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Why Salt Lake City Chose to Build the First Protected Intersection for Bicycling in the U.S.

Published: 05/08/2015
By Sarah Goodyear, CityLab -- The latest innovation in bicycle infrastructure isn’t happening in Portland, Oregon, or New York City, or even Minneapolis. No, the newest thing in safer streets is being rolled out in a somewhat lower-profile bike venue: Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake, as I reported last year, has steadily been upgrading its non-automobile transportation system across the board. Mayor Ralph Becker’s administration has introduced a veritable buffet of new options, including a robust light rail network and a growing bike-share system, as well as a low-cost multimodal transit pass for city residents. Now, Salt Lake will be the first city in the United States to implement a protected intersection for bicycles (h/t to Streetsblog USA for highlighting this story). The innovative design will keep cyclists on two intersecting protected bike lanes safe and separated from motor traffic as they move across one of the city’s notoriously wide junctions. It is due to be completed this fall.

The protected intersection concept, adapted from similar designs in the Netherlands, has been promoted by Nick Falbo, a senior planner at Alta Planning + Design in Portland, Oregon. Last year, for the George Mason University 2014 Cameron Rian Hays Outside the Box Competition, he produced an animated video that demonstrates how it can work. Using a combination of concrete islands, specially timed signals, and painted markings, the protected intersection creates a clear and sensible environment where all users—on foot, on bike, and in cars—have plenty of time and space to see and react to one another.

Robin Hutcheson, Salt Lake City’s transportation director, says that in this case the intersection design isn’t innovative for innovation’s sake—it’s the most sensible solution to a practical problem that came up when the city decided to build a new protected bike lane on a major thoroughfare. It will intersect with an existing protected lane, built last fall, a situation that may itself be unique in the United States.

“The question was, how were we going to handle this in a way that was good for the street?” says Hutcheson. “We looked at the entire range of possibilities, and this just made so much sense. We know that ‘protected’ is what people are asking for. It creates safety and comfort. We have the space. It solves some of our parking issues. We’re able to do so much with this one design.”

The final plan resulted from “considered and deliberate” conversations with the city’s transportation team, including transportation planner Colin Quinn-Hurst and several other staffers, in consultation with Falbo.

Falbo says that he thinks the Salt Lake City intersection will open the door for more U.S. cities to consider similar design innovations. The model could be adapted, he says, even on streets without protected bike lanes, giving people on bikes added safety at intersections and making turns easier and more logical.

“We get a lot of cities calling us and asking us about this design,” he says. “They want to know, who else has done it and how has it worked? My hope is once people see how well it works, it will help convince others.”

Hutcheson says she’s confident that her city has found the best solution to an unprecedented challenge. “This project in particular is the result of some really smart and innovative and judicious minds in a room, talking about how to deal with this,” she says. “I keep coming back to, we had to do something different, and chose the best design. And it just happened to be something new.”