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Archive for July, 2010

How do we get bikes taken seriously (by _all_ advocates)?

July 13, 2010 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

Specifically, how do we get bikes taken seriously by transportation advocates of the motorized type, and others in the Livable Streets movement?

I expect resistance from drivers, the auto industry, the AAA, etc., but I don’t want to expect it from advocates who are generally pro-livable streets. This is a serious problem for us.

I don’t know the answer to this question. We managed to get Google to take bikes seriously enough to integrate them into Google Maps, but far too many transportation advocates still, it seems to me, look at bikes as an afterthought, if at all.

The evidence for this assertion is really just everything that I read and see from the Streetsblog Network each day. I at least skim every single post that shows up in the Network’s feed each day (300+ blogs, but not sure how many daily posts make it into the feed). In addition, I also at least skim dozens/hundreds of transportation-related articles and posts from sources that are not Network members each day. In very few cases do I ever feel that bicycles are being treated with the respect they deserve as a viable means of transportation. The only exceptions typically come from Denmark- or Netherlands-based blogs, and from and a couple of other bike-oriented blogs.

My current solution to this problem is fairly one-dimensional, but I think it could eventually prove reasonably effective — I leave comments. On blog  posts. On articles. You name it. If someone is advocating for spending tons of money on some form of motorized transportation (and some of these projects are so expensive that the stacks of money could actually weigh tons — about $90 Million dollars in $100-dollar bills would weigh a ton), and they’ve excluded bikes from consideration, then I let them know. I can’t say that I always maintain a ‘happy-go-lucky’ attitude when leaving these comments, but I never claimed to be perfect.

Let’s do some examples.

My current favorite blog is Greater Greater Washington. Too often, the blog’s founder and main blogger (and former Googler), David Alpert, writes posts that I feel give short shrift to bicycles — like any number of posts on the K Street Transitway. My response is a comment — usually written while trying to keep my temper in check :) — but it’s important to register your thoughts — whether you think something is unacceptable or does not go far enough or whatever. You’re probably not going to change anyone’s mind that day, but it’s important to open up the debate when it seems confined to an unnecessarily-narrowed field of options — namely, options that include only motorized forms of transport, or options that do nothing to allow travel by bike. Whether you agree with this specific corridor design and post or not is not important — I’m just trying to show a pattern of advocacy across the entire ‘transportation advocates’ spectrum.

I should say that despite my very serious disagreements with GGW regarding bike infrastructure, it’s a ridiculously awesome blog. First, there was BikePortland, then there was Streetsblog, and then along came GGW. They’re all special and unique snowflakes with their own strengths and weaknesses, but GGW is a rising superstar — which makes it all the more important we get them to recognize bikes for the miracles they are, just one use of which happens to be as a serious form of transportation.

The next example comes to us from a blog post by Barbara McCann, the Executive Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition. I have to admit, I can be pretty jaded when it comes to seeing points of view expressed by transportation advocates that do not give biking the respect I feel biking deserves, but this blog post actually sent me to another planet:

Frankly, in the past, I’ve discounted the value of the European model in the United States. It has been just too different - and certainly has been rejected by most local elected officials in the US. Specific European treatments such as cycle-tracks (bicycle lanes raised from the road surface and separate from the sidewalk) seemed pointless to discuss. On this trip, however, I came away with greater clarity about what European cities have to teach the Complete Streets movement in the United States.

Simply put, we just can’t have this type of excuse-making. It was never valid, and it never will be. ‘Too hot’ and ‘Too cold’ and ‘Too Portland’ and ‘Too Europe’ are not valid arguments against bicycle infrastructure.  I have to admit, once I read the source of this quote was ‘Complete Streets’-something-or-other, I thought, “Oh — those guys.” I had remembered seeing any number of photos of ‘complete streets’ photographs over the past couple of years that were part of various organizations’ ‘Complete Streets’ marketing efforts — whether they were national groups, state groups, whatever, they always seemed to show pretty-ish streets with sidewalks, a bunch of auto-travel lanes, and occasionally even a bike lane — no bike lane buffer, no grade separation, no physical separation, no cycletrack, no nothing. The organizations, I thought, seemed to exhibit some weird belief that just calling a street ‘Complete’ would allow normal people to actually bike on that street. That’s not good enough. Credit to McCann for coming around. Let’s hope there are more conversions on the way.

The next example is brought to us by Ellen Dunham Jones, whose TED talk was just released. In one of the first slides from her presentation (about the 0:40 mark), we see a slide with two photos — one on top (the ‘before’ photo), and one on bottom (the ‘after retrofitting’ photo). In the top photo, we get an ugly suburban multi-lane roadway with a right turn lane and a small bike lane. Ok. The ‘after retrofitting’ photo, however, is curious — it may just be tough to see, but if the bike lane made it to the ‘after’ photo, it is not obvious.

What we got, for sure, was a widened sidewalk (a good thing) — taking away the bike lane (a bad thing), and some new car parking where the right turn lane used to be (not sure car parking is preferable to a right turn lane). The bike lane may still be around, but as I said, if it is, it’s not obvious. This is a disaster. It’s still a multi-lane roadway with multiple (at least two) lanes going in the same direction, which means auto speeds will be accelerated and the environment will not be conducive to bike travel.

There is no clearly visible bike lane, no green bike lane, no bike lane buffer, no separation from fast-moving auto traffic, no visible bike parking, etc. In short — bikes were not considered. At all. And this is coming from the person who is leading the charge to retrofit suburbia — the person who is going to, in theory, help us all see the errors of our ways for the past 50 years. With this direction, the new suburbia will be the same as the old suburbia, but with wider sidewalks, and more car parking.

At the 14:00 mark, we get a slide showing another signature transformation — this time, some traffic sewer of a road (Palm Canyon Dr, Cathedral City, CA) into a ‘beautiful boulevard’ (allegedly), which, instead of providing  a safe and comfortable place to ride a bike, provides a median filled with trees and other junk. This is a total disaster. In my estimation, the ‘after’ road — the ‘beautiful boulevard’ — is actually worse for bicycle access than before.

Oddly enough, this boulevard looks eerily similar to an infamous and dastardly boulevard in San Francisco which has sharrows, lots of trees in raised medians, and regularly terrifies and injures and maims those brave (or stupid) enough to bike on or anywhere near it. In this case, Ellen Dunham Jones happened to have her TED talk released just as I was in the process of writing this blog post, but the pattern is clear across the advocacy/(re)development spectrum — it is present in 99% of the new developments being planned for your town.

However you decide to advocate for bikes in your town, whether it’s a combination of sharrows and car-control devices and techniques, or if it’s fully-protected bike lanes, or something in between, it is, in fact, something that has to be integrated into the built environment — we need real bicycle planning with real bicycle infrastructure. We all know now that bikes can sell the urban lifestyle like no other piece of lifestyle equipment, so we’ll often see development plans with a nod to a theoretical smiling biker, but we know from looking at the plans that that theoretical biker will never be there as long as the roads remain in that anti-cycling condition. We need to call these people out — no more using bikes as props to hawk your wares unless you actually plan on allowing people to ride in your community.

[Update: I'm still learning much of this stuff as we go, and seeing this disaster called Palm Canyon Drive prompted me to finally look up what 'boulevard' actually meant:

usually a wide, multi-lane arterial thoroughfare, divided with a median down the center, and roadways along each side designed as slow travel and parking lanes and for bicycle and pedestrian usage, often with an above-average quality of landscaping and scenery.

What this means in English is this:

a massive, anti-human highway, probably invented by General Motors, jackhammered into the middle of your once-proud city, in the service of speeding cars through your city, and dotted with 'band-aid' landscaping in an attempt to obscure what highways through the city actually are--life-diminishing and soul-destroying dystopian devices that benefit the auto industry at the expense of the city and its residents.

That's pretty much what we're looking at with 'boulevards'. The obvious answer here is don't let them do this to your town. And if all else fails, don't let them use anything permanent (like concrete) for the medians.

My only experience with 'bike boulevards' is riding them in Palo Alto, CA and Berkeley, CA, and I think that, if done right, they can be useful for cutting down on through-auto-traffic, so a street might become a bit safer for teaching your kids how to ride a bike, for playing stickball, etc. But for having any real impact on bike mode share, bike boulevards aren't going to cut it -- we need safe and comfortable access to the major travel corridors. ]

We need to bring Ellen Dunham Jones, the folks at DPZ, and other leading lights into the bike fold. We need to get them a manual that says “Here are the five to ten basic road designs that will allow people to get around on bikes.” We need to make sure they all understand subjective safety. (Ideally, we need to get them on bikes.) Ultimately, it will be up to them to decide whether they want to allow people in the communities they’re (re)designing to get around by bike, but right now they’re ‘sleepingwalking into a future’ that is going to be very difficult, and it’s on us to make sure they’re aware of the destiny they’re designing for people. As Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar, says, “Infrastructure is destiny.”

In all of this, it should be noted that there may be one or more reasons why various advocates don’t want to, or can’t, take biking seriously — I’d like to mention a couple right quick, even though the main purpose of this post is to ask myself and all of us to recommit ourselves to getting our fellow advocates to start taking biking seriously as a form of transportation — for work, play, utility, exercise, etc.

Because biking is next to impossible in most of America, we just don’t have enough people who do it. Some of the leaders of our advocacy organizations and blogs just can’t conceive of a transportation scheme which is not dependent on motorized transport (namely, cars, but also buses) to a substantial degree — they grew up in a different era and are too prepared to settle for ‘a crappy little bike lane’. Maybe we just need to make sure all these folks get to go on junkets to places where they take bikes seriously? Fine by me - I’ll contribute to the cause. We need more aggressiveness for more and better infrastructure, not less. It’s a practical need, of course, but I’d argue it’s also a moral imperative. Don’t condemn our kids and grandkids and all future generations to a life of even greater struggle and heartache — the climate debt is already too high — let’s do our best to turn this ship around.

Along the same lines, most bike advocacy in the US has yet to move beyond the ‘bike lanes is all we need’ mode of thinking. David Hembrow constantly harps on how important ‘subjective safety‘ is to allowing more people to bike — and thank goodness he does it. In his now-famous presentation at SFU, John Pucher, the Cycling Scholar, harped on how important it is to create policies that allow everyone to ride. Pucher’s insistence on making sure we considered everyone when designing our bike infrastructure bordered on the absurd, but now we see why — people just don’t get it unless you drill it into their heads.

Here’s a brief, imaginary conversation between an advocate and Mr. Pucher:

Advocate: Mr. Pucher, who should we design this bike facility for?

Pucher: Everyone.

Advocate: Not just young male teens?

Pucher: No, everyone.

Advocate: Not just roadies?

Pucher: No, everyone.

Advocate: Even old people?

Pucher: Everyone.

Advocate: What about women?

Pucher: Yep, them too.

Advocate: Pregnant women?

Pucher: Yes, everyone.

Advocate: What about younger kids?

Pucher: Everyone.

Advocate: What about people who are not fast?

Pucher: Yes, them too — everyone.

Advocate: What about-

Pucher: Everyone. Everyone everyone everyone.

Advocate: How about-

Pucher: Everyone.

Advocate: What if-

Pucher: Everyone.

We need to allow everyone to ride, and that requires designing bike infrastructure with particular attention paid to subjective safety.

Another major cause of why bikes continue to get short shrift from transportation advocates is because bikes face competition from mass transit, and in particular, competition from bus rapid transit (BRT). Many motorized/public transit advocates either can’t imagine a majority of people getting around by bike, or just feel that motorized transport should be given priority over non-motorized transport — in contradiction of the Livable Streets Transportation Hierarchy. The K Street Transitway posts, from Greater Greater Washington, are an example of this bikes-vs.-buses scenario. Bikes appear to be losing in that particular situation, but the outcome is not always guaranteed to end badly for bikes. For instance, New York City is doing some BRT-type work, but they’re not banning bikes from these corridors (always), and they’re even planning on (sometimes) providing cycletracks. Of course, NYC is banning bikes from the 34th Street Transitway, much like the K Street Transitway is doing in DC. Berkeley, California recently shot down a ‘full-build’ BRT option, so now there will be room for bike lanes. That BP-supported blog TheCityFix and pro-car/anti-transit personality Randal O’Toole both support BRT does not seem to have caused most transit and bike advocates to be more skeptical of this form of transport which is highly popular in the least livable, least sustainable cities in the world. I can’t explain this — all I can do is put the information out there. And don’t get me started on the incredible noise that buses make — terrible for bikers, terrible for walkers, terrible for sidewalk-diners, terrible for city livability.

I’m not crazy about buses/BRT, in general, for several important reasons, but particularly from a cyclist’s point of view, as David Hembrow points out, buses are terrible for subjective safety (“Buses are really not compatible with bicycles, and there’s nothing like them to lower subjective safety.”). Bikers and would-be bikers hate the idea of driving near cars — it’s pretty logical that we’d be deathly afraid of the Tyrannosaurus Rex of motorized transport, the city bus — or its possibly only-slightly-less frightening cousin, the Brontosaurus of motorized transport, the articulated/bendy/BRT bus.

Two more quick notes in case you haven’t heard it yet:

  1. One-way streets are bad for bikes and businesses. One-way streets induce very high rates of speed that prevents sane people from riding bikes on these streets. One-way streets force bikers to go ‘the long way around’ instead of providing direct access to the bikers’ destinations. One-way streets produce greater noise, which kills sidewalk activity — nobody wants to be subjected to that type of discomfort and psychological stress. Also, cars drive by too fast to notice any of the businesses. Larger, gaudier business signs do not seem to help. One-way streets are threatening and confusing to tourists. One-way streets increase fuel consumption, because drivers have to go ‘the long way around’ even if they didn’t miss their turn. All one-way streets should immediately be converted back into two-way streets, while at the same time providing the appropriate bicycle infrastructure, traffic calming, etc. Most cities and towns around the world are now following this trend towards sanity and livability. See for yourself. Read more here.
  2. Medians and, in particular, raised medians — are bad for bikes. Medians create roads — aka boulevards — which exhibit the worst qualities of two of the worst modern inventions known to man — the freeway and the one-way street. No sane person wants to bike on these median-populated roads. The medians induce speeding, and block bikes from turning around when they want to. It’s also obvious that medians take valuable road space away from bikes — if you like trees, put them adjacent to the sidewalks/cycletracks, where they belong, so they can shade humans instead of cars, and where they can provide more subjective safety — real and/or imagined protection from death monsters. Medians reduce any perceived ‘friction’ by drivers headed in opposing directions, providing drivers with the subjective safety that bikers deserve more. Do not provide subjective safety to motorists before providing it to bikers. If you just have too much road width and you can’t conceive of a possible use for it, use it to build cycletracks. Simple.

Another example of bikes being overlooked as serious transportation are the fun bike bans popping up all over America. There are lots of reasons they are occurring, but one reason is certainly that bikes in these places are not seen as serious transportation — they’re just toys. This mentality is made possible by those of us who refuse to demand appropriate bicycle infrastructure on the most important corridors of our cities and towns. When we volunteer to relegate ourselves to the small side streets, we are voluntarily giving up our rights to the road — we are, in fact, ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’. Without appropriate bicycle infrastructure on our most important corridors, only the hard-core transportation bikers and the ‘bikes-as-sport’ roadies will ride — leaving bikes to be viewed as toys instead of vital tools used by people to get to work, school, etc.

A final example — though we could go on all day — is in the lack of attention given to bicycles for new mega-mixed-use developments at places like…the Googleplex. We’ve talked about it here before, but we have to keep at it — we have to get bicycles taken seriously. The Googleplex lives on the ‘wrong side’ of Highway 101 — our commuter train, Caltrain, is this close to being phenomenal, but many (most?) of the employers along Caltrain’s route — from San Francisco in the north to San Jose in the south — cannot be accessed via bike by mere mortals — crossing the 101 is just impossible. It’s scary, and people die. Mars would be a friendlier landscape. So when Google goes to the Mountain View city council and says, “Hey y’all — we wanna build a Googletopia on the wrong side of 101, and we’re not planning on doing anything to connect the area to the rest of civilization with anything other than a bigger, scarier fleet of shuttle buses idling and zipping between the Googleplex and the Mountain View Caltrain/VTA stop,” — well, those councilors have every right to be skeptical. In an ideal world, we either tear up the 101 and start from scratch, or tear it up and turn it into a bike-friendly boulevard, or submerge every part of it that disrupts local bike traffic, but we have to do something to connect East and West. Can’t we all get along? :)

Cycling can be viewed as an essential human right — the ability to move around under one’s own power in safety, comfort, with dignity intact, must be guaranteed for everyone.

Cycling can be viewed in the context of women’s rights — without appropriate bicycle infrastructure, we know that women are effectively barred from biking in numbers equal to men — this represents serious discrimination against women that is not just unfair (and should be declared illegal), but directly and very negatively impacts their ability to take care of themselves and their families.

In summary, the refusal of transportation advocates to consider biking a serious form of transportation has very negative effects on entire groups of people — women, minorities, the working poor, young people, old people, etc. — we have to correct this.

If you have any other ideas for how we can get transportation and city livability advocates to start considering biking a serious and legitimate form of transportation, I’m all ears!

Update: I updated/corrected some of the description of Ellen Dunham Jones’ slide concerning the disappearing bike lane, and included a snapshot of the slide. Also inserted at least one other ‘Update’.

Update: Just found out about this cool group from the Netherlands — Interface for Cycling Expertise. It’s some sort of technology/knowledge/expertise-transfer organization. Link from here.

Update: StreetFilms just published video of the Velo-City 2010 Bicycle Conference in Copenhagen, the event that helped Barbara McCann to experience her ‘bicycle revelation’. Near the beginning of the video, at the 1:00 minute mark, Andy Clarke, head of the League of American Bicyclists, says this:

The fact that there are about a hundred people here from North America, the US and Canada, I think is cause for optimism, because I think one of the things we’ve lacked in the US is the real belief that this stuff actually works…

That’s exactly the point of this post — not enough of our self-proclaimed ‘advocates’ are ‘true believers’ — we need to figure out how to move them to that place. If it requires junkets for all of them to Denmark, or an even better model for cycling infrastructure, The Netherlands, then so be it — count me in to help fund the way — whatever it takes — but no more excuses.

Quick note — we’re not talking about just big, relatively-dense cities here — David Hembrow has pointed out for us how the relatively small town of Assen, The Netherlands has a 41% bike mode share and it only has a population density of about 2,000/sq mi. Copenhagen has a similar bike mode share — around 40% — and it’s population density is about 16,000/sq mi. In other words, as best as anyone can tell, population density is not a determining, or even important, factor in how many people choose to get around by bike (or, if you like my phrase-ology better, how many people are allowed to get around by bike).

For reference, Portland’s population density is about 4,000. Mountain View sits at about 6,000/sq mi. Amsterdam is at about 12,000. San Francisco is at about 16,000. Manhattan is about 70,000. All of these towns, and your town, need appropriate bicycle infrastructure.

Update: DPZ has a new book they’re working on called Light Imprint. It says, in part:

“Light Imprint is a green approach to neighborhood design. It employs New Urbanist principles to create compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. …”

So, can we get ‘bikeable’ added to the mix?

I thought that maybe bikes were being considered, somehow, inherently, but there’s just no evidence to support that notion.

The Congress for the New Urbanism does mention ‘bicycle’ twice in its Charter, with one mention being in the context of allowing children to ride to school. Schoolchildren being able to ride is important, no doubt, but we need to convince the CNU folks that biking can be for adults, too, and that they need to actually start considering bikes when they plan instead of just assuming that because a place is compact and walkable, that it is also bikeable — that’s not true, unfortunately.

Update: I fired off a quick email to Ellen Dunham-Jones and she mentioned that the ‘disappearing bike lane’ slide was just an oops-type mistake, and that she basically does care a lot about bikes, and is interested in and works on bike policy, especially that concerning integrating bikes into urban design (including retrofitting suburbia) in a systemic fashion. She helped organize all sorts of bike-related stuff, directly or indirectly, including Atlanta’s first ciclovia (She teaches at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta.). She had a grad student work on a bikeability project, etc. She also mentioned the ‘Access Bikeway‘ plan of Carmel, Indiana (which I think is a waste of time/money/effort/etc. — I think working for access to the main roads is our best/only chance at success), and that we might be able to help ‘get bikes taken seriously’ by proposing a session idea for the smaller, more-focused CNU Transportation Summits that happen yearly (I’m assuming they’re still happening.).

Speaking of TED, can we get a pure bicycle talk in there, now? Mikael is on the site. David is there. I love Kunstler’s TED talk (and he’s a cyclist). But now I want a full-on bicycle hagiography — someone that can show we can do this, and we must do this. The only person I can imagine that being, at this point, is Mikael Colville-Andersen. Anyone else we should consider? :)

Oh - just discovered a picture of the dastardly Octavia Blvd on the ‘Urban Thoroughfares’ CNU page. Brilliant.

Also, cities do not have an obligation to build boulevards/collectors/arterials that accommodate cars. We have to build transportation networks that work. If cars and motorized transport can prove that they provide more benefit than they do pain, then we might be able to continue to accommodate them in the future, but there’s no reason to believe that roads with multiple lanes dedicated to cars will exist in the future.

The CNU put together a document with the ITE called ‘Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach‘. So, we have walking manuals, all sorts of driving manuals, but no cycling manuals. I don’t suspect any of the Complete Streets organizations have any type of road design manual, and even if they did, they wouldn’t give bikes enough attention. Scotland has a ‘Cycle Infrastructure Design‘ guide (pdf). Scotland also has this cool guide called ‘Building Sustainable Transport Into New Developments‘. The document repeatedly talks about walk+bike+transit+everything else, over and over and over again — in that order of priority. Nice. Maybe NACTO is working on something similar? Ah — here are a bunch of NACTO links. There’s an older/ugly, but useful document of Dutch road design on the ITE site (pdf). This is that funky, but very cool Dutch CROW group — tough to find reports in English.

Update: Moms with their kids in NYC. If you give people a chance to ride, they’re going to ride — it’s that simple.