August 13th, 2013

What Color is Your Street?

We’re big fans of color at PUBLIC, and we love to see it used intelligently in our public spaces to offset the grey asphalt that dominates our urban landscapes. We’ve add a fantastic infusion of green all throughout San Francisco this past month, making our bike lanes vivid, visible, safer, and cool, and giving our lanes newfound respect and esteem. Green won’t get as much acclaim as the International Orange of our Golden Gate Bridge, but it has made a huge improvement to our riding, and it prompted us to think more about the use of color in public.

Color can inspire, detract, and many times communicate messages about the use and behavior expected of people using public spaces. For example, in the United States, we generally recognize Blue as a signal for disabled accommodation or parking. Yellow means caution or slow down, while Red signifies stop. White might communicate a temporary or restricted loading zone. You won’t find Pink or Purple anywhere. As we see more cities implement separated bikeways to make bicycling safer and more accessible, the color Green has become the de facto standard color for many bike lanes.

Why Green bike lanes? There’s actually been a lot of research on the best color treatment for bike lanes. What it boils down to is that the choice of Green for bike lanes is not just an aesthetic color choice, but a choice based on color as a “traffic control device.”

According to the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD):

San Francisco’s new green bike lanes on Market Street Bike counter on San Francisco’s Market Street New green bike lanes on Fell Street in San Francisco

“A number of experiments have been conducted in the United States and in other countries around the world to determine the value of designating a particular pavement color to communicate to road users that a portion of the roadway has been set aside for exclusive or preferential use by bicyclists and to enhance the conspicuity of a bicycle lane or a bicycle lane extension. Green, blue, and red are among the colors that have been tested for this purpose. Because these colored pavements are intended to regulate, warn, or guide traffic (motorists and bicyclists) and thus are serving as more than just an aesthetic treatment, they are considered to be traffic control devices. For the past ten years in the United States, green has been the only color that has received official FHWA approval for colored pavement experiments on bicycle facilities.”

While Green has become a more standard bike lane color, there isn’t a specific shade of green that’s been specified. While neon green might work on most streets, it might not be the best shade for a green bike lane inside a park, a debate that occurred when San Francisco implemented a green bike lane in Golden Gate Park.

Not surprisingly, the color Green for bike lanes is not universally loved. Certain members of the film industry in Los Angeles are upset over Green bike lanes because the color makes post-production work more tedious.

We’re excited when we see an increase in green bike lanes because it signifies a city’s priority to invest in bicycling improvements. There’s even a concerted effort called The Green Lane Project to push for improvements in six U.S. cities.

We can disagree over Green as the best color choice, but hopefully we can agree that more bike lanes are better for all of us.