Inducing More Bicycling

By Dom Nozzi

I have over 20 years of experience as a senior city planner, am a lifelong bicycle commuter, prepared a master’s thesis on bicycle travel, and am a published author describing car traffic and sprawl.

I know of no simple, quick, easy ways to induce large numbers of contemporary Americans to engage in more bicycling. I do, however, know of tactics that can be effective, yet require a number of years, political leadership, political wisdom, and enlightened staff and citizens. For these reasons, the tactics are rarely used in America, which helps explain the embarrassingly low levels of bicycling in the US.

In no particular order, effective tactics include (and to some extent overlap):

1. Relatively high residential densities & commercial intensities.

2. A mix of residences both vertically and horizontally with jobs, offices, retail, schools, and other destinations. That is, destinations are proximate to each other.

3. The absence of market-distorting subsidies for car travel. By far, the biggest subsidy in America is free parking. One of the most important reasons why most all Americans drive a car for nearly all trips, rather than bicycle, walk or use transit, is that over 98 percent of all trips are to locations with free and abundant parking. As Donald Shoup points out, free [and abundant] parking is a fertility drug for cars.

4. A small speed differential between cars and bicycles by using traffic calming measures such as modest street dimensions, on-street parking, etc.

5. Expensive gasoline.

6. A modest number of travel lanes. Roads with more than three travel lanes (one lane in each direction along with center turn pockets) creates excessively high-speed, dangerous car travel that severely reduces the number of people willing to bicycle on that road.

When effective tactics are properly deployed for a reasonable period of time, a powerful, self-perpetuating virtuous cycle begins to evolve: When non-bicycling members of the community observe a large number of others bicycling, many are likely to be induced to begin bicycling because of the “safety in numbers” perception, the fact that bicycling seems more hip and practical (“If he/she can do it, so can I!”), and the growing awareness and expectation on the part of motorists that bicyclists are likely to bogota cycloviabe encountered (which also increases motorist skill in driving on a street being used by bicyclists).

Note that the above should not be taken to mean that I believe we should “get rid of all cars”, or that American cities should build auto-free pedestrian/bicycle zones. I support well-behaved, unsubsidized car use that is more optional than obligatory. Car use and design that is subservient to the needs of a quality habitat for humans, rather than the situation we find in most all American communities, where cars dominate (and in many ways degrade) our world. A place where cars are so dominating that transportation choice is lost. Where it is not practical, safe or convenient to travel, except by car.



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Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

6 responses to “Inducing More Bicycling

  1. N4

    How about shower facilities at workplaces? A major factor limiting the viability of bicycle commuting for anyone who works in a professional environment is the impracticality of showing up to work sweaty or muddy. Most of the suggestions listed above make driving less attractive. Reducing the speed differential between cars and bikes could tangentially make biking safer, but none of your other suggestions do anything to make biking to work more attractive. You can build a dedicated path directly from my home to my office and make traffic so bad that biking is twice as fast, but if it’s more than three miles away, I’m still going to drive so I don’t have to look/smell like a bum when I get to work. Give employers or commercial landlords some kind of incentive to install changing rooms and showers, and the calculus would change dramatically… all without the need for any new construction or messy planning battles.

  2. Thanks for visiting. And thanks for your thoughts. With regard to showers at workplaces, I’ve frankly never been convinced that they induce people to become bike commuters. Have you ever known anyone who started bike commuting for that reason? I’ve been a bike commuter for over 30 years — mostly in VERY hot Florida — and have never had a need for a shower. Partly because I lived close usually. Partly because I was biking in the cool early morning hours. Partly because I was in decent shape, and was not riding a high speeds. Most of my recommended tactics relate to better car behavior largely because overdependence on (and design for) car travel, by far, is the most important reason why bicycling is not practical. Cars, for a number of reasons, create significant barriers for bike and ped commuters A key tactic, though, is proximity, which is mostly unrelated to cars. BTW, I know of nothing that makes biking to work more attractive than proximity, with the possible exception of scarce and priced parking for cars. I can assure you that a large number of studies have found that bike commuting and transit increase by large percentages when parking cash-out and other pricing/quantity tactics are used for car parking. Providing free & abundant parking for cars is a fertility drug for car commuting. I’d say that scarce and priced car parking makes bike commuting extremely attractive. Can you point to studies showing the effectiveness of showers or bike paths for inducing new bike commuters? I suspect there are no such studies because such tactics are not effective.
    I lived for over 20 years in Gainesville FL, and despite the enormous amount of bike paths, routes, bike parking, etc., nearly everyone commuted by car. Largely because Gville has way too much free parking, along w/ very low, suburban densities (which make commuting distances quite long).

  3. N4

    I’m not in the planning business, nor have I studied any of this at length. All I can tell you is this: I live five miles from my office in Irvine, CA, a town with tons of bike lanes and paths and absolutely perfect weather almost all of the time. It costs me $90 per month to park at the office. The commute is 20 minutes by car, 30 minutes by bike and an hour or so jogging. I would GLADLY bike or run to work regularly if there was a place to clean up when I arrived. Not only could I save $90/month on parking, I would save $60/month on gym fees and gain probably close to an hour per day of free time by combining exercising and commuting. I too am in decent shape and I have biked to work (in a suit) several times with very poor results (i.e., it is obvious to everyone I encounter that I rode my bike to work).

    Perhaps five miles is too far for a viable bike commute, but how many people in medium or large cities live closer than that? I completely agree with you that proximity is the number one tactic for increasing non-auto commuting, and density and mixed use development increase individual opportunities to live close to work. But at least for me the lack of shower facilities is literally the only reason I’m not a bike commuter. Perhaps I’m the only person on earth in this position, but this seems unlikely. At any rate, as I noted above, basically all of your suggested conditions to make car travel less attractive are present in my area, and still I know of almost no one here that is a dedicated bike commuter. Make driving as unpleasant as you want, but you’re not going to turn people into walkers and cyclers unless you can make the walking and cycling experience more practical. Yes, improving proximity will do that, but that is an extremely long-term process (individuals and businesses are heavily invested in their current locations and rebuilding already-developed areas before they’ve outlived their usefulness is enormously ineffectient).

    All of this is to say I think the practical question you should ask is what can be done today without pissing people (i.e., drivers=voters/taxpayers) off that will induce people to ride/walk? As great as your suggestions above would be if we were starting from scratch, I don’t think any of them are practical answers for the world we’re dealing with.

  4. yason

    I can’t think of anything but expensively priced and heavily taxed gasoline. It’s the most painful as well as quickest and the most effective way to go that would actually work.

    The wise would just go that way voluntarily to smoothen the ride but us humans are not particularly wise collectively. Inevitably the above situation will sooner or later manifest by itself, adding insult to the injury for everyone.

    Nothing rarely happens without money being involved. People who conserve electricity are far and few between because it absolutely doesn’t matter if you save a few (or a few dozen) bucks a year in electricity. You do that if you really care about this planet and you think that either your reduced energy consumption actually makes a difference or you just want to feel good. The same with driving cars.

    In my humble opinion,

  5. Five miles exceeds the reasonable bike commuting distance. At that distance, even people in great shape riding in cool weather will sweat. Most would be discouraged by the inconvenience of the distance and get back into their heavily subsidized cars (which also provide comfort, convenience, privacy, cargo-carrying capacity, radio/CD, status, etc.). Relatively few live closer than five miles largely because of the decades of car subsidies. In the long run, a large number will end up living closer as gas/roads/cars/congestion/financial strain become more significant. In the short run, such people will end up experiencing hardship if they are unable to move closer.
    You say that nearly all of the car hardships are in place where you live, yet almost everyone drives. Absolutely predictable. Without proximity, there is very little (if anything) that can allow people to commute w/o a car. Which is why demand for gasoline is so inelastic. Because so many live so far away, they will be forced to pay very high gas prices, because there are no options.
    I am fully convinced that while showers, bike lanes, sidewalks, etc. are very nice amenities for those who travel w/o a car, none of them are enough to induce a meaningful number to be non-car commuters.
    You say none of my suggestions are practical given the world we are dealing with. Unfortunately, the world we are dealing with is largely unsustainable, and cannot be corrected in the short term, or w/ “practical” amenities such as showers. These unsustainable areas, I’m sorry to say, face many years of painful hardship. Many will need to be abandoned, or bulldozed and renovated to be more compact & walkable.
    By the way, I was a planner for 20 years in Gainesville FL. A place w/ a relatively pleasant year-round climate, young and educated population, and lots of bike lanes, showers at offices, and sidewalks. Your position is that such conditions would lead to lots of bike commuters. My observation was that almost no non-student was a bike commuter. That city has way too much sprawl, big roads, and free parking to have something like showers change behavior. Granted, the showers were nice for the 2 or 3 bike commuters in town. But it was 2 or 3, and not 20,000 or 30,000, who were bike commuters. This was not due to lack of showers. It was because public money was BEGGING people to drive cars by providing all that road and parking capacity.
    Another aside: Today, a huge number of University of Florida students use transit and bicycle to school in Gainesville. Because of showers? Nope. Because the campus has scarce and expensive parking.
    In sum, I’m very supportive of showers. But I don’t want to have people think that installing showers will result in a meaningful number of bike commuters. They won’t.

  6. John E.

    I think showers are important. While I agree that showers won’t make someone want to commute if they’re not already inclined to do so, or at least be open to try it, I think it’s logical that not having them prevents many people from even trying it–especially women. I live 18 miles from work and have commuted with a friend I work with who lives near me. We do the baby wipe thing and make the best of it. If there were showers, I would probably commute once a week, maybe more. For now, it’s just occasionally. I work in Irvine as well.

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