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 and 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):
Affordable housing and transportation choice require that we reduce distances. If we provide more housing and sensitive intermingling of offices, schools and shops with that housing, we will provide more affordable housing because families will reduce their car ownership (owning, say, two cars rather than three) and devote more income to housing. We need to combine this housing strategy with higher commercial intensities, which is primarily achieved by substantially reducing the massive oversupply of parking that nearly all retail locations provide.
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 w/ free and abundant parking. As Shoup points out, free and abundant parking is a fertility drug for cars.
Similarly, we need to start correcting other funding inequities, because motorists pay nowhere near their fair share of transportation costs. It is commonly believed and utterly false that gas taxes pay the costs that motorists impose on society (such taxes only pay a tiny fraction of those costs). In addition to starting to price a much larger percentage of parking, we need to convert many of our roads to become toll roads. Other tactics include a “vehicle miles traveled” tax, much higher gas taxes, and “pay at the gas pump” car insurance. These pricing tools would provide much-needed fairness and adequate funding in an age where funding unfairness is enormous and transportation funding is entirely inadequate. The tools also effectively nudge travelers toward greener travel. Such fees could replace or reduce existing taxes or fees (a concept known as being “revenue neutral”).
To be safer and more compatible with housing, shops and non-car travel, streets must be designed to obligate slower, more attentive driving. The large speed differential we see on nearly all roads today between cars and bicyclists is an important reason why so few feel safe riding a bicycle. A small speed differential between cars and bicycles can be created by using traffic calming measures such as modest street dimensions and on-street parking.
Many roads, streets, and intersections are too large. They degrade quality of life, reduce safety and force too many of us to drive a car too often. Shrinking roads (by, for example, reducing them from five lanes to three) is an essential way to promote transportation choice. Roads in a city that are five or more lanes in size are incompatible with a quality human habitat, and make it too dangerous for bicycling, walking or transit use. “Road diets” are increasingly used nationally.
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, “normal” and practical (“If he/she can do it, so can I!”), and the growing awareness on the part of motorists that bicyclists are likely to be 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 dysfunctional place where cars are so dominating that transportation choice is lost. Where it is not practical, safe or convenient to travel, except by car.
Instead, we need to return to the timeless tradition of designing to make people happy, not cars.
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
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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