Effectively Promoting Bicycling, Walking and Transit Use

By Dom Nozzi

John Pucher has made the point that some of the tactics being used in Germany may seem politically unlikely in car-happy nations such as the US, but these more aggressive, effective policies for growing new bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users become more feasible as transportation problems such as congestion and energy costs become so intolerable “that the majority of voters, and the politicians they elect, are finally willing to do something about them.”

I am in full agreement with John Pucher, as I note in my book, The Road to Ruin, and in my urban design and presentations. Indeed, I am increasingly convinced that we need to find a way to leverage increased congestion, increased use of priced & scarce car parking, gas tax increases, increased urban densities, increased road dieting, increased traffic calming, and more road pricing if we, in the US, expect to effectively grow the number of bicycle, pedestrian and transit commuters.

In other words, by using price and convenience signals.

Admittedly, these tactics are exceptionally difficult, politically. As a result, we end up only using ineffective tactics (and then getting more cynical when such tactics fail).

But I remain optimistic that as our transportation and financial problems worsen due to dwindling oil supplies and our on-going auto dependency, that political leadership will emerge (it has been in very scarce supply for several decades, largely due to the lack of sufficiently worrisome crises).

I am also growing more fond of the idea that by using effective tactics and thereby meaningfully increasing the number of bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users, we will begin to see a virtuous cycle forming. A self-perpetuating loop that provides desirable changes on its own.

A substantial rise in the cost of gasoline provides an example of a virtuous cycle. As gas costs rise, most motorists seek to make changes that will reduce the rising cost of driving a car. Some may drive less, and walk or bicycle or use transit more. Others will drive more fuel-efficient (and smaller) cars. Or start living closer to their destinations. Not only does this improve household and government finances (due to avoided transportation costs such as car and gasoline purchases, and lower road construction and maintenance costs). It also improves public and environmental health (due to more physical exercise and lower pollution emissions). These changes incrementally induce non-auto transportation improvements. The changes also result in more compact, mixed-use land use patterns. Which induces even more walking, bicycling and transit use.

And so on.

Another example is that many in the US don’t bicycle, walk or use transit even though they have reasonably short travel distances. I believe that at least some of that reluctance is due to a perception that non-car travel is unsafe. Or not “hip.” If motorists start seeing growing numbers of their fellow citizens getting around by bicycling, walking or using transit, such travel will seem more “normal” and therefore more desirable for the larger population.

And that can help recruit more non-car travel. Which further promotes the “safe and hip” perception. Which then recruits even more to ride a bicycle, walk, or take the bus.

And so on.

In addition, a larger number of non-car travelers can, I’m convinced, result in dramatic safety improvements (via “safety in numbers,” and all that implies).


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.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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Filed under Bicycling, Environment, Peak Oil, Urban Design, Walking

5 responses to “Effectively Promoting Bicycling, Walking and Transit Use

  1. Really good article. My wife and I have actually been contemplating going without a car completely, though it will be a little bit tough because we have three small children (all under the age of 3). If more people would do this great things would indeed happen.

    My only problem with this concept is the fact that Americans in general are a car-driven people. When gas prices go down, as prices do when demand decreases, there is nothing to stop Americans from going back to their cars…there really needs to be an entire paradigm shift, and the American public needs to admit that oil is finite, and we have to come up with another way to get around.

  2. Thanks for visiting my site and reading the essay. I admire your interest in living w/o a car. I’ve been car-free for nearly all of the past 30 years. I agree that Americans are overly dependent on car travel, and promote cars to the detriment of the quality of life. We are our own worst enemy. I’m reading Why Your World is about to get a lot smaller, and enjoying it. The author notes that rising energy costs largely caused the global recession. The recession caused a crash in oil prices. That decline will be followed by another energy use surge, which will revive the economy, lead to another price hike, which will lead to another global crash.
    I agree that a paradigm shift is needed. I believe that shift is inevitable, and is mostly likely to be the result of substantial energy cost increases and global economic downturn much worse than the one we are still emerging from. Tragically, few nations have a Plan B, which means when the shift is forced on us by economic/energy changes, we face quite a bit of grim pain and suffering. Those living in places w/ poor public transit and little if any food/energy/manufacturing self sufficiency (most, if not all, communities) can expect ugly times. Our communities and transport system are not well-designed to be adaptable to change, and it is extremely likely that we will soon see substantial change.
    A book I recommend for you w/ regard to your consideration of going car-free: How to Live Well Without a Car. A very helpful book.

  3. Randall

    It is because of the the conservative nature or Governments that the Plan B will not likely come to fruition. This is why it is key that these plans, or whatever else you want to call them, come from a local level. If something is done, and planned for, even communities without a good mass transit system, or other kinds of helpful infrastructure, then the challenges in the future will be mitigated to some degree.
    I think that it is better to have a local movement regardless of what the National plan is, because each community is different, and will have to adapt in different ways.

  4. I agree. Similarly, as Jeff Rubin points out in Why Your World is About to Get a Lot Smaller, states often lead on needed programs, and the feds lag behind. But at any level of government, the crisis must be sufficiently severe before the political will is sufficient to drive meaningful change. Democracies are inherently reactionary. Leadership is therefore needed to accelerate necessary change.

  5. Randall

    I think democracies are reactionary for a few reasons, one of them actually being the fact that most of them are driven by consumerism, or simply the desire to maintain the status quo. If the status quo weren’t such a big deal, I think democracies in general would be able to be much more forward looking.

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