over drive. The importance of safety and comfort cannot be understated when it comes to facilitating utilitarian cycling and reducing car dependency.
We can point to examples in the US and abroad, which are installing hundreds of miles of protected bike lanes and are seeing not only an explosion of cycling but also improved traffic flow of cars as a result of the people choosing to bike over driving because of that increased safety. The Netherlands has protected bike lanes baked into the national guidelines, and is virtually ubiquitous in every town and every neighborhood. The need for cycling is considered at all times in every stage of urban planning, with cycle paths (trails), protected bike lanes, and protected intersections being ubiquitous throughout the road infrastructure nationwide. The norm is all roads with speeds higher than 30 miles an hour will have a protected bike lane. As a result, 43% of all Dutch people bike daily, and 27% of the Dutch commute by bike (the US commuter rate is 1%). San Francisco (and surrounding Bay Area suburbs), New York City, Paris, and Montreal have also been systematically installing protected bike lanes and have seen explosions in cycling numbers and significant reductions in traffic, noise, and pollution. It is examples like these are proof that protected bike lanes are absolutely critical to getting the average citizen to ditch their cars for their bikes, and they are one of the most important tools to reduce congestion by permanently removing cars from the road, as well as tackling the climate crisis. It kills a lot of birds with one stone.
We also know that transportation is the largest source of emissions in Irvine by a very, very large margin. In 2019, 51% of emissions came from transportation compared to the second largest source at 21%: non-residential buildings. That is an astounding 30% difference. Obviously, if the city is to have any meaningful attempt to fulfill its promise to reach carbon neutrality by 2030, it will have to move aggressively to tackle those emissions by reducing car dependency through promoting and facilitating utilitarian cycling (as well as other modes of transportation). Systematic implementation of protected bike lanes over the next few years will challenge car dependency. When cycling becomes comfortable enough for all ages and abilities at every point in their journey, we will see a dramatic shift in transportation choices of our residents and, thus, a reduction in our emissions.
As it relates to transportation emissions and electric cars, electric cars are not the final solution to achieving carbon neutrality. There is no doubt that electric cars are superior to gas cars in terms of sustainability. However, there is a heavy environmental impact on electric car manufacturing, where the mining of rare earth elements needed to create these batteries emits a large amount of CO2. Various studies have shown that offsetting those emissions will take several years of ownership. We need to continue expanding on electric vehicle infrastructure, but we must be equally, if not more, serious when it comes to active transportation.
Intersections today are the most stressful parts of cycling trips in Irvine. They are probably the biggest deterrent to utilitarian cycling. Standard intersection design in Irvine places cyclists in between two car lanes, with speed limits as high as 55 mph. Virtually all intersections with this design fall under LTS 1, meaning only 1-3% of the population feel comfortable riding in them. It is unconscionable for most people to bike in between two cars going highway speeds, and we can do better.
Even in the most forward-thinking cities that build protected bike lanes, intersections are often neglected. As a result, many of the benefits of protected bike lanes become lost. If even one segment of a cycle trip is too stressful, then it is not safe enough to facilitate utilitarian cycling, and it will fail to attract people to cycle. We must ensure that our infrastructure provides safety and comfort to cyclists from beginning to end. We can achieve this with an intersection design known as a “protected intersection”:
Protected intersections will provide the comfort needed for cycling to become accessible to all ages and abilities. They do this by providing physical separation at intersections, just like the protected bike lanes that lead into them. Because intersections are the most dangerous place for cycling, they are where protection is needed the most. These are still quite novel in the United States, but many forward-thinking cities have been gradually installing more and more and can be found in many Bay Area cities, Portland, New York City, and more. Protected intersections are a Dutch invention, and they are trivially ubiquitous in the Netherlands because they are baked into the national road guidelines. Countries throughout Europe, such as Denmark, Finland, Poland, France, and Belgium (just to name a few) are installing them on a systematic scale as well. This design is especially needed on Irvine’s arterials. It is not a matter of if but when this will become the norm in the United States as we slowly transition away from cities designed around and only for the car and for sustainable transportation methods such as cycling.
Without getting too dense, these are some of the benefits of protected intersections:
- It solves the issue of the left turn by providing a physically shielded waiting space for cyclists on perpendicular roads. See Cycling on a Protected Intersection
- Better visibility: cars approach the bike+car conflict point at a right angle, which puts bikes in the front view of a driver rather than in their blind spot.
- Slower speeds of cars: the traffic corner island shielding cyclists have a tight turning radius, bringing car speeds low enough to give drivers enough time to properly examine the situation at an intersection.
The biggest benefit of this type of infrastructure is signalized bicycle traffic lights at conflict points with cars. Cars legally have to yield to bikes at intersections. But they often do not because high-speeds de-incentivize drivers from having to brake to dramatically low speeds. The solution to this would be to install more bicycle traffic lights that provide alternating green phases for right-turning vehicles and straight-bound bicycles. This completely eliminates the need for drivers and cyclists to have to negotiate priority. The Netherlands installs these at all high-speed intersections. Here is an example of this in Downtown LA. Notice how this woman on her scooter can be relaxed when she does not have to worry about cars yielding to her:
Protected bike lanes and protected intersections kill a lot of birds with the same stone. If we care about achieving our goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030, if we care about resolving the increasingly insufferable traffic, if we care about reducing the disproportionate number of road fatalities of active transportation users, if we care about improving our quality of life by not being so vulnerable to gas prices and the high costs of car ownership, our city must start pursuing a concrete plan to increasing the amount of protected bike infrastructure. Cycling needs to be treated not as an afterthought but as a forethought in our transportation infrastructure. And what that means is ensuring the infrastructure is comfortable enough for all ages and abilities. A metric I like to use is: if you would not want your kid there, it’s not safe enough. That has to be the new standard.
Irvine is no different than the rest of America in its car dependency. And unlike the rest of Southern California, which has abysmal conditions for walking and cycling, Irvine does deserve credit for at least having consistent bike lanes and extensive recreational trails. Most American cities do not even bother to install sidewalks, let alone bike lanes. But our bike lanes are extremely dangerous and are not comfortable enough to be accessible to all ages and abilities. Therefore they have failed to challenge car dependency in a meaningful way. Here lies our opportunity to distinguish ourselves as the “City of Innovation”. If we were to vigorously pursue more of this type of infrastructure, we will become environmental leaders again like we were in the 90s. From this day forward, all transportation projects should consider cycling as seriously as the car, and our decisions in City Hall should reflect that. Every opportunity to implement this type of infrastructure must be taken. Unfortunately, that has not been the case, and new projects have been approved and constructed with the same painted bike lanes that fail to keep cyclists safe from fast-moving cars. We must start increasing the standards of cycling infrastructure in all new development projects.
Furthermore, the City’s current Irvine Strategic Active Transportation Plan (ISATP) is, unfortunately, very unambitious and underwhelming. The ISATP does not have any suggestions for large-scale implementation of this type of infrastructure. The only suggestion to build protected bike lanes in this plan is on the South Yale Corridor. There are also no suggestions for protected intersection treatments. The City should either revise or create a new plan that is ambitious enough to meet this new necessary standard: accessible bicycle infrastructure for all ages and abilities. The South Yale Corridor presents an exciting opportunity for Irvine to finally have its very first protected bike lane. There was a wonderful public outreach meeting recently hosted by city staff, where staff and residents came together and had a very intensive and fruitful dialogue about the various possibilities for implementing some bicycle infrastructure that will be accessible to all ages and abilities. I am excited about what’s to come there. But again, that one small segment of Yale is the only plan the city has for installing protected bike lanes right now. There needs to be a long-term, systematic effort to implement protected bike lanes and protected intersections throughout the City, especially on our arterial roads, which are the most stressful place for cycling and are therefore needed there the most.
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