Bicycle boulevard: it’s not just another alliteration that’s fun to say (as they usually are). It’s a topic for which aficionados have more answers than there are people asking the questions, which I recognize isn’t exactly a selling point . But since this isn’t always a blog for dilettantes, i’ll posit those questions nonetheless. What does a bicycle boulevard look like? Do they serve enough purpose to justify the investment? Do they keep bicyclists safe, and do they impede the ability for cars to get around? Perhaps these micro-questions skirt the macro-concern: do most people even know what a bike boulevard is, and will they know what to do if they suddenly across one while exploring the area on two wheels? Is it possible we’ve all been along one and didn’t even know it? And, if we didn’t know it, is there reason enough even to care?
It’s all sort of complicated—yet, amazingly, also simpler than most other bike-friendly investments. Bicycle boulevards represent probably the most luxurious of amenities for bicyclists, essentially giving them preference over cars on a street formerly designed for vehicles, as most streets are. But they don’t use even close to the infrastructure as cycle tracks or other grade separated bike protection. Instead, bicycle boulevards stake claim on a street (usually mostly residential) and declare that bikes get priority on these roads over others, thereby incentivizing bicyclists to use the boulevard as opposed to adjacent parallel streets. They divert traffic—both its higher speeds and higher volumes—to other streets more suitable for cars, and they aid bicyclists through safe and convenient crossings at intersections, minimizing their delay.
The end goal—to give bicyclists the Cadillac treatment (horrible metaphor, I know)—isn’t so profound on its own, but the tactics for getting there are diverse and disparate enough to diffuse the identity of a bike boulevard. Simply put, enough tools out there can ensure bicyclist safety that they aren’t always easy to spot, so there’s no real telltale indicator of a true, deliberate bicycle boulevard. (The closest I’ve come in this blog was an odd bike lane configuration on a one-way street in Baton Rouge, many years ago, and soon it’ll be obvious why I recall it.) It’s quite possible that bike boulevards are inconspicuous because they tend to be more common in large urban areas, yet large cities also have enough other streetscape features—on-street (parallel) parking, sidewalk furniture, signage. With all that commotion, the bike boulevard features just blend in.
But bicycle boulevards are growing in prevalence. The West Coast seems to have pioneered the concept, with examples flourishing in some of the flatter portions of the San Francisco Bay: places like Palo Alto and Berkeley, which also command a disproportionate number of college students who are less likely to own cars. Seattle has opted to call them neighborhood greenways, ostensibly to emphasize their use in districts dominated by residences with a goal of cutting down noisy, dangerous vehicular traffic for activities that don’t require long-distance travel. Portland, another bicyclist’s paradise, has adopted the same moniker. One might also encounter the following names: quiet streets, bicycle friendly corridor, cycle streets, neighborhood parkways. neighborhood byways. But since all these names only to further contribute to a bicycle boulevard’s diffuse identity, the best means for the concept to realize crystallize is to show an example—in a small town.
Okay, so Ithaca, New York isn’t really that small: population of 32,000 and the urbanized area within the surrounding Tompkins County is probably twice that amount. It can support a mall. It’s a city on the small side. But it’s all out on its own; it is not a suburb to a large metropolis. Ithaca has one core feature that has undoubtedly elevated its profile as a crucible for good, visible bicycle boulevard infrastructure: an enormous student population. Cornell University defines Ithaca; there’s no way it would be the sort of bastion of “progressive” thinking if it didn’t host this prestigious research center just up the hill from downtown. But, to top that off, the town also hosts Ithaca College, which, though only about one-fifth of Cornell’s 25,000 enrollment, is still considerably larger than the usual institution that calls itself a “college”. The captive students, most of whom live on or near campus, result in a considerably greater need for pedestrian and bicycle accommodations. (Even if most of these students could own cars, they would have no place to park on Cornell’s campus; it doesn’t offer close to 25,000 spaces.)
So, in areas that can support them, Ithaca provides bicycle boulevards. The photo above depicts a portion of Cascadilla Avenue, a street that, for three blocks, bifurcates into two unidirectional lanes that flank the small Cascadilla Creek. Here’s the intersection with North Cayuga Street, where the bifurcated road segment begins.
Peering the other direction from this intersection, and Cascadilla Street is much more conventional, because the creek after which the street earns its name hasn’t yet converged with it.
Here’s how the intersection looks, diagrammed at bird’s eye—a fancy term for what kids these days call “a map”.
The creek flows southeasterly and links up with Cascadilla Avenue just to the east of the intersection. The portion of Cascadilla Avenue east of Cayuga Street (not Cascadilla Street to the west) is what the City of Ithaca transformed into a bicycle boulevard, back around 2018 or so. The boulevard features apply to the lane south of Cascadilla Creek. We know this is a boulevard, obviously, because of the paint stenciled in on the ground: “BLVD” with bike logos and arrows. But what makes this feature so strategic?
It’s all about the subtle introductions. One hundred years ago (probably more) the developers of this portion of Ithaca decided that Cascadilla Street should continue in parallel form with the creek, but rather than designing the block so that both lanes were on one side, the surveyors decided to let the creek flow between them, resulting in ultra-narrow lanes, closer to an alley’s width. Both lanes are exclusively one-way westbound. I cannot vouch if they have always been this way; it’s reasonable to presume that at one time they offered opposing one-way traffic. Why else design the road in such a manner? But this “DO NOT ENTER – EXCEPT BICYCLES” essentially indicates that only bikes are allowed on the southern lane, essentially allowing bicycles the privilege of traveling in a contraflow lane, much like the Baton Rouge example I blogged about a decade ago. But why can’t cars use this lane to travel westbound? Wouldn’t it make sense that the south lane of an east-west street should accommodate eastbound traffic? Here in Ithaca, the goal is to discourage through traffic, preventing cars from cutting eastward (southeastward) toward downtown using such a minor street. And, at least since 2018 or so, the southern of these two westbound lanes gets that Cadillac treatment for bicycles.
Needless to say, Cascadilla Avenue is not a major street. It’s a local road, designed for very light vehicular traffic—primarily just to access the handful of residences that front the little street. It only extends three blocks. But each block reinforces its preference for bicycles. Here I am, looking at the bike boulevard at a subsequent intersection, with Sears Street—and another iteration of the “DO NOT ENTER” sign.
The privileging of bicycles is obvious: they get to go both directions, while vehicles exiting Sears Street can only go westbound, to the left. This restriction ensures that vehicles cannot use the south side of Cascadilla Avenue as a thru street, and it disincentivizes them from using it at all; it’s far better to just drive south down the block to its intersection with E. Court Street, which is a busier, two-way street.
Standing on a ped bridge over the Cascadilla Creek with both lanes of Cascadilla Avenue on the periphery, it should be obvious that the right side of the photo offers the bike boulevard.
But if that doesn’t make it clear, perhaps the other end—where Cascadilla Avenue intersects North Tioga Street—should demonstrate it well.
Pedestrians seem to know that the bike boulevard side of Cascadilla is safer. And this side, which shows the portion of the road where vehicles may lawfully enter and travel westward, features additional restrictions: a speed limit of 10 miles per hour, and a sign that clearly prohibits through traffic. Cascadilla functions as an alley; motorists should only use it to directly access the homes. Nothing else. But bicyclists can do whatever they want. Despite its modest scale, Cascadilla Avenue is a direct path to downtown Ithaca, and it’s no doubt a safer path for bicyclists than any of the neighboring streets, most of which offer two-way traffic, are wider, and thereby encourage higher speeds.
As bicycle boulevards go, this one in Ithaca is no great shakes. Only two blocks are a dedicated boulevard, with a third block (east of Tioga) serving as a minor alley that dead-ends; bicyclists can cut through without getting into too much trouble. And the boulevard’s intersection with three north-south streets—Cayuga, Tioga, and Aurora at the eastern edge—could be a bit more bike friendly, with widely visible crosswalks or even slightly raised ones which serve the dual function of a calming speed bump for vehicles. Oh well. Those would be costly improvements. All this bike boulevard required was some painted arrows/labels, a few extra road signs, and an upgrade to the railing protecting people from falling into Cascadilla Creek and its culvert. It’s still an effective path for bicyclists and pedestrians to make their way to or from downtown Ithaca, part of the city’s better bike network plan. And for those not keeping up with the Ithaca’s progressive joneses, at least now they have a sense of what a bicycle boulevard looks like. Even though they’re everywhere in Seattle, good luck finding one—a neighborhood greenway, that is.
6 thoughts on “Bicycle boulevard in a crunchy college community (Ithaca)—and good at getting over gorges.”
You knew I would be pedantic and chime in with answers to your micro questions so here goes:
What does a bicycle boulevard look like?: A 2 way cycle track plopped on top of a public street, most often 1 way for vehicles as you’ve shown, but not exclusively.
Do they serve enough purpose to justify the investment? : Oh yeah, for sure, as it is typically just paint and making more specific use of an existing street. As you surmise in this piece, it’s a *very* convenient direct path for bike riders (a huge win), but there are other redundant paths that are easy enough for drivers.
Do they keep bicyclists safe, and do they impede the ability for cars to get around? Most definitely keeps people safe as they are away from fast moving traffic and as I said above, there are other paths for drivers for the other direction.
This kind of thing works really well in traditional pre war designed areas with grids of streets. Yet another advantage to neo traditional design! Creating a very low stress bike network this way has a huge benefit with very little downside since it does’t preclude a car/scooter/or any other vehicle smaller than a truck and there are many other redundant paths for faster and larger vehicles. These are extremely common in the Netherlands. This is in contrast to the exorbitant costs of adding shared use paths (same experience for bike sans vehicles) in suburban areas where it often costs multiple millions of dollars per mile and produces many complaints by fiscal conservatives and mostly requires begging the federal/state governments for grant money.
Thanks for the lengthy explanation, Alex. Yeah I can’t see bike boulevards having much of an impact except in traditional grid-like street configurations. The effort needs to incentivize vehicles to use one of those alternative paths. And they’re easier for a municipality to justify construction if they require less investment. But, since they’re not always that conspicuous, doesn’t a cyclist have to be “in the know”? The odds of a person using a bike boulevard because he or she simply came across it seems slim. It’s usually deliberate, since it’ largely steers in a certain direction along path.
When you say that they’re more common in the Netherlands, would a woonerf count as standard infrastructure in a bike boulevard? I guess they mostly exist to calm traffic, but calmed traffic is intrinsically good for bicyclists too.
Typically, good wayfinding signage is important for things like bike boulevards, both for cyclists and motorists but even then, familiarity with an area is always important. I have heard people say that the first time they got on a bike in the Netherlands is was very confusing but once you learned your way around it’s was great. So it’s not just in places that are ill marked (like my knothole of Annapolis where there is zero wayfinding and you really have to know your way around to stay on the comfortable streets), but also important in bike friendly places.
I would say a woonerf is a woonerf and does not qualify as a bike boulevard because by definition a woonerf does not have any markings (for anyone, not just bikes) where a bike boulevard does.
Thanks for this clarification. I hope at some point in the weeks ahead to cover what I believe to be the closest I’ve seen to a woonerf in the United States. Still probably not the real deal, but at least inspired by one. It sounds like the biggest distinction of a bike boulevard is, as you note, the abundant signage, which usually is cheaper than actual grade changes akin to a protected bike lane or cycle track. Maybe not cheaper than simply painting a white line with a bike logo on it…but close.
When I lived in Canberra, Australia they had a network of bike lanes that allowed you to get all over the city easily
Ah yes, Canberra…one of the most quintessentially planned cities. Right up there with Brasilia and Washington DC. Yet Canberra put even more effort to transforming its road configuration into a work of art.
I only know this, though, because I had to write an extensive research paper on Canberra in grad school. Never been there (nor to Australia). I’m glad to hear they have such a strong network of bike lanes, which is probably helpful, given that bike boulevards may not work as well in a city that largely avoids a conventional street grid. I’ve also heard that, as aesthetic as Canberra often is, it feels so consciously designed that it loses a lot of its impulsivity and interest. As a result (its smaller size notwithstanding), its a much duller city than Sydney or Melbourne, or Brisbane or Perth for that matter. What were your thoughts on your time there?