Riding through a city on a bike lane that’s separated from cars feels great. But when you roll up to a light, the infrastructure often vanishes, leaving you feeling vulnerable as you cross busy lanes of traffic. Now a new type of intersection might keep cyclists safer and more visible. And it was created by a designer who used to make video games.
The US’s first “protected intersection” opened this month on a busy corner in Salt Lake City. With only a few modifications to the traditional car-centered intersection, it keeps cyclists completely separated from vehicular traffic, makes them easier to see, and even gives them a head start at the light.
The protected lane (also called a cycletrack) has been proven to make cycling in cities safer and encourage more people to ride. Yet even as the US entered into a true biking renaissance, no one had managed to design a intersection that’s just as safe as the lanes. Other countries might provide good examples for how to move lots of bikes around—you can drool over what’s essentially a freeway-scale roundabout for Dutch cyclists—but these ideas get tricky when transportation planners try to adapt them to US road design standards. Planners had been attempting it since the 1970s, according to a Streetsblog article by Marc Caswell. But what works in The Netherlands—where people ride bikes more than any other transportation mode—doesn’t always work here.
Four years ago, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) released the Urban Bikeway Design Guidelines for US cities. These guidelines provided plenty of acceptable standards for protected lanes but few good ideas for intersections. Nick Falbo, one of the urban planners who helped with NACTO’s guidelines, was convinced the US could do better. He started sketching out the idea for what would be known as the protected intersection.
Falbo works at Portland’s Alta Planning + Design on projects ranging from block-long streetscape reinventions to large-scale initiatives like Seattle’s citywide bike plan. And he understood the challenge: To truly change the way bike intersections are built in the US meant getting new ideas into the federal roadway design standards. But new ideas couldn’t be published in the federal standards unless they had already been tested in the real world. “This was a little too far ahead of the game—it had never been done,” says Falbo, who described it as the quintessential Catch-22. “We can’t put it in the guide until it’s been done, so how to we inject this idea into the infrastructure?”
It turned out that Falbo had an important tool at his disposal. Before he went back to planning school, Falbo had been a video game designer, working as an animator on blockbuster game franchises like Rock Band and Mass Effect. He illustrated his plan for cyclists using his experience bringing virtual worlds to life.
Tapping his animation background, Falbo created a video that showed how the protected intersection would help keep people on bikes safely apart from vehicular traffic. Instead of a wonky, planner-focused approach, Falbo used approachable graphics and accessible language. And he collected the video and other tools at a website he named the Protected Intersection project. The idea was quickly published across a wide variety of sites—not just bike blogs.
It wasn’t long before Salt Lake City transportation planners reached out to Falbo and said they wanted to try his idea. This city of extra-wide streets—thanks to Mormon community planning—is known for experimenting with vehicular flow, so it’s only natural that planners would start looking at its growing bike network the same way. They even had the perfect candidate intersection: A densely populated corner where two major bike corridors crossed.
The intersection opened this month but already it’s not alone. There are similar protected intersections popping up in places like Davis, California, a city famous for its bike culture, and an unfinished one in Austin, Texas. Boston also has one in the works. Falbo thinks that improving the bike intersection is the key to the US bike movement’s growth because these areas are often the weak links in a bike network. “Cities are creating mature bikeway networks with multiple bike lanes that connect and cross each other,” he says. “They will all face this dilemma and need the best and safest solution.”
This particular solution might never have seen the light of day if Falbo hadn’t employed his animation expertise to drum up excitement. Planners often resort to explaining their ideas in text-heavy memos and wordy resolutions, but writing isn’t always the best way to prescribe change for a city, says Falbo. “Planners are inherently storytellers, here to tell stories about a place—what the problems are, what the potential futures could be.” Let’s hope more planners learn from his approach to build better cities for all.
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA