Opinion: Suburban Jurisdictions in the United States Should Improve Their Bike Infrastructure

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Bicycle infrastructure in the United States has come a long way since the early 2000s, when protected bike lanes were virtually unheard of and cycling was half as popular as it is now. Most of this improvement, however, is concentrated in cities, therefore a lot more can be done to improve biking infrastructure in America’s suburbs.

Many U.S cities and suburbs have bike infrastructure that is currently lacking. In an effort to improve their bike infrastructure, regional governments often build bike paths and bike lanes in places that are not the most useful, or build them in a way in which they appear unsafe. This is often a result of a lack of coordination between different jurisdictions, because bike infrastructure is built as part of an uncompleted plan for a more extensive bike network, or because counties are simply unwilling to spend money on bike infrastructure projects

The Benefits of a Bikeable Jurisdiction

Jurisdictions should improve their bike infrastructure for the betterment of the public and the cyclists that live in their cities. Most importantly, having a good bike network reduces traffic on roads. If more people see biking as a transportation option, less people will drive, easing congestion on roads. In New York, when bike lanes were installed on Columbus Avenue, peak travel times went down by 13%. Strong bike infrastructure also increases access to public transportation. People who live far from bus or rail stops can get to those locations without having to drive. This reduction in driving also increases air quality within that jurisdiction.

Bike infrastructure increases property values, according to various studies. People generally want to live near bike trails, or in a bicycle-friendly community because living in that kind of an area provides them opportunities to travel short distances without having to use their cars or transit. The ability to bike also means people can more easily exercise while commuting, rather than just sitting in their cars. It also means that people in a household who cannot drive, like younger teens, can enjoy a lot more freedom, as they would no longer depend on someone to bring them to destinations that cannot be reached by walking or taking public transit. Cities that have expansive bike networks become healthier, more attractive places to live, according to a 2019 study.

Good Bicycle Infrastructure and Cyclist Stress

There are various criteria that jurisdictions need to achieve to ensure that their cities are bikeable.

Good bicycle infrastructure can be described as a system that allows people to bike to as many destinations as possible while enduring the least possible stress. Bike-able areas also incorporate other infrastructure important for cycling, such as bike racks and water fountains.

The stress that cyclists experience is classified by urban planners into four distinct levels.

Stress level one is what is felt on neighborhood roads and trails, which is suitable for everyone who bikes, including small children. Some protected bike lanes, like those separated from the road by a wide, landscaped gap, also fall into stress level one.

Stress level two involves biking on low-traffic roads, on unprotected bike lanes along low to medium traffic roads, and protected bike lanes on most roads. 60% of bikers will ride on a stress level two road.

Stress level three involves biking on narrow bike lanes on high traffic roads, or biking in medium traffic roads without a bike lane. 10% of bicyclists will ride on a stress level three road.

Stress level four involves biking in mixed traffic on fast, high traffic roads. Less than 1% of bikers will ride on this kind of a road. Although a cyclists’ stress level can vary on a case-by-case basis, these levels of cyclist stress are what urban planners generally use when designing bike infrastructure.

Left: An example of a stress level 1 trail in Reston, VA (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News) Right: An example of a stress level 2 Bike lane in Reston, VA (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

Left: An example of a stress level 3 bike route on a wider avenue in Arlington, VA (Image from Google Street view) Right: A biker riding in a busy, stress level 4, road in Chicago, Illinois (Image from Youtube)

Biking Infrastructure in Urban vs. Suburban Areas

In cities, where most streets have significant, but slow-moving traffic, it makes sense to keep building bike lanes, especially protected bike lanes throughout the city. These allow bikers to pass by traffic without getting stressed, since cars aren’t moving very fast. Whenever bikers with a low-stress tolerance need to travel to a destination on a road without protected bike lanes, they can usually use sidewalks for the last few blocks. This has worked well for cities, and as they install new bike lanes, especially protected ones, they are seeing great improvements in bike usage.

While biking has also increased in suburbs, not all suburbs provide cyclists a relaxed biking experience. Most suburbs are characterized by wide, four to six lane arterial roads lined by strip malls, with sprawling, dead-ended residential subdivisions stemming from them. Many suburbs looking to become more bike-friendly have attempted to put bike lanes along their arterial roads, seeing as they are generally the only roads that link major destinations in suburbs. Predictably, these bike lanes are not receiving much usage, as the noise and pollution of the fast-moving cars in the nearby road makes for an uncomfortable riding experience.

For example, when a road in Fairfax County, Virginia was widened in 2015, Virginia’s DOT decided to include bike lanes on the road. When I biked on this road, I deemed the bike lane to be too stressful and dangerous because it was narrow and there was no physical separation from the road. When I was biking, there were cars moving beside me at 40-50 mph, so I used the paved sidewalk instead; the three other cyclists I crossed paths with did the same. There is little point in building a bike lane that stresses cyclists and encourages them to use the sidewalk instead.

Arrow pointing to the Stringfellow Road bike lane in Fairfax County, VA (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

Bike lanes also face another problem: unruly drivers. Bike lanes in both cities and suburbs aren’t always taken seriously by drivers. They also suffer from a lack of enforcement by police. This means that it’s very common for cars to block bike lanes. For example, I see drivers parked on a buffered bike lane near my house virtually every time I pass by there. While this problem isn’t something unique to suburbs, it is something that jurisdictions need to consider when choosing to build a bike lane.

Another problem with bike infrastructure is coordination between jurisdictions. Cities usually have one primary government that makes decisions about bike infrastructure. In suburbs, different counties have to work together to make sure they’re providing effective bike infrastructure. This creates gaps between different jurisdictions’ bike networks. For example, Northern Virginia, Fairfax County, and Prince William County are connected only by high stress (levels three and four) roads, with the exception of one sidewalk, despite each of them having built their own, relatively extensive bike networks.

Cars parked in the middle of the bike lane in Reston, VA (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

There are, however, other, relatively inexpensive options suburbs can pursue to improve bike infrastructure. For example, while residential subdivisions in suburbs often have dead ends for cars, connections between cul-de-sacs in different residential subdivisions can be built, effectively creating a low-stress, backroads alternative to biking along arterial roads. These low- stress residential roads account for 75% of roads in Montgomery County, MD, meaning a system like this would be able to utilize existing infrastructure for safe biking.

Connections between cul-de-sacs can also be combined with bridges and crosswalks connecting residential areas on opposite sides of wide roads, further increasing the size of the bike network. However, since roads in suburban, residential neighborhoods are often quite curvy, this can mean longer trips for cyclists.

Another option is to create more pedestrian/bike trails along major roads, but with a significant distance from them. This will create a safe, pleasant biking experience, but requires more space. A lot of these also trails mix pedestrian and bike traffic, creating a safety hazard for pedestrians. Both of these options are not significantly more expensive than regular bike lanes.

Pedestrian/bike shared use path along Baron Cameron Road in Reston, VA  (Image from Google Street View)

Suburbs should also invest more in arterial bike paths or wide trails. These would work on the path of former railroads or along streams, rivers, and highways. They are generally very wide, straight, and flat (because railroads, rivers, and highways don’t generally have sharp curves or steep hills), making for very nice places to bike. They may also have separate bike and pedestrian trails. There are still plenty of sections of streams, rivers, and highways that don’t have trails next to them in the DC area and beyond, where trails could be built.

Arterial bike path with separate bike(right) and pedestrian(left) trails in Reston, VA (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

When building wide arterial trails, planners must continue being careful to not make changes that will worsen a trail’s comfort and usability. For example, when building trails along highways, suburbs must be careful to put them outside of sound retention walls. Doing this will ensure a better, less stressful experience for cyclists.

Plan for a trail along the I-66 freeway in Northern Virginia. (Image from VDOT)

This plan irrationally places the trail inside of noise barriers because of pushback from people living along the highway that didn’t want a trail in their backyard, with unfounded concerns about bike trails bringing crime.

That being said, there are a few places in the suburbs where bike lanes are justified. For example, in less dense suburbs where arterial streets are slower and have only two lanes, having a bike lane could be acceptable. Additionally, in “suburban downtowns,” like Tysons, Rockville, and Reston Town Center in the DC area, where traffic naturally moves slower, bike lanes are also acceptable. However, suburbs need to be careful to not overuse bike lanes, and make prudent decisions about what type of bike infrastructure to use. Such well-thought-out decisions are important in reducing cyclists’ stress.