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The Case for and Controversies around New Bicycle Facilities

There are great ideas for new bicycle facilities, plus strong connections to economic development, but there will be controversies.

In three recent posts (here, here, and here), I’ve spoken about bicycle use.  Specifically about how more bicycle use can benefit urbanism, about how helmet laws, school policies, and low bicycle adoption by youths may be limiting the growth of bicycling, and about how a frequent argument against additional bicycling facilities can be rebutted.

Today, I’ll look at much of the world is beginning to value bicycle facilities and what bicycle improvements of the 21st century might look like. Plus what the pushback might look like.

To set the stage, consider this quote from Ed Reiskin of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, "The most cost-effective transportation investment we can make is in bicycle infrastructure." He’s not suggesting that we don’t need to make continued accommodation for motor vehicles, only that more trips will be made per dollar of investment for bicycle facilities than for other facilities.

I suspect that Reiskin’s thought is more valid in congested San Francisco than in the outer reaches of drivable suburbia. But if it’s true in San Francisco, there will soon be more and more places where it’ll become true.

Jay Walljasper in Sharable Cities presents information from around the country about the connection between bicycles and economic development. During a joint bicycle ride, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak offered that "Biking is definitely part of our strategy to attract and retain businesses in order to compete in a mobile world"

Rybak continued "I was having dinner with a creative director that a local firm was eager to hire for a key post. He was an American living in Europe, and we spent most of the evening talking about the importance of biking and walking to the life of a city. He took the job."

Also in Minneapolis, the CEO of a large advertising firm tells Walljasper, "We moved from the suburbs to downtown Minneapolis to allow our employees to take advantage of the area’s many trails and to put the office in a more convenient location for commuting by pedal or foot. Our employees are healthier, happier, and more productive. We are attracting some of the best talents in the industry."

Walljasper notes that driving among young adults is declining, a trend that may be partially, but not fully, explained by the economic times. As reported by Walljasper, "The Federal Highway Administration found the miles traveled by drivers under 30 dropped from 21 percent to 14 percent of the total between 1995 and 2009." It was a time period that was only slightly impacted by the recession.

Walljasper further reports that "even Motor Trend magazine notes that the young professionals flocking to cities today are less inclined to buy cars and ‘more likely to spend the money on smartphones, tablets, laptops and $2,000-plus bikes.’"

Per Walljasper, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, also understands the value that bicycle facilities can add to a city. "One of the things that employees look at today is the quality of life and quality of transportation because of the ease that comes with it. And that ease is having trains as a choice, buses as a choice and bikes as a choice getting to and from work."

Similarly, Walljasper interviewed Ellen Jones, director of Washington’s Downtown Business Improvement District, who said, "It’s just crazy how biking has taken off here, especially the new bikeshare system which a lot of people are using for commuting."

Jones described the recent decision of a high-tech company looking for new office space, "A lot of their employees bike to work and they were concerned about whether they could easily get their bicycles upstairs. When bicycling is part of the final decision on where a company relocates, then we know its impact."

Finally, Walljasper talked with Martha Roskowski, director of the Green Lane Project, which promotes protected bike lanes across the country.  Rostowski described her perspective, "Cities that want to shine are building these kind of better bike facilities as part of a suite of assets that attract business. And they find that bike infrastructure is cheap compared to new sports stadiums and light rail lines, and can be done much faster."

The Green Lane Project brings us back closer to the North Bay.  As reported by Alexis Chavez in the San Francisco Chronicle, the City of San Francisco is one of six cities involved in the Green Lane Project. The City is implementing what it calls green tracks or cycle tracks, which are routes dedicated to bicyclists and separated from both street traffic and sidewalk pedestrians. The intention is to emulate north European cities such as Copenhagen. 

Bouncing back across the country, Jonathon Maus of BikePortland.org offers reporting on a recent speech by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg   Bloomberg noted the vast bicycle and pedestrian  improvements that have occurred during his administration, including banning traffic from Times Square.

Per Bloomberg "We’re using streets in ways they have not been used in a long time. Cyclists and pedestrians and bus rides are as important - if not, I would argue more important - as automobile riders. Transportation … it’s not sexy and certainly invites controversy. We’ve just got to keep developing, keep building sensibly, with some plans and community involvement; but not stopping."

Despite Bloomberg’s pride in the achievements of his administration, a contender to replace him in 2013 has already stated that removal of bicycle and pedestrian facilities would be among the first priorities of his administration.

The subject of challenges to bicycles lanes is timely, because a controversy recently erupted in Toronto on that exact topic. Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, was elected from the drivable suburbs around the fringe of Toronto. His mayoral agenda has been contrary to pretty much every urbanist belief, including the need for bicycle facilities.

His most recent action was to successfully push for the removal of a bicycle lane which was installed under his predecessor’s administration and is currently handling up to 1,000 bicycle trips per day. 

The bicycling community came together in outrage.  Mick Sweetman of Rabble.ca argues that the lane removal is poor public policy, while Chris Bateman of Blogto.com catalogues the Twitter responses to the removal. And Steve Fisher of Torontoist.com reports on a recent bicycle ride on the soon-to-be-removed lane. Many of the riders were in zombie attire, moaning "Laaaanes" instead of "Braaaains" and contending that the bicycle lane would remain among the "undead".

I’ll close by suggesting the Mayor Bloomberg hit the most important note about bicycling, and about the broader topic of urbanism, when he said "We’ve just got to keep developing, keep building sensibly, with some plans and community involvement; but not stopping."

Too often, urbanist momentum has been waylaid by attempts to overbuild consensus or to appease a final property owner. So much of the development environment is already stacked against urbanism that we can’t afford to let ourselves be too easily stopped.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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Dave Alden November 14, 2012 at 07:41 PM
Dan makes a good point here. Policy makers can easily misjudge what bicycle facilities would be more safe or more desirable. it's an area in which intuition can often fail badly. The UBC study he notes is interesting. Another study I've read is from Portland State and finds that even experienced bicyclists will ride a surprisingly long extra distance to avoid climbing a hill. I intend to write about both studies in the near future.
Dan Lyke November 14, 2012 at 09:27 PM
Dave, I don't know what the schedule for the MUP beside the SMART rail is, but presumably when that's completed it would be a way to the outlets. There's already a path of some sort (that I haven't explored) from the Town & Country Shopping Center along the rails that curves over and meets up with the outlet parking lot. My personal shopping preferences don't generally include (outlet) malls, so I don't understand the potential tourist draw, but my continued mantra is "I am not a market sample". So it could very well be that there's some market for people who arrive on the train to bike to the mall. On the other hand, if you consider that the purpose of the mall is shopping, you also have to have a way to get their merchandise back, and that's where the utopian bike to train dream falls apart for me...
Dave Alden November 14, 2012 at 10:24 PM
Dan, good thought on the MUP. It'll provide a far better route to the Factory Outlets than Petaluma Boulevard North. On carrying purchases home by bicycle, I suspect that the shop in store & ship home merchandising model will gain more ground. It doesn't appeal much to me, but, like you, I'm not representative of the average consumer. I'm reminded of that every time I go on vacation and find myself diverging from the tourist mob.
Paul Werbaneth November 15, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Great piece Dave. I was just having coffee Tuesday with a European colleague; at some point our conversation rolled around to the bicycle-friendly country of Austria, where there is a well built-out infrastructure of biking paths to get you from Point A to Point B, whether for pleasure or for commuting purposes. Making use of bicycles then becomes one of the viable options for deciding on a daily basis how to get to work, to the store, to the restaurant, or to school, and, on weekends, becomes one of the ways to get out, exercise, and enjoy nature. Those crafty Europeans!
Dave Alden November 16, 2012 at 05:28 PM
Paul, thanks for commenting. There's no doubt that the Europeans are far ahead of the U.S. in bicycle use. I think there are a number of reasons for the difference. A long history of pre-automotive walking trails that created a network of easements which could be converted to bicycling. Urban settings into which bicycles were easier to introduce than cars. Gasoline pricing that long encouraged alternatives. Even the lessons of two world wars in which bicycles were a necessary means of locomotion during times of privation. But none of that means that the U.S. can't make strides to close the gap.

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