Michael Andersen, PlacesForBikes staff writer
A traffic diverter to reduce auto volumes; speed bumps to reduce auto speeds; sharrows for wayfinding; signals to cross large streets; minimal stop signs. But what does it add up to?
A few years ago, when PeopleForBikes set out to popularize the protected bike lane, we needed to settle on what to call protected bike lanes.
The accepted engineering term was “cycle track.” But it was increasingly clear that that phrase conjured images of athleticism and speed that most people found off-putting — and that were actually the opposite of the sort of biking a “cycle track” was designed for.
Now, PeopleForBikes needs to settle on our primary term for streets like this:
Also seen in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Portland Bureau of Transportation project manager Greg Raisman, a major force in popularizing this design in the U.S., likes to say that bicycle boulevards (as they’re known in the engineering world) are to protected bike lanes as buses are to rails.
Low in auto traffic, slow in speed and enhanced by traffic lights on big streets, they can’t get you everywhere you need to go — most destinations are on arterials, after all — but they’re great at connecting one big street to another.
And perhaps most excitingly, bike boulevards are good for a lot more than just biking:
Designed well, bike boulevards also function as low-cost linear parks, reclaiming public space for human use while still allowing car access as needed. They’re great for jogging on. The stoplights they create make it far easier to move around by foot or wheelchair. Many cities prioritize curb ramp improvements along bicycle boulevards, another boon to people with chairs or strollers.
All of which raises the question…
Is it time to stop using “bicycle boulevard” when talking to the public?
Many cities seem to think so. Since the phrase was invented by the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee in the early 1970s, the concept has spread widely — but the language has splintered wildly.
Portland, Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles use “neighborhood greenway.” St. Louis recently switched from “neighborhood greenway” to “calm street.” Denver and Philadelphia make it “neighborhood bikeway.” Vancouver, BC, uses “local street bikeway.” London uses “quietway.” San Francisco recently joined Louisville with the coinage “neighborway.”
And many other cities have embraced the original “bicycle boulevard” — but in some of the cities that have, those pushing the infrastructure seem to regret it.
We called and emailed with a couple dozen experts around the country to ask for their take on the right term. Here’s a selection of what they said about each.
Laura Sandt, director, Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, University of North Carolina: “The consensus here seems to be a preference for “bike boulevard” because it is what it says.”
Jennifer Toole, president, Toole Design Group: “I think there is an important reason for keeping the word ‘bicycle’ in the name somewhere: we need these routes to serve longer distance travel and therefore the intersections need to be designed for bicyclists (which is really important, esp at major intersections).”
Jennifer Allen, Leader Success Strategist, Ioby.org, and former director of strategic initiatives for TrailNet in St. Louis: “When I worked at Alta Planning for a stint, the firm had previously experienced residents thinking that bike boulevard meant that all cars would be removed and it would just be a boulevard for bikes. It caused MAJOR drama. It seemed to me that [in] other planning efforts, and across our field, there had been similar problems.”
Matthew Roe, director, NACTO Designing Cities Initiative: “We have no specific plans to depart from ‘bicycle boulevards’ for technical writing, but aren’t deeply in love with the term. … While the choice is to some degree historical, there’s no simple replacement for ‘bicycle boulevard’ that we’ve seen.”
Dave Campbell advocacy director, Bike East Bay: Campbell’s group uses “bike boulevard” in the city of Berkeley, which was an important early adopter of the concept, but they avoid it elsewhere. “The idea that you can just improve a street for one mode and not even think about the other modes is very soon to become an outdated concept.”
Dale Bracewell, transportation planning manager, Vancouver, B.C.: In 1995 Vancouver followed Palo Alto, Berkeley and Portland in embracing the bike boulevard concept, but was the first city to look for an alternative to the term. If it still used “boulevard,” Bracewell said, “the speed of bikes is really what the conversation might be about.”
Cathy Tuttle, founding executive director, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways: “‘Bike boulevards’ are too mode-specific and ‘boulevard’ suggests cars in my mind.”
Liz Cornish, executive director, Bikemore: “We use ‘bike boulevard,’ but I prefer ‘neighborhood greenway’ and have contemplated helping make the shift.”
Jed Weeks, policy director, Bikemore: “I dislike ‘bike boulevards,’ but don’t really like any replacements as they fail my test for plainly describing the outcome. ‘Neighborhood greenway’ is probably the one that comes closest, and I don’t have any better suggestions there.”
Jeannette Brugger, pedestrian and bicycle coordinator, Philadelphia: “‘Bike boulevard’ sounds like a major street to me. And just having ‘bike’ as the first word is a nonstarter in Philadelphia.”
Ann Chanecka, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, City of Tucson: “In the end what we found is that many people here were already familiar with the ‘bicycle boulevard’ term and nothing else rose to overtake it. … If a city hasn’t yet ventured into the ‘bicycle boulevard’ realm, I’d recommend against that terminology.”
“Neighborhood greenway,” “local street greenway”
Hannah Schafer, communications specialist, Portland Bureau of Transportation: Portland was in the middle of rolling out of 40 miles of bike boulevards when its project managers started experimenting with the term “neighborhood greenway,” inspired by Vancouver’s use of “local street greenway.” “Particularly in the neighborhoods that weren’t as receptive to biking, ‘neighborhood greenways’ was a term that sounded a little more inclusive. … ‘Neighborhood’ showed the neighborhood benefit, and then ‘greenways’ was both this parklike element that we were trying to put forward, and also ‘green’ as in sustainable.”
Mike Sellinger, planner, Alta Planning and Design: “We definitely see more people leaning toward ‘neighborhood greenways’ than ‘bike boulevards.'”
Sandt (PBIC): “‘Neighborhood greenway’ worked for Portland because they combined the bike and traffic calming features with stormwater treatment features, so it made sense, but to apply that to a bike boulevard without stormwater treatment features seems to be greenwashing. Also, in some communities, the term ‘greenway’ refers to an off-street path (sometimes along a waterway), not an on-street facility, so it’s inherently vague and confusing.”
Campbell (East Bay Bikes): “I think ‘neighborhood boulevard’ or ‘neighborhood greenway’ is probably the better term. … Then [instead of talking about bikes] you’re talking about bioswales, green infrastructure, pedestrian safety improvements.”
Roe (NACTO): “‘Neighborhood greenway’ is helpful if you know what it is, and it’s great for talking to neighborhoods about local benefits. It’s a little confusing on the East Coast, where bike boulevards are rarer and ‘greenway’ specifically refers to a multi-use path.”
Cindy Mense, director of Programs, TrailNet: The St. Louis advocacy group recently switched from “neighborhood greenways” to “calm streets.” “It was a group decision to avoid confusion with the linear parks / trails being built by Great Rivers Greenway — the names are too similar.”
Tuttle (Seattle Neighborhood Greenways): “I’m actually not a huge fan of ‘greenways’ these days. Folks often confuse urban greenways with forested multi-use trails.”
“Neighborhood bikeway,” “local street bikeway”
Brugger (Philadelphia): “We wanted to make sure that we put the word ‘neighborhood’ in there. … we need to continue to highlight the benefits for all modes. We wanted to use bikeway specifically because it’s a more generic term [than ‘boulevard’].”
Bracewell (Vancouver, BC): “It makes sense. [After we’ve communicated that it’s fundamentally part of a bike network] we can layer on walking, we can layer on public space.”
Sellinger (Alta): “Local street bikeway: It doesn’t get any more intuitive than that. Just simple and dry. … You’re going to know what that is just by hearing that.”
Rolf Eisinger, Bike and Pedestrian Program manager, Louisville Metro Government: Louisville coined the term in 2014 and has been using it since. “One of our former council members (Tom Owen) came up with the term and we liked it. The term seems to be working out well for us so far.”
James Wilson, executive director, Bike Delaware: Delaware has one bike boulevard project in the works and no fixed terminology yet, but Bike Delaware has been tentatively using “neighborway.” “I think we like ‘neighborway’ better than ‘bicycle street.’ [But] if you want my personal opinion, I turned 50 a few months ago, I spent two weeks in the Netherlands, and I biked on fietsstraat [literally: ‘bicycle streets’] for two straight weeks. And it became clear to me that we should just be talking about ‘bicycle streets.'”
Ben Jose, public relations officer, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency: San Francisco decided to launch a program this spring under the term “neighborway.” Jose said using a new term will help the city because residents won’t automatically assume that neighborways will have traffic diverters, as bike boulevards do in nearby Berkeley. “It’s something that was a little easier to communicate. … It’s a little bit more inclusive.”
Roe (NACTO): “Terms like quietway and neighborway seem vague and we haven’t heard them used often.”
Brugger (Philadelphia): “It’s a new word. I think that’s a big problem. These types of facilities are already new in Philadelphia … If you said ‘neighborway,’ it’s like, What mode are you talking about? And does that mean people in the neighborhood are not welcome? … That wouldn’t work for us, I think.”
Calm street, quietway, calmway
Brugger (Philadelphia): “‘Calmway’ is indicating that the other ways shouldn’t be calm, and we don’t want to use that either.”
Allen (Ioby): “I’ve never seen ‘quietway’ used. I don’t think it will have enough widespread appeal.”
And now, what’s your favorite?
There are surely more things to say, but let’s hear from you now. What style do you think PeopleForBikes should use and recommend to other cities, other things being equal?
We don’t promise that we’ll do what the majority says. But we definitely want to know what the majority thinks.
PlacesForBikes helps U.S. communities build better biking, faster. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about building all-ages biking networks. Story tip? Write [email protected]