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Guide to bikeway typology

As urban cycling becomes more common, new terms are entering the lexicon that people may not be completely familiar with. Here is a guide to the most common types of urban bikeways.

There are seven basic types of bicycle travelways. In increasing order of separation quality, they are:

Image from Google Street View.
Mixed traffic
Mixed traffic bikeways are simply regular streets on which bikes are permitted to mix with cars. Almost every street in existence qualifies, except those with dedicated bike facilities, or the few where bikes are specifically outlawed (such as Interstate highways).

Many jurisdictions designate unaltered mixed-traffic streets deemed to be inherently bike-friendly as "suggested bike routes." Arlington's bike map provides a good example: white-colored streets are normal roads, while blue-colored streets are suggested bike routes. Both white and blue qualify as mixed-traffic bikeways. Some cyclists prefer to ride in mixed traffic rather than on dedicated facilities.

Photo by Eric Gilliland on Flickr.
Sharrow street
Sharrow streets are mixed traffic roads on which graphics have been applied to the roadway indicating that cars and bikes should share the full lane as equals.

Sharrows notify drivers that they should expect bicycles on that street, and indicate to bicyclists that is safe to ride in the center of the street rather than on the sidewalk or in the door zone. They are the minimum bike-specific infrastructure applied to shared-use roads.

Photo from Google Street View.
Bike lane
Bike lanes are the most common type of bike-specific infrastructure in most cities. They are lanes painted onto a street that are designated for use by bicycles, but which are not physically protected from lanes used by cars.

Most bike lanes are located on the extreme right of the through part of the street, but to the left of the parking lane or right-turn lane (if they are present). Drivers are allowed (and in most jurisdictions, are supposed to) merge into bike lanes before turning right.

The most common type of bike lane is designated with white paint as shown in the picture. Some jurisdictions take the extra step of painting them green or blue at key locations in order to increase visibility. Another modification to the standard bike line is to add a painted buffer that increases the separation between bikes and cars. Painted or buffered bike lanes may be considered "enhanced."

Photo by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious on Flickr.
Bike boulevard
Bike boulevards are pathways specifically optimized for bikes through a variety of techniques, but on which cars are also permitted (though sometimes discouraged) to operate in mixed traffic, except in the case of dead-end streets where bikes are permitted to continue forward but not cars.

Optimization techniques are not standardized, but may include lane markings, chicanes (and other traffic calming measures), car access restrictions, bike-optimized intersection treatments, and any number of other potential enhancements. Although bike boulevards are technically mixed traffic streets, the degree of extra bike-specific infrastructure is considerably greater than on sharrow streets.

As far as I am aware, there are not currently any bike boulevards in the DC area, although Arlington is considering two parallel to Columbia Pike. There are some cases where a short trail through a wooded area or a non-auto bridge across a stream provides cyclists with a more direct route between discontiguous streets than cars can take. There are several examples of this in DC's suburbs, and most can be discovered by using Google Maps' cycling directions.

Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.
Sidepaths are off-street bikeways that are built as extensions of the sidewalk. They provide complete physical separation from cars except at intersections with cross streets.

Some sidepaths are shared with pedestrians, while others designate separation from pedestrians using paint or unique paving materials. Those that do are sometimes referred to as a subset of cycle tracks since they are intended to be exclusive to bikes, but they have a lesser degree of separation from pedestrians than true cycle tracks.

Photo by the author.
Cycle track
In North American usage, cycle tracks are segments of roads that are completely exclusive to bikes, physically separated from all other modes. The most common form is as an on-street bike lane placed between the curb and row of parked cars, but separation can also be obtained through other means such as bollards or additional curbs.

Cycle tracks can come in many shapes and sizes, and are generally considered to be the pinnacle of street-adjacent bikeways. In Europe the term is more general and can be synonymous with bike lane.

Photo by TouringCyclist on Flickr.
Trail / shared-use path
Trails are dedicated car-free travelways that follow their own unique route. They are intended to be not only off-street, but to be completely free of any interaction with cars at all. Even street crossings are intended to be extremely rare, and ideally are grade separated.

Most trails are technically shared-use paths, which means pedestrians are permitted to use them as well, but the degree of separation from cars is such that trails are generally considered to be superior to cycle tracks and all other forms of bike infrastructure. The bulk of the paved trails in greater Washington, and in most US cities, follow abandoned railroad rights-of-way or the banks of streams or rivers.

The full gamut of bicycle infrastructure includes many other types of enhancements, such as bike boxes and bike stations, but these are the seven basic types of bicycle travelways available.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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this could be better. If you are going to separate out bike boulevards and sharrows, they should still be under what you call mixed traffic. (Cal. has three definitions, Class 1, 2, and 3. 3 are what you call mixed traffic. 2 are defined lanes. 1 are paths outside of the ROW.) The difference is the level of special treatment and marking:

- no markings
- bike route sign
- sharrow marking (on street)
- bike boulevard, usually signs and special design treatments, not unlike traffic calming
- bike lanes
- sidepaths (typically not a center city treatment)

All a sharrow is is onstreet marking of a bike route.

Class 2 facilities are defined bike lanes in the ROW. That would include a sidepath and a cycletrack/buffered bike lanes, although because cycletracks are separated from through motor vehicle traffic, some people consider them Class 1, although...

Class 1 facilities are separated bike and or shared use trails that are "outside of the ROW." These lanes may be managed by either parks authorities or departments of transportation. Since they are out of the ROW, you can have cycletracks as either Class 1 or 2 facilities as part of the California definition.

Note that cycletracks by definition do not mix pedestrians and cyclists and shared use paths do.

by Richard Layman on Aug 17, 2011 12:31 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this! For a next version, may I make a request for the laws/regulations/expectations for cyclists for each type of bikeway?

by ForTheShorties on Aug 17, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

You might want to add one other facility: the shoulder. In many places, shoulders are the main bike routes. Until recently, Maryland state law required us to ride there.

by Jim T on Aug 17, 2011 1:21 pm • linkreport

This is handy.

I think the number one contribution here is answering the question "What the hell is a sharrow?", which I think is the only non-self explanatory type of bikeway. I would have structured this article around the sharrow and then placed it into the typology of completely obvious bikeways.

by Ward 1 Guy on Aug 17, 2011 1:49 pm • linkreport

Jim: Good point. I added a sentence about shoulders to the BeyondDC version under the bike lanes section, but don't have David would have to modify the GGW version.

Ward 1 Guy: The post actually grew out of a couple of discussions I've had elsewhere recently about what qualified as bike boulevards and as cycle tracks.

by BeyondDC on Aug 17, 2011 1:58 pm • linkreport

With a few exceptions cyclists can use any roadway they want to use, but I would not consider "Mixed Traffic" a type of bikeway. In fact it means no bikeway is planned. In recent DDOT presentations, when they are showing a variety of design alternatives, there is generally a category for bike facilities. In alternatives that have no bike facilities planned the bikeway type is generally labeled "mixed traffic". This implies accommodation, where there is really is none.

by Eric on Aug 17, 2011 5:11 pm • linkreport

I think the author forgot to add downtown sidewalks and crosswalks. Pedestrians are almost hit by bikes who share those.

by ed on Aug 18, 2011 4:12 pm • linkreport


Thanks for helping to educate. Most people have no idea about this stuff, or what it really means when they see it.

For the same reason, the National Association of City Transportation Officials just published their NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide. I hope everyone here will read it, link to it, and help spread it around; and, endorse it.

We'll do our best to spread this article around too!

by Matt O'Toole on Aug 19, 2011 2:21 pm • linkreport

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