By Dom Nozzi
January 30, 2009
Improving safety for bicyclists is importantly about the number of people bicycling. This is often called “Safety in Numbers.”
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 at higher speeds.
I’m open to the idea that “protected” on-street bike lanes (which have physical barriers between cyclists and cars), and 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 doing low-speed town center 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.
However, I remain unconvinced that protected bike lanes or off-street paths will draw large numbers in the US. Boulder CO is perhaps closer to doing that than any smaller city I know here in the US, and while they have a relatively large number of residents biking, it is still a tiny fraction of the total. I think the European situation doesn’t give us much accuracy on the impact of protected lanes or off-street path inducement because Europe is so different than us. There, the parking is comparatively scarce and expensive. Densities and mixed-use is 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.
I guess that means I’d like to see a demonstration project in the US to find out if a comprehensive protected lane or off-street path system would induce high levels of biking. But the cost would be huge. And it is perhaps unwise to spend a lot of dollars on something that is not extremely likely to succeed. For example, I don’t believe even extremely high quality, frequent transit service would induce lots of transit use in non-large cities in the US.
There is too much free parking. Development is too dispersed. Gas is too cheap. And destinations are too far from each other.
Given these rather intractable problems in the US, we are probably a long way off from seeing large numbers of bicyclists or transit users. Probably the obstacle that is most difficult to overcome in the near term is our dispersed land use pattern. Even if gas is, say, $30/gallon, a lot of us will be forced to drive cars (even if we have a full network of protected bike lanes or off-street bike paths).
I continue to mostly adhere to the objective of taking back our streets from high-speed motoring, and urging compact mixing of housing, jobs, shops, and civic. 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 try the protected bike lane or off-street idea, at least as a demo on one or two corridors.
Ultimately, high-speed roads have no future. And if protected bike lanes or off-street paths are necessary because of high-speed roads (which I believe is true), it doesn’t seem like protected bike lanes or off-street paths are where we should be putting our energies right now. 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 more compact, 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 $50/gallon? Or 100 years? If the former, I don’t believe protected bike lanes or off-street paths make a lot of sense.
How do you see our future?