Contemporary cycling in the United States is largely viewed by the public as a recreational endeavor. However, it was not always this way. For distances greater than that easily covered on foot, bicycles were the preferred mode of local transportation prior to the early 1900s when the automobile came into wider use. During the next half decade, bicycles were seen primarily as children’s toys. The 1970s and 1980s brought a new boom in bicycle sales for adult recreational purposes and this was augmented by the “Lance effect” in the early 2000s, introducing a large number of people to performance cycling.
As a result, most infrastructure built in the latter half of the 20th century was geared around this recreational aspect of cycling, primarily off road paths in parks, “rails to trails” efforts and even mountain bike facilities. It is only in the last 10 years that urban areas have started to look again at bicycles as part of their transportation strategy and to construct suitable infrastructure to implement it. By most measures these efforts have been fairly successful in increasing the numbers of transportation cyclists, but still not to a level of places like the Netherlands where there is upwards of 30% bicycle mode share. The United States will likely never achieve that kind of mode share if for no other reason than our systemic land use issues, but in areas where the land use patterns do support bicycle transportation, we can get to more modest shares like that of Portland (7+%). What actions can be taken take to increase this mode share?
There are four types of transportation cyclists: Strong and Fearless (<1%), Enthused and Confident (7%), Interested but Concerned (60%) and No Way No How (33%). To this I would add a fifth group: “Unseen Bicyclists”, who have no particular interest in cycling other than as a nearly free mode of transportation that is faster than walking. In order to get to work they often must ride in inhospitable areas for cyclists.
In years past, transportation cycling in urban areas has included the three of the five smallest groups, personified by the bike messenger (Strong and Fearless), the racer who decides to commute (Enthused and Confident) and the guy riding the squeaky mountain bike on the sidewalk late at night (Unseen Bicyclist). Together, these groups never reach the critical mass/tipping point where transportation cycling would be seen as something normal people do. The question is how to encourage the largest untapped group (Interested but Concerned) to embrace transportation cycling as a way of life?
Infrastructure Is The Key
I use the word “infrastructure” here as it captures the Zeitgeist, but to be more precise, I mean the built environment that cyclists experience trying to get from place A to place B. Interested but Concerned cyclists who would definitely drive to a safe place to ride recreationally, first and foremost, need to feel safe in order to participate in transportation cycling. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition that, if not met, significantly degrades the return on investment of any infrastructure as it will not be widely used. Critics will point out that there s no demand, and thus a waste of money. The largest factor in achieving this perception of safety is separating cyclists from fast moving vehicles. An on road bike lane on a 6 lane arterial with speeds of 40+ mph, often the result of Complete Streets efforts implemented by state DOTs, while fine for a fast road cyclist, is not going to make the average Interested but Concerned cyclist feel safe.
The second condition that must be met to entice Interested but Concerned cyclists is that the routes need to be direct and efficient from a time standpoint. Dedicated cyclists inherently like cycling as an activity and as a result are willing to “pay extra” in terms of time and effort to do it, but in order for regular people to take up transportation cycling, there has to be real value over other modes. Most recreational bicycle facilities that feel safe are often circuitous or if they are direct, require cyclists to stop at every cross street or curb cut or even worse require pressing a beg button and waiting a full light cycle, making the trip an annoying and time consuming process. As Strong Towns pointed out in the “Follow the Rules Bikers” piece, typically our cycling infrastructure is geared to automobiles, which puts bicycles on the same footing as cars. If there is no time saving advantage, why not just drive? That’s what the Interested but Concerned cyclist would do.
Residential neighborhoods with low and slow traffic offer acceptable routes for the Interested but Concerned cyclists and can be direct if the development pattern is a grid of streets with good connectivity. But so often local subdivision regulations or requests by residents close off streets to through traffic and once they are closed, very hard to reopen even for pedestrian or bicycle access. Yet, they can have a significant positive impact on the efficiency of a route.
Start With An Insider
A decidedly un-Strong Towns approach to getting Interested but Concerned cyclists engaged in transportation cycling would be to advocate for a huge pot of Federal transportation dollars and plan a perfect Shangri La bicycle network. Municipal governments often won’t do anything because of the perfect solution fallacy. They know this approach is not workable so anything incremental is rejected because it isn’t a complete plan and problems would still exist.
A better Strong Towns approach would be to work incrementally starting initially with a “do no harm” mantra and building on that to address the issues mentioned above. The number one action a municipal government can take to prevent further harm is adding a dedicated pedestrian/bicycle planner to the staff who has a seat at the table for any infrastructure development and maintenance projects. The singular focus of a subject matter expert who really understands the perspective of the Interested but Concerned, can point out bad designs before they are implemented. Additionally, the insider cultivating relationships with local cycling advocacy groups can be a force multiplier in this regard, utilizing a broad network of people who understand issues at a hyper-local level. This is the foot in the door that will provide internal advocacy for early input to projects. Collectively that will improve the infrastructure over time to raise the interest and reduce the concern in transportation cycling.
An Illustrative Project
I will end with a local example that highlights how a cycling subject matter expert might have prevented a disaster from happening. In Anne Arundel County, there is an on road bike lane along a well-traveled recreational route to view the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis Maryland where I live. It’s essentially a 4-5’ shoulder with bike lane markings. Not great, but good enough to make the average recreational cyclist comfortable, and sadly one of only two marked bike lanes in a county with 4000 lane miles of road under its jurisdiction.
The expansion of a local church required a turn lane according to the County code. However, this situation was complicated by the presence of a park next door. The park has some recreational paths that are contained within the park and do not serve a transportation purpose in any way. The engineering company that did the design work is a respected regional firm, but the design that was approved by the County makes very little sense from a transportation cyclist’s point of view.
The design makes an assumption that due to the proximity of the park all cyclists are going to be riding on the path around the park – the standard recreational assumption. Because the County does not have a subject matter expert on staff, they assumed that extending the park path in lieu of the bike lane was a benefit, not a detriment. Anyone with local/contextual knowledge would have flagged this design as unresponsive to the typical cyclist pattern and it could have been easily corrected prior to construction with no adverse effect to the church by maintaining the bike lane straight through. Sadly, it was not seen until after concrete had been poured, making a correction difficult and costly.