By Dom Nozzi
European cities are famous for their substantial networks of bikeways—that is, paths that are physically separate from streets, or have a physical barrier separating the path from car travel lanes. I’ve seen several examples of them, and occasionally bicycled them on my travels to Europe. I was certainly astonished to see the very heavy use of bikeways by all types of bicycling community residents: Young, old, women in high heels, rich, etc.
To be honest, though, I can’t say that I share the enthusiasm I often hear for transferring the concept of urban bikeways to the US. In all my years of work and experience as a bike commuter, I’m convinced that bike facilities play very little role in creating new bike commuters. In my opinion, priced and scarce parking, high gas costs, congestion, proximity of destinations, and other high costs for owning and operating a car are the only truly effective ways to grow bike commuters.
At least one of my colleagues, long a state bicycle/pedestrian coordinator, agrees. He has pointed out to me that the factors I mention above largely explain why we see so many bike commuters in Europe (a place he is quite familiar with). Bikeways have little to do with the number of bicyclists in Europe.
In other words, even if we somehow found a (herculean) way to build bikeways in the US, they would mostly be unused.
I would also note that since bike commuters need to travel to the same places that motorists want to travel to (i.e., everywhere there are jobs or offices or shops or entertainment or civic buildings), creating a bikeway system that is comprehensive enough to meet the needs of bike commuters would be an astronomical cost.
It seems to me that the European bikeways also degrade the pedestrian experience, since such bikeways can increase roadway/bikeway width, lead to the loss of on-street parking, and possibly lead to higher motor vehicle speeds (and less room for pedestrians).
I strongly believe that in a town center, the pedestrian is the design imperative. I think bikeways undercut the pedestrian experience. If we get it right in our (modest) efforts to create a quality pedestrian environment (low-speed & narrow streets, human scale, enclosure, density, short blocks, connected streets, scarce & priced parking, mixed use, etc.), we will have created a place that is also very conducive to high levels of bicycling.
And best of all, we will have created a place worthy of our affections, as James Howard Kunstler would say. We’d be proud of our city.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
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