Athens-Clarke County is finalizing the Bike-Walk Plan contract with Toole Design Group. Work will soon begin on the new bike plan and ACC’s first ever walk-plan. We don’t know what the designs will look like—we don’t know what streets we’ll prioritize as a community—but we do know the philosophical and technical approach Toole will use: Low-Stress Streets.
We all can name streets around ACC that are stressful for biking and or walking. Broad Street, Gaines School, and Oak-Oconee can all be unpleasant if you are not in a car. Of course, we can all quickly name our favorite street. Usually they are calm, quiet and relaxing.
Stress is related to comfort. Previous surveys about biking reflect a need for more low-stress, comfortable streets and bike lanes. During the 2001 Bike Master Plan process, 61% of respondents reported being “uncomfortable” on a shared street. Only 41% claimed to be “very comfortable” in a bike lane. Planning towards a goal of low stress directly addresses these concerns. Everyone agrees that calm, comfortable, and safe streets are a worthy goal, but how do we get there?
First, we identify which streets are low-stress / high stress, according to more than intuition. Everyone has a different tolerance for traffic stress. There are methods for objectively defining a street’s level of stress. One of the landmark studies on Low-Stress Networks defines 4 levels of traffic stress (1 being the most relaxing; 4 being the most stressful). On a Level 2 street, people riding bikes are
“either physically separated from traffic, or are in an exclusive bicycling zone next to a well confined traffic stream with adequate clearance from a parking lane, or are on a shared road where they interact with only occasional motor vehicles […] with a low speed differential. […] Crossings are not difficult for most adults.”
The range of option reflects the need for context sensitivity. Different streets require different solutions. In plain English, a Level 2 street has a protected bike lane, or a bike lane with a buffer from parked cars, or has a low speed limit and few cars. And on Level 2 Streets, crossing bigger streets is not difficult for most adults.
Once we know what a low-stress street looks like, it becomes much easier to design streets, sidewalks, and bike lanes. If the street is a calm, low-speed street but has a difficult crossing, then we know we only need to improve the crossing. Similarly, perhaps the street would be Level 2 if there was a buffer between the bike lane and parked cars. The solution is apparent: add a more space between the bike lane and the cars.
To dramatically reduce stress, many cities are using protected bike lanes to physically separate traffic. Look at the two children using a protected bike lane in Massachusetts. This is a bike lane an 8 year old can use. This is a bike lane an 80 year old can use. This is a bike lane we can all use with “comfort and ease.” ACC needs this type of transparent design guidance. The new Bike-Walk Plan will provide it.