By Dom Nozzi
December 20, 1999
To effectively encourage more bicycling, walking, and transit use, the first order of business is to put a firm, permanent moratorium on widening roads or intersections in urbanized areas. Each time we widen a road or intersection, we drastically increase the number of car trips and substantially decrease the number of non-car trips.
The research I’ve seen shows that even modest shifts of 5 to 10 percent from car to non-car travel are extremely unlikely in our current transportation environment. So no, I do not believe public facility or service enhancements for green transportation will give us a measurable shift.
I saw a study about a year ago, that I think I have in my files, that looked at factors in various US cities that created meaningful bike trips. In its conclusions, it talked about what it felt were the correlations between various treatments and shifts to bike trips. I have not seen reported correlations for pedestrians.
For transit, it is a broken record: End free parking, reduce parking supply, increase density, and let congestion happen. If you do all those things, you can get something on the order of a 30 percent shift at selected businesses. The literature does not show any meaningful shift by using commonly suggested strategies such as increasing bus frequency or using cleaner buses or adding bike lanes or adding sidewalks.
Connector paths or sidewalks or streets between neighborhoods and shopping and schools would be enormously helpful. Unfortunately, as has been learned in countless proposals to install greenway bike trails, it is nearly always politically impossible for government to initiate such connections, due to fear of crime, black people, etc. All we can hope for, in most cases, is for the neighborhood to ask local government to install the connector. Had we been wise in the past, our codes would have required such connectors up front, as a part of development approval. If the connector is there before the homes, people are much more likely to accept them than if they are retrofitted. Sadly, nearly all American communities are mostly built out, so code changes to require such connectors up front will not help much.
Tragically and bizarrely, major opponents to connectors and greenways (to connecting schools with neighborhoods) has often been the school board! Their fear is security and liability. This opposition is astounding, given how much school board transportation costs have skyrocketed in recent decades, and nearly all public schools have a traffic jam near the school each morning. It is also shocking because schools are now well aware of the obesity epidemic their students are afflicted by.
What has frustrated me in the past is that too often, the bike/ped advocates usually prioritize bicycling and walking improvement projects in outlying areas with such a low density that such projects will inevitably attract only a small number of users, instead of focusing on higher density urban settings (such as a town center, where we can be confident there will be a large number of users. I believe the reason for this is that appointed bike/ped advocacy board have had a long tradition of being dominated by recreational, long-distance bicyclists, whose main interest is to see that they have better access to long recreational rides on rural roads.
Another problem common in community prioritization of bicycle and pedestrian projects is that there tends to be an oversized influence from the local home builders, so that local governments tend to prioritize things in outlying, low-density areas to support new subdivisions.
Communities, as a result, regularly spend enormous amounts of public dollars to build sidewalks that almost no one uses (because it connects to nothing and is near only a tiny number of residences). Local governments squander large sums for infrastructure that hardly anyone uses in sprawl, car-oriented locations, instead of spending money on more urban sidewalks that could have helped a great deal.
In my work as a town planner, I attempted to set up a criteria-driven ranking system to get us away from this horrible prioritization. Of course, the system was ignored.
The common bleeding heart attitude in many communities means that it will just take one sprawlsville homebuilder to warn that if local government does not build sidewalks and bike lanes out in sprawlsville, kids will die. Such vested interest crying is hard to resist, and often means that there will be little change in how local governments spend their meager bicycle and pedestrian dollars.
Where are the best locations for new bike lanes in a community? As a lifelong bicycle commuter and researcher, it is clear that the most important places for local governments to provide bike lanes is on the major streets that draw a lot of cars. Why? Because bicycle commuters have the same travel destination desires as motorists, and major streets (absent a citywide greenway network) are, by far, the fastest, most efficient way to travel.
Let us not trivialize bicycling. Bicycle commuters want to save time, too. Local government cannot, for example, build an off-street connector path between most neighborhoods and, say, a shopping center, which is a place commuter cyclists often need to bike to.
So while I agree that the off-major-street connectors and greenways can be enormously helpful for certain neighborhoods, local governments need to realize that for a large number of bicycle commuters — who tend to be perfectly comfortable riding on a major street with a bike lane, and strongly prefer such routes due to time savings – local governments need to fill in the gaps on major streets (with bike lanes or “protected” lanes).
So it is a two-pronged approach: (1) Build an off-street network to train novices to walk or bicycle so that they can eventually “graduate” to being able to do so on major streets; and (2) fill in the gaps on major streets with bike lanes or protected lanes, and calm streets so that the higher car speeds do not occur in the urban areas.
Local governments need to stop squandering money on projects that will not EVER carry many users in remote, low-density areas that do not connect to anything (and are only used to support sprawl developers and their recreation-minded customers).
And local governments should be very careful that we do not use a big cost, high visibility green transportation project to prove that we can get a decrease in car travel, and have the project flop with low use, thereby giving such an idea a black eye because the local government failed to account for critical things like density, price signals, and parking supply.
Probably an important reason why so many conventional transportation planners resist recommending effective tactics to reduce car travel is that the dominant societal paradigm does not see any feasible way to shift a meaningful number of trips away from car travel, nor do most even think it is appropriate or desirable, since many transportation planners are motorists themselves.
To conventional planners, the only legitimate behavior modification is the massive social engineering we’ve engaged in for over a century: widening roads and intersections, requiring low-density development, and heavily subsidizing car travel. All of this has artificially increased car travel far beyond what it would have been had we not pampered car travel so aggressively. Encouraging more car travel is perfectly okay and desirable.
But using effective behavior modification to reduce car trips is not even on the table. It is unAmerican and a Marxist-Leninist conspiracy.
But like prison reforms, we will be forced to use more effective car reduction tactics eventually, once we reach the limits of how much we can afford to spend to widen roads. Cost limits will suddenly and miraculously allow us to be enlightened.
A big part of what I do as a town and transportation planner is to try to encourage my community to start the transition early, since the longer we wait, the more painful and costly it will be to do what we will eventually be forced to do.
Sadly, much as we desire it, there are no easy magic bullets for making our travel sustainable.