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Monday, July 9, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Life in the bike lane

Anne Lusk of Harvard's School of Public Health has a startling — many would say quixotic — ambition for America's cities. She'd like to equip them all with cycle tracks.

Cycle tracks? Does she mean the painted buffer lane for bikes you see on some streets? No! Those lanes are easily blocked by vehicles attempting to park. And they leave cyclists within inches of fast cars and monster trucks; if there's any error, you know who get hurts, often badly.

Cycle tracks, notes Lusk, are actually a separated part of the roadway yet distinct from the roadway, distinct from the sidewalk. In their purest form — Odense, Denmark, where 50 percent of all city journeys are by bicycle — the paths even have their own traffic signals.

What actually separates the cycle track? It can be a long, narrow curb. Or a line of cones or concrete barriers. Or metal stanchions. Or a line of trees and other vegetation (an on-street greenway).

Another solution, tried on relatively wide streets in Bogota, Paris, London and elsewhere, is to move the parking lane several feet from the sidewalk, creating a new lane for cyclists between the sidewalk and parked cars. Brooklyn-based bicycle advocate/blogger Aaron Naparstek has an excellent online video celebrating that solution (www.streetfilms.org/archives/physically-separated-bike-lanes/).

OK, why should we go to all this trouble — and years of reconstruction, and unquestionable expense?

Global warming is the biggie: Bicycles are zero emitters of CO2 emissions that are shaping up as the planet's greatest peril in this century.

Then there's the obesity epidemic. For public health, cycling does help millions; it could help tens of millions of Americans stay slimmer.

As a New Yorker interviewed in Naparstek's video says: "I've lived in 10 different cities around the world. ... The thing about a separated bike lane is you feel totally separate." Which means you get a ton more people on the streets — mothers, kids, even at rush hour you think nothing of it."

In today's America, cycling is too often the preserve of athletic men who don't mind heading out into the fast-moving main lanes of traffic.

Great for those guys if they think they can handle it, says Lusk. The most extreme among them, she notes, don't even want to have a white-painted bike lane.

But if the numbers of Americans who bike regularly remain overwhelmingly male and macho, she warns, huge portions of the American population — women, seniors, children on their way to school, and men who use more caution — will never join in. We'll never save the energy, reduce the carbon emissions, lighten the vehicle traffic, make the health gains we could.

Opponents of cycle lanes argue that they are a bad idea because earlier research showed them to be more hazardous than sharing the road with regular motor traffic.

Lusk replies that the research cited is dated, based on earlier-style bike tracks with less-safe curb cuts and intersection crossings.

Just check around the world, she says — to China, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Australia and elsewhere — to find positive examples of cycle tracks that draw entire populations, all ages, both sexes, into daily, overwhelmingly safe use.

It's time to stop assuming, she insists, "that what works for men will work for the rest of the population." The clear fact, she argues, is that women tend by nature to be more cautious. They simply won't try biking (or encourage their children to bike around town) until it appears to be, and is, a lot safer.

The pitch for exclusive bike lanes does come at a moment of potential serious change, as societies seek to reduce many short car trips that account for a growing share of auto emissions. A big potential is seen, for example, in getting more people to haul groceries in bike saddlebags or tote their small children in bike seats. From "active elderly" to children biking to school, major new user groups are being developed across the world.

It is true — the U.S. has a long way to go to get serious about bike usage, including dedicated cycle paths. Even leading cycling cities (Eugene and Corvallis, Ore., for example) lack contiguous grids of separated bikeways.

But who is to deny that our towns and cities (and environment) need bicycling opportunities, safe routes that serve both sexes and all ages? The debate should be about the how, not the whether.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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