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Bike, Meet the City. City, This is the Bike.


By Mary Catherine O’Connor

What will bike-friendly cities look like ten years from now? As citizens around the world raise the demand for human-powered transportation infrastructure, major cities are starting to re-imagine their car-centric transportation models.

Are more American residents bike-commuting as a regular practice? You betcha. According to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), bike commuting increased 30 percent in the past year. And this seems to be a national trend. It grew 75 percent in New York City since 2000, doubled in Portland, Ore., in the last five years, and the number of cyclists on Washington, D.C. streets surged a full 100 percent between 2004 and 2006.

What does this look like on a city level? On Thursday, May 8, 2008, from 8 am to 9 am, the SFMTA counted 406 bicyclists rolling into the city’s downtown, heavily congested corridor on one street alone. During that same time, it counted 338 cars moving down the same stretch of roadway. This is the first year that bikes outnumbered cars outside of Bike to Work Day.

But city streets are still often inconvenient, if not downright hostile, to non-drivers. To catch up with demand and encourage even more citizens to cycle, cities from Sao Paulo to Philadelphia are rolling out Bicycle Master Plans (we've covered some on Worldchanging). Though the details vary from city to city, the plans share fundamental pillars: universal access, education/promotion, positive reinforcement for non-car transit and laws to enforce the plans. Critical to success is extending an invitation to bike commuters with amenities like bike-and-pedestrian paths through busy corridors, bike lanes on streets, and safety features like Portland's bike boxes. Even little nods to cyclists, like this bike-friendly trash can, help break the cycle of car-centric thinking.

But designing a bike-friendly city is about more than giving bikes designation as a segment of traffic flow. It means looking at your environment from the seat of a bicycle, and then transforming what you see in order to make you and your bike fit comfortably and safely into the picture. Those transformations are springing up from city governments, advocacy groups and even motivated individuals.

What follows is a roundup of some solutions for more bike-able cities:

Bikes, Transit and Traffic
Adjusting mass transit systems with cyclists in mind can allow commuters to combine bikes with trains and buses. This can extend access to residents of suburban or far-flung urban areas. Adding bikes to the already-crowded trains and buses can cause some strife—so much so that bike commuters sometimes find themselves stranded on platforms as crowded trains pass them by. Space-saving bike racks inside trains can help alleviate the problem. Many large cities also offer bike parking options, linked with transit hubs. And bike-sharing can help commuters connect the transit dots without toting their own bikes. Public bikes, parked near transit stations, let riders travel from bus to train, or from the train station to the mall, without ever bringing a bike on board.

Traffic policies are another important piece of any alternative transportation plan. Disincentives for driving not only encourage drivers to pick another mode of transport, they also reduce traffic and make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Congestion pricing systems in London, Stockholm and Singapore require drivers to pay to bring cars into dense urban areas at certain times. Several U.S. cities are considering similar plans.

And here's a cool idea taking root in Norway: bike tubes can address two hurdles -- bad weather and bad drivers -- at the same time.

Bike Stations
The new mobility is about imagining the cyclist's answer to the parking garage, gas station, car wash, mechanic, etc. There are business opportunities aplenty here, as well as smart cooperative models for transit systems and merchants.

Mellow Johnny’s in Austin, Texas is part bike shop, part café and part cycling support center. It offers one location where bike commuters can park, shower, socialize, access maps and get their gear repaired. Austin city planners hope the center, which was opened in May 2007 by star cyclist Lance Armstrong, will be a valuable resource for the city, as rapid population growth is expected to further congest vehicular traffic.

At Chicago's Millennium Park (which opened in 2004), bikestation members pay $25 per month for overnight bike storage, showers, lockers and discounts on bike and car-sharing. Want in on it? Write Mayor Daley and ask for more capacity: there’s always waiting list for memberships.

And co-op bike shops like the Bike Kitchen in SF and the Eugene Bicycle Works, are addressing an interest in community and DIY repair.

Bikes and The Joneses
All the urban infrastructure improvements in the world won’t change the fact that hordes of Americans think that the bicycle is just something their kids interact with, or that biking is just something they do on weekends (after loading their bikes in the car and driving to a park, no less) or that biking is just too dangerous. So a cultural shift will be required.

This kind of social re-engineering has already begun in Bogota, Columbia, where weekly Ciclovia (or “parkway”) events ban cars from 70 miles of city streets, allowing more than one million residents to cruise on bike and foot. The focus is not just cleaning the air but also allowing families a cheap means of recreating while riding, or walking, roller-skating or whatever. Lots of US cities, including Portland, Cleveland, El Paso and others, are adopting smaller versions of the Ciclovia.

These events are being very well received, which is great—but alas, riding only on the weekend with your kids on traffic-less streets does not a transportation revolution make. Events such as Bike to Work Day help get masses of riders out for special events, but other incentives are needed to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes on a regular basis, whether it’s for a work commute or just running errands. Non-profit groups like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Cascade Bicycle Club and others, offer bike education courses that help cyclists of all abilities and experience learn routes, safety techniques, and legal info to help them feel more comfortable cycling in the city streets. And organizations like Seattle's Spokespeople organize short trips designed to show new riders what it's really like, and to get them excited to travel on two wheels.

Read about the safest bike city in America and other international bike solutions in our archives.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor lives in San Francisco, with her husband, dog, and five bikes.

Photo credit: Steve Rhodes, licensed by Creative Commons.

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I'm a daily bicycle commuter in Austin, Texas. I'm lucky since my workplace has a shower that makes bike commuting all the more socially practical.

The no. 1 objection I hear from co-workers about cycling to work is that they feel it's too dangerous. Besides the easy stats re: bike fatalities per million hours vs. automobile (and the fact that these same objectors contribute to any danger by driving their cars a mile or two to work), I wonder why more cities with bike lanes don't simply install physical barriers (a curb?) to alleviate the psychological barriers of would-be cyclists.

As your article points out, it's important for cycling planners to and see what it's like in order to come up with reasonable solutions that remove some of the more obvious objections to commuting by bicycle.

Posted by: Bob on 19 Jul 08

Distance. This is the main problem. If you can't bike to your destination in 10 minutes or less than most people don't want to do it. The solution then is to create a more compact city where everything is in close proximity. Services and jobs need to be within walking distance of housing (no more than 1/2 mile). Cities that are compact are much more bicycle-friendly. In addition, the walkable street grid is much safer to cycle on since motorists have to slow down when making a right-angle turn (compared to the gradually curving streets of the suburbs which allow one to make a turn at 30mph).

So, a really great cycling city is one that is designed for walking. A city that is designed for walking is high in density and vibrancy and is designed with proximity and pedestrian access in mind. Just my 2 cents.

FWIW, I am also a resident of Austin but refuse to cycle anywhere because it is just too damn hot and unpleasant to cycle 10 miles to the grocery store and back with cars zipping past me at 60mph. Austin, unfortunately, is a post WWII city built completely around the automobile and is going to suffer tremendously from peak oil. I will only cycle in this city when I can no longer afford to drive (in other words, as a last resort).

Posted by: Patrick on 20 Jul 08

Check out too for bike actions in Los Angeles.

Posted by: evonne on 20 Jul 08

The peice above is a good addition to the world-view info on getting around for basics on bikes.

Biking to work is — sad to say — perilous and thankless. I’m qualified to say so, having done so exclusively for about seven years. Let me add some edification from personal experience. (I hope some more bike-commuters here have comments.)

The town I live in — Sac’to CA — is likely one of the more bike-friendly, infra-structure-wise, but I’m sure driver-awareness of bikes is still the common low. I’ve only been run down by one Escalade (no injuries to me, only the bike) by way of my vigilance, more than anything else. The best excuse the driver had was his lack of awareness, regardless of my multiple flashing lights and more, unto nerdy, visual safety. Yet awareness is probably about right. If you think your job, behind the wheel, is to contest the other cars and trucks for space in the flow, bikes may not enter into it. I wish for lots more company in the bike lane (added to the 2-3 others I might see on a given day), yet at the same time, fear the potential carnage. Safety in numbers?

I totally agree with Bob about people getting on a bike, but not just planners. More awareness from anybody who is physically able would go a long way. Mainly, drivers don’t actually appreciate the difference in velocity between a car and a bike, however obvious it may seem.

Thankless? There are even other categories of bike-riders who won’t commend commuters. In fact, they would be unwilling to associate what they do with anybody who isn’t in uniform on one hand, or trying to get somewhere with a purpose on the other. I feel way more kinship with the other non-recreational riders: the severly impoverished. And the bike shops don’t care. It’s a huge understatement to say that basic bikes and, more importantly, basic parts aren’t their big profit centers. But mainly, drivers don’t thank you for getting in the way and implying that they could be polluting/wasting less. Being conscientious toward what drivers need from me on my bike gains me no favor.

One day, a cop’s amplified voice from his car behind me, while I climbed onto my bike up against the parked cars: “Get outta the street.”

Visualize any of the above thanking me for helping the environment on their drive home from working on a public-service announcement broadcast on how biking can help the environment, without laughing.

All considered, take the dog-eat-dog-ness out of the experience and my only complaints would be about the occasional extreme winds in the rain and much of the urban ambience. A Ciclovia-like experience along the industrial stretch of my 14-mile ride would be great. (Part of my commute actually has a park down the middle of the road.) The non-car-infected ambience (what would be echoing off the concrete and asphalt?) is actually something I fantasize about, daily. It’s probably because I could then be more mindful of the pleasure of rolling along out in the open. (If only people would look before opening their driver door after parking on that park-bisected road...) Biking year-round is painful, but honestly, you get used to it. I would not trade it for the stresses of car ownership, without something magical interceding.

In my heart, I champion the kids emulating bike messengers on their stripped single-speeds, but fear that their attack-mode style will come to a bad end. It’s the smart-and-vocal part that makes a difference; that might bring change.

Posted by: Kenny Mann on 21 Jul 08

Weird how so many of us are in Austin, non? I too have been a bike commuter for 30 years in Austin. I have my share of bike vs. car altrications, all of which I lost, and my share of close encounters of the crazed driver kind. But I have found that one can get anywhere without going on any of the auto infested streets. It is more or less the same as the Columbian practice of closing the streets, just on a personal level. I read a story about the rental bikes in Paris and it had a quote that I think sums up the problem. A woman said "Until we make driving a total hell, no one will get out of their car." So I have taken that as my motto. My one little piece of street theater that I do to help drivers achieve the great pleasures of riding a bike is that I carry a small child's broom. When I reach a traffic light, I park my bike and carefully sweep all the druck that builds up next to the curb out into the street in front of the cars. I think people notice, and I certainly appreciate not having to navigate through all the broken glass and car parts that one finds there.

Posted by: Joe Bell on 22 Jul 08

As an inexpensive, flexible alternative to the perennial monorail, I'd love to try a set of suspended tubes for bicycles.

So much effort goes into improving the bicycles, and that's all to the good, but the real gains come when you improve the roadway.

  • Weight: Bike designers scrounge for grams, but if the roadway is perfectly level, weight really doesn't matter after the first 50 yards or so.

  • Weather: Why make every cyclist carry rain gear, lights, etc? Why fight adverse winds? Let the roadway do that for all the cyclists on it.

  • Streamlining: If weight and crosswinds are not factors, then it's easy to streamline the bike.

My back of the envelope numbers look very good: On a smooth, dry, clean surface without pedestrians, automobiles, hills, or cross-traffic, on a streamlined bike or trike -- 40 kilometers in an hour isn't that tough. It will probably beat the vaunted monorail, for short distances. Cheaper, too.

Posted by: Ron on 22 Jul 08



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