America Has the Lowest Level of Bicycling on Earth: What We Can Do to End the Shame

By Dom Nozzi

In his 2010 book, One Less Car, Zack Furness points out something that should utterly shame all bicycle advocates, alternative transportation activists, planners, and elected officials: no nation on earth has a lower percentage of bicyclists than the United States. A pathetic one percent of all commuting in the US is by bicycle. Even in places with bitterly cold, forbidding weather – such as the Northwest Territories adjacent to the North Pole – bicycling rates are higher.

How could this be? After all, those promoting more bicycling and less motoring have successfully convinced towns all over the nation to install bike lanes, bike paths, bike showers, and bike parking.

The reason, as Michael Ronkin, former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the State of Oregon has brilliantly and provocatively pointed out, is that it is NOT about providing facilities for bicyclists. To effectively convince large numbers of Americans to commute by bicycle, it is necessary to TAKE AWAY SPACE FROM CARS (and increase the cost of car travel).

[Note that in this essay, I am referring to “commuter” bicyclists. Commuter/utilitarian bicyclists are those who use a bicycle for travel to work or shop, for example. “Recreational” bicyclists, by contrast, are bicycling for entertainment or exercise.]

A new paradigm is needed for effectively promoting a large increase in bicycling in America. For several decades, there have been two large advocacy groups aggressively promoting their idea of the best way to recruit more bicycling:

1. The “vehicular cyclists,” led by John Forrester. The VC advocates claim that no in-street bike lanes or separated-from-the-road bike paths are needed for bicycling. The best, safest way to bicycle is to have a bicyclist travel by following the same rules of the road as the motorist (largely to increase predictability and visibility). I subscribed to this view ever since reading Forrester’s Bicycle Transportation in grad school back in the early 1980s.

2. The “separated bicycle path” group, which holds that the way to recruit large numbers of new bicyclists is to separate them physically from dangerous, high-speed car traffic. The assumption of this group is that the main reason we don’t see large numbers of bicyclists in the US is that most people are put off by the danger inherent in bicycling in the street with cars.

Both of these tactics have miserably failed to recruit large numbers of new bicyclists in the US. The US continues to have, by far, the lowest number of bicyclists in the world.

Why?

The vehicular cyclists take an approach that even in theory is only applicable to a small number of people – those who have the courage, skill and athleticism to bicycle in the street with cars. Even VC advocates admit that their approach, even if widely used, would not result in a large number of new bicyclists.

While they believe their approach would lead to a large number of new bicyclists, off-street bicycle path advocates fail to understand that “perceived danger” for bicycling is only a minor reason why commuter bicycling is not popular in the US.

Car travel is so heavily provided for and promoted in the US that it is highly irrational to travel by foot, bicycle or transit (even if we provide bike paths, sidewalks, better transit, etc.). There are a great many reasons why nearly all trips in the US are by car. Some of the more important reasons why the car is more rational in the US is that compared to other forms of travel, the car excels in the following ways:

Comfort

Protection from weather

Climate, music and noise control

Cargo-carrying capacity

Passenger-carrying capacity

Status

Ego

Protection from violent people and strangers

Speed

Travel range

Subsidized fuel and roads

Subsidized parking

The perceived safety provided by off-street bicycle paths, when compared to the above car benefits, does not even come close to convincing the vast majority of Americans that bicycling is preferable to car travel. In other words, the above list of car travel benefits far exceed the benefits of safer bicycling.

As an aside, an important reason why the off-street bike path tactic is highly counterproductive, is that even if it were possible to find the trillions of public dollars necessary to install a comprehensive network of off-street bicycle paths, doing so would essentially abandon the road to it always being a “car sewer.”

A Third Way for Bicycle Promotion

The key to successfully creating a large number of new bicyclists, and reducing undesirable car dependence, is to establish a “third way:” End the extreme pampering of the car so that the list of reasons why it makes sense to bicycle outweigh the reasons why it makes sense to travel by car.

Tactics for Effectively Creating Large Numbers of New Bicyclists

A. Government Measures

  • Narrow roads in the community (popularly called “road dieting.”). In general, streets in a town should be no larger than three lanes in size.
  • Reduce the amount of off-street car parking (particularly FREE parking). Governments should end the highly counterproductive, costly practice of requiring new development to provide off-street parking. Much existing off-street parking should be shrunk in size and often replaced with buildings.
  • Design streets to obligate slower and more attentive driving. Tactics include provision of on-street parking, use of relatively narrow travel lanes, requiring buildings to be pulled up to abut streetside sidewalks, removal of traffic safety devices (such as traffic signals, flashing lights, stop signs, etc.), installing bulb-outs, reducing the height of street lights and traffic signals, installation of canopy street trees, shortening block lengths, and other traffic calming measures.
  • Electronically pricing roads and parking so that drivers pay their own way with user fees, instead of being heavily subsidized with free roads and free parking (free parking is the biggest subsidy, by far, in the US).
  • Substantially increase the state and federal gas tax. The gas tax has not been raised in 18 years (1993). By not increasing the gas tax, the US transfers an enormous amount of national wealth to oil-producing nations in other parts of the world. The relatively low gas tax is another in a long list of examples of motorist subsidies that promote excessive car travel. This loss of user fee revenue severely strains government finances, because in order to pay for the enormous costs of providing for car travel, governments must raise (non-gas) taxes such as property taxes or sales taxes or income taxes to pay for car travel. Alternatively, governments must cut other government services, which harms quality of life and makes our society less civilized.
  • Require relatively large employers to provide a “parking cash-out” program, and use such a program for all government offices. Parking cash-out, as Donald Shoup points out, is a program that offers the car commuter a choice: Either keep your free parking space at work, or give up the parking space in exchange for a higher salary, a bus pass, or other perks.
  • Require that the cost of parking be “unbundled” from the cost of a home or business. Currently, nearly all homeowners and consumers of goods and services pay a hidden parking cost – housing, goods, and services are more expensive because it is expensive to be required to buy extra land to provide for (and maintain) car parking. If this car parking cost was unbundled, housing, goods, and services would be less expensive, and people would be less compelled to drive a car excessively.
  • Requiring relatively high levels of street connectivity. When streets are connected, bicyclists that are less comfortable on main roads are able to find lower-speed, lightly-trafficked side streets for bicycling. Existing dead ends and cul-de-sacs can sometimes restore bicycle connectivity with connector paths linking the cul-de-sac with a nearby street.
  • Converting one-way streets into two-way streets. One-way streets strongly discourage bicycling because such street design promotes excessive car speeds, motorist impatience, and inattentive driving, not to mention the loss of residential and retail development along such streets. Increasingly, towns in the US are converting one-way streets back to two-way operation, and seeing extremely rapid improvements. See my blog for my thoughts about one-way streets.
  • Reducing trip distances. Governments are able to do this by finding ways to increase residential densities in appropriate locations, allowing “mixed-use” development (where homes are combined with offices and retail, for example), and keeping “community-serving social condensers” such as farmers markets and important government offices in the town center (rather than allowing them to relocate to remote suburbs).

B. Citizen Measures

  • Civil disobedience. There are a number of measures which are being used increasingly in the US to protest excessive, detrimental car dependence in the US. These measures include various forms of civil disobedience, “guerilla” tactics, or direct action. Examples include “critical mass” bicycle rides (where large numbers of bicyclists will gather and ride in large groups on streets in such a way as to inconvenience motorists), temporarily converting car parking into parks, etc.
  • Elections. Citizens can campaign for candidates who support the measures described above.
  • Normalizing bicycling. Bicycling in the US is substantially marginalized because bicyclists dress in ways that visibly set them apart from “normal” people. Most wear a bicycle helmet, which tend to be unfashionable, messes up hair, and sends a message that bicycling is dangerous. Many bicyclists also wear brightly-colored lycra bicycle clothes, which gives a very unusual, “elite athlete” appearance. It is important that bicycling be seen as more “normal” if bicycling is to become more common in the fashion- and status-conscious US. Bicycling advocates, then, can better promote bicycling by dressing in everyday leisure or work clothing while bicycling, and using a bicycle helmet less often (particularly when bicycling in relatively safe, low-speed environments such as town centers). See my blog for my thoughts about bicycle helmets.

Providing New Bicycle Facilities

I would be remiss if I did not mention the need to provide well-designed bicycle facilities and parking. While neither would recruit large numbers of new bicyclists, both are important for at least two reasons. First, it is important that bicyclists be given safe, convenient places to bicycle and park. Second, providing such facilities sends the important message that the community respects and promotes bicycle travel.

The Bicycling Transect

There is an emerging concept in urban design known as a “transect.” The concept essentially posits that there is a place for everything and everything has its place. Dennis McClendon states that it is “a way of classifying different kinds of neighborhoods along a continuum, from rural to suburban to city neighborhood to downtown; things that belong in once zone would be out of place in another.”

In the Smart Code introduction, version 6.5, Andres Duany says that “one of the key concepts of transect planning is the idea of creating what are called immersive environments. Successful immersive environments are based, in part, on the selection and arrangement of all the components that together comprise a particular type of environment. Each environment, or transect zone, is comprised of elements that keep it true to its locational character…planners are able to specify different urban intensities that look and feel appropriate to their locations…a farmhouse would not contribute to the immersive quality of an urban core, whereas a high-rise apartment building would. Wide streets and open swales find a place on the transect in more rural areas while narrow streets and curbs are appropriate for urban areas. Based on local vernacular traditions, most elements of the human habitat can be similarly appropriated in such a way that they contribute to, rather than detract from, the immersive character of a given environment.”

Applying the Transect to Bicycle Facility Planning

Appropriate bicycle travel routes vary based on their location in a community in the following generalized ways:

Walkable Town Center

In this location, the pedestrian is the design imperative, which means that quality design emphasizes a low-speed street design. This means that there are generally no more than two travel lanes (and possibly a turn lane or pocket). Curb radii are modest, and combined with intersection and mid-block bulb-outs, minimize crossing distances for pedestrians.

Further enhancing the safety, comfort and convenience of the pedestrian is on-street motor vehicle parking, sidewalks, and buildings abutting the back of sidewalks.

There is a dense, connected grid of streets with short block lengths.

When designed properly, the modest motor vehicle speeds mean that most all bicyclists are able to safely and comfortably “share the lane” with motor vehicles (that is, ride within the motor vehicle travel lane). Those bicyclists who are not comfortable sharing the lane with vehicles are able to ride on nearby parallel streets.

In walkable urban locations, in-street bicycle lanes should generally be considered a “transect violation,” since their installation usually means that average motor vehicle speeds are increased (due to the perceived increase in street width for the motorist). Bicycle lanes also tend to increase the crossing distance for pedestrians, and are often incompatible with on-street parked cars unless an excessively wide bicycle lane is created.

Note that I do acknowledge that when a walkable, compact urban location contains major (arterial) streets that such streets generally require the installation of in-street bicycle lanes. However, when such major streets require bike lanes, it is a strong indication that the street itself is a transect violation. Ideally, such streets should be re-designed to be compatible (or “immersive”) in the walkable location through such techniques as removing travel lanes, adding on-street parking or other mechanisms that dramatically slow down motorists and obligate more attentiveness in their driving.

Also incompatible in this location are bicycle paths separate from the street. Such paths are not only unaffordable to install in this location, but significantly increase bicyclist danger.

Suburban

In this location, in-street bicycle lanes tend to be most appropriate on major (“arterial”) streets, due to the increased average car speeds. Bicycle lanes should be 4-5 feet wide.

On-street motor vehicle parking tends to be used somewhat less on suburban roads than on walkable urban streets. Building setbacks are larger, as are turning radii.

In general, bicycle lanes are not necessary on intermediate (“collector”) streets, due to low traffic volumes.

Like walkable urban locations, bicycle paths separate from the street are generally incompatible in this location. Such paths significantly increase bicyclist danger, largely due to the number of cross streets, the reduced visibility of the bicyclist, and the false sense of security created for the bicyclist.

Rural

In this location, bicycle paths separate from the road tend to be most appropriate, due to the relatively high speed of motor vehicles here, and the relative lack of crossing roads.

On-street motor vehicle parking tends to not be used on rural roads. Building setbacks are largest in this portion of the transect, as are turning radii.

In-street bicycle lanes are sometimes appropriate here, but are not as appropriate as in suburban locations.

Transect Summary

In sum, bicycle travel routes are increasingly separated from motor vehicles as one moves along the transect from walkable urban to suburban to rural.

Bicycle Parking

My master’s thesis in graduate school emphasized providing properly-designed bicycle parking. It has become quite common for bicycle parking to be provided improperly. So many strange, unusual, non-functional forms of bicycle parking are provided that I have concluded that the main criterion for selection of bicycle parking is aesthetics and low cost. Like car parking, there is only one form (or with very minor variations) of acceptable bicycle parking design: the “inverted-U” (also known as the “Hitch-To”). This relatively low-cost, durable bicycle parking design is vastly superior to most all other forms of bicycle parking that have proliferated in the US. Communities should require this design in the same manner as they require only one form of car parking. Doing otherwise trivializes bicycling.

Summary

It is quite possible for the US to end its humiliating, unsustainable lead in the world for lowest level of bicycling. Americans are NOT genetically predisposed to drive a car rather than bicycle. The effective tools are not a mystery. Using them is simply a matter of leadership on the part of citizens and elected officials. Yes, it will be difficult to “take away from the car” to increase bicycling. But if we are, as a nation, truly serious about reducing ruinous, unsustainably high levels of car dependence, and substantially growing the number of bicycle commuters, the steps I outline above are essential.

There are very few, if any, “win-win” tactics for car and bicycle travel. Instead, car travel and bicycle travel are more of a zero-sum game. Increasing the level of bicycle travel inevitably means taking away space from cars, inconveniencing cars, and making car travel more expensive.

It is important to point out here that for over 100 years, the US has engaged in the opposite: We have taken away space from bicycles, inconvenienced bicycles and made bicycling more expensive.

For the sake of improving our health, the health of our cities, and our future quality of life, we must begin the incremental, long-term practice of ratcheting down car pampering. The longer we wait, the more painful it will be.

_________________________________________________

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3 Comments

Filed under Bicycling, Diet, Economics, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Transportation

3 responses to “America Has the Lowest Level of Bicycling on Earth: What We Can Do to End the Shame

  1. jim baross

    Thanks. Addressing traffic problems “head-on.”

  2. Krin Cosner

    hi Dom, Krin here from your old town Gville. Someone forwarded me this from their friend in Indiana!! I hope that is the future of America. It is all true and yet we continue to need more energy because cars are a way of life. I bike to work always, all ways. My daughter is living in Copenhagen for a year and loves that at a red light even in the rain, there are hourds of people, commuting in their business attire, etc. I would hope we can get there one city at a time. This town isn’t bad but it is not as good as Davis California for greenways. I will keep biking and hope others will join in and that it is the norm. Thanks for your work

  3. Hi Krin! Small world! Thank you for your comments, and reading my blog. I very vividly recall my visit to Copenhagen 5 or 6 years ago, and was astonished to see what you saw: large numbers of people — including very elegant and fashionable women in heels & stockings — riding a bicycle in FRIGID weather. Extremely impressive.

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