By Dom Nozzi
It is about the number of people bicycling, not the facility selected, that is ultimately going to lead to a big jump in bicyclist safety. Safety in numbers is so very important, and I enjoyed seeing studies recently that more scientifically demonstrated that. See, for example, this site
An important reason why safety in numbers is so powerful is that motorists are obligated to drive more slowly and more attentively. That is essential for safety. They also tend to expect bicyclists on a regular basis, and therefore learn how to drive more safely near them. Unexpected surprises are always unsafe. As is overconfidence that the motorist will never encounter a bicyclist while driving on a road (which leads to an increase in inattentive driving).
I’m open to the idea that off-street paths next to a street can attract a lot of new bicyclists. As I understand it, one of the most important — if not most important — reasons people don’t bike is perceived safety problems. I don’t wear a helmet when I am engaged in low-speed downtown bike commuting in part because I want to send the message that biking is not deadly — helmets send the very bad message that your life is at risk on a bike.
The European experience is instructive. There, bicycle commuting is relatively high and bicyclist injuries and deaths are comparably low. An important reason for the high levels of bicycling in European cities is that auto parking is comparatively scarce and expensive. Densities and mixed-use tend to be high. Destinations tend to be comparatively proximate. And gas is expensive. All of those factors tend to induce high levels of biking, walking and transit use in many European cities.
By contrast, in nearly all American cities, there is too much free parking, densities are too low, gas is too cheap, and destinations are too dispersed.
Given these rather intractable problems in the US, we are probably along way off seeing large numbers of bicyclists or transit users. Probably the obstacle that makes our low levels of bicycling most difficult to transform into high levels of bicycling in the near term is our dispersed land use pattern. Even if gas is, say, $10/gallon, a lot of us will be forced to drive cars (even if we have a full network of off-street bike paths).
I continue to mostly adhere to the objective of taking back our streets from high-speed motoring, and urging the densification and mixing of residential with non-residential we need to make transit, walking and biking feasible. I think movement in that direction is inevitable because higher gas prices are inevitable, as is the cost of continuing to try to add road capacity for suburbia.
I can envision, in the near future, various DOTs pursuing more aggressive non-auto projects as the cost of driving continues to mount. I’m sure that will mean that some state DOTs will decide to construct more off-street bicycle path projects, at least as a demo on one or two road corridors.
I’m concerned that “Plan B” for transportation and land use might need to be in place very quickly, so we probably need Manhattan project urgency RIGHT NOW to start getting us there. We need a train system. We need to build denser, more localized communities. We need slower-speed and more human-scaled streets.
What this might all come down to is how much of an emergency we believe we are in. Do we have 10 years before gas is $30/gallon? Or 100 years? If the former, this nation must not delay in transforming its transportation infrastructure.
An Off-Street Epiphany
I have a confession to make.
I just finished reading the relatively inspirational Pedaling Revolution by Jeff Mapes.
As a result, while I am still convinced that in-street bicycling is where our primary focus should be to provide for most regular, existing bike commuters, I am now more open to the idea of providing off-street or barrier-protected bike routes. I don’t know that I’d be okay with such routes if it took away from efforts to provide better in-street facilities, but I am now more sympathetic to the pressing need to recruit and train new bicyclists in cities.
I continue to believe and hope that such new off-street recruits would eventually find that in-street bicycling makes more sense for bike commuting, and will “graduate” from off-street to in-street riding.
And I continue to have concerns that we not squander public dollars on off-street or barrier-protected bike routes that will need to be removed “after the revolution” (i.e., when we have slower car travel in cities, and we more frequently and comprehensively put roads on a diet).
Finally, concerns remain that off-street or barrier-protected bike routes will be a sign that we’ve given up on ever reforming/humanizing/taming streets (that they will always be hostile, inhuman car-only roads). In other words, I am concerned, again, that off-street bicycle facilities will put off the day when we are compelled to reform streets. Such a delay would put off the much-needed migration of buildings moving to more compact, walkable locations abutting sidewalks. Buildings that are today excessively set back due to such things as street hostility.
Given all those provisos, I’m sympathetic to off-street and barriers.
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
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
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