By Dom Nozzi, AICP
To increase the amount of bicycling, most all of us are convinced that the place to start is to install more bike lanes. More bike paths. More bike parking.
Isn’t it obvious?
It turns out that common sense, in this case, is wrong.
How do we effectively increase the amount of bicycling? New facilities simply will not do it. Plenty of American communities have learned that installing a great many new facilities for bicycling leads to a frustratingly small increase in bicycling.
Because in America, such facilities do not come close to overcoming the enormous number of reasons why it is rational — in terms of cost, convenience, status, ego and safety – to drive a car everywhere.
It is irrational to decide to bicycle because of a new bike path when nearly all the roads and parking in America are free. Being free, America is BEGGING us to always drive a car.
How many of us, for example, would bicycle to a store if we were given a 10-cent discount on our groceries? How many would bicycle commute to a job 15 miles away if it increased our weekly paycheck by a dollar?
The small incentive in these examples are far too tiny to compensate for all of the inconvenience of, in this case, a relatively long bicycle ride.
Similarly, a bike path is, for most all of us, entirely insufficient to compensate for all of the subsidies and convenience of driving a car in America.
So how can we make it more rational to bicycle in America? What forms of compensation are able to level the playing field and lead to large numbers of Americans to decide it makes quite a bit of sense to bicycle rather than drive a car?
Fortunately, there are a number of effective tools for leveling the unbalanced, pro-car playing field.
We just need the political will to put them in place.
A community seeking to significantly increase bicycling must meaningfully make driving and parking cars more inconvenient and costly. And obligate motorists to behave themselves (ie, driving more slowly, more safely, and more attentively).
There are many useful tactics to do this. One of the best is “road diets,” where, for example, a four-lane road is slimmed down to a safer three lanes, which happens to be safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, seniors and motorists. And more conducive to residences and healthy businesses.
Another excellent tool is employing low-speed, “traffic-calming” street design. Slowing down cars – one of the important outcomes of a road diet – can be achieved by a number of street design strategies if the ideal of a road diet is not feasible.
Proximity is essential for increasing bicycling. Distances must be relatively short for most people to find it convenient, safe and enjoyable to regularly bicycle. The best way to do that is to mix homes with shops and jobs, as has always been done in town centers, and is increasingly being done in new developments across America.
A crucial part of the pressing need to shorten travel distances is to create higher residential densities in appropriate locations such as town centers.
An often overlooked way to make bicycling, walking and transit use more attractive, safe, convenient and enjoyable is to shrink the size of parking lots – preferably by replacing such dead zones with active buildings. Communities can use its land development regulations to achieve this objective over time by revising its parking requirements so that new developments either
have greatly reduced parking requirements or are exempt from providing parking (in other words, letting the market decide how much parking to provide, rather than government coercion).
Related to this, local governments can make it easier to install on-street parking (a road diet is a great way to find new space to do so). More on-street parking reduces the need for excessive off-street parking, and makes streets safer by slowing down cars and increasing motorist attentiveness (as well as improving the health of retail establishments).
A direct pricing tool that most local governments have available for increasing the (subsidized) cost of driving is increasing the gas tax. Not only do we find that a higher gas tax reduces driving. It also puts more money into the coffers of financially struggling local governments – money that without a gas tax increase would have instead been going to large oil companies and foreign oil-producing countries (many of whom hate the US, as we have learned).
Another direct pricing tool local governments have available is charging prices for the use of roads and parking. Economists have long known that the best way to use road and parking space is to price roads and parking. The price is calibrated so that optimal levels of use are achieved. If a road or a parking lot is too congested, raise the (preferably electronic) road toll or parking fee. If the road or parking lot has overly plentiful capacity for more cars, reduce the road toll or parking fee. This is, as Donald Shoup points out, a “Goldilocks” strategy. The soup should not be too cold or too hot (in this case, the road or parking lot should not be too congested or too empty). The soup (or road or parking lot) should be “just right.”
Urban design should also be conducive to more enjoyable, convenient bicycling, walking or transit use. One of the best ways to do that is to revise local land development regulations so that new buildings are required to be pulled up to the street so that there is no car parking between the front of the building and the street. A rewarding “human scale” or “sense of enclosure” or “sense of place” is thereby created. The space feels safer and more enjoyable. Civic pride goes up. People are more likely to want to hang out and linger in such spaces.
Without taking steps such as these, installing bike lanes, off-street bike paths, bike parking, showers at work, etc., will have very little impact on recruiting new bicyclists. I fully agree with my colleague Michael Ronkin, who reminds us that it is NOT about providing bicycle facilities. It is about making pricing, urban design, and street design less cheap and less easy for car travel (which, happily and inevitably, induces more bicycling, walking, and transit, and dramatically improves the quality of life of our neighborhoods and town).
We too often recommend the bike lanes, paths, and bike parking when asked how to induce lots of new bicyclists. When very few new bicyclists are then recruited, the Sprawl Lobby will disparagingly point out how wasteful it was to install bike facilities, and insist that we “get real” by getting back to the program of car-happy road widening.
I think many of us know there are more effective tactics, such as those I mention above, but when we only have a hammer (most of us tend to only be able to lobby for bike facilities), all our problems look like nails.
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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