By Dom Nozzi
December 18, 2018
Someone responded recently to an essay I wrote. My essay mentioned the fact that the US has the lowest levels of bicycling in the world. He claimed that this low level was due to the fact that it is “suicidal” to bike when there are no separated bicycle paths.
As an asice, bicycle paths that are physically separated from the street, in contrast to bicycle lanes, which are in-street bicycle routes separated by car travel lanes by a painted white stripe.
I’m not sure why a person would consider bicycling on streets rather than on separated bike paths is “suicidal”?
I have been a bicycle commuter for about 50 years (about 2-6 bike rides every day during that time, and almost never on a separated path. I have never had a close call with a motor vehicle in all that time. In addition, I have been working academically and professionally in bicycle transportation for about 35 years, and know from that work the following: bicycling is far safer than most people realize (which confirms my own personal experience). I have long known a great many friends who are both motorists and who have ridden a bike without separated paths.
Of the friends who were killed in road crashes, nearly all of them have been killed while driving a car than riding a bike (admittedly, this is anecdotal). However, the data supports that anecdotal observation. For example, your life expectancy is longer if you are a bike commuter rather than a car commuter, and not only because you are more healthy.
My 35 years of academic and professional work also shows that separated bike paths are not an important limiting factor in the number of people who choose to become bike commuters. Even if it were, almost no city can afford to install a comprehensive system of off-street paths, and without such a system, paths are of little use to the bike commuter.
Much more important limiting factors in how many people choose to travel by bicycle are density of housing, retail and offices (a measure of how compact the community happens to be), distance to destinations, and available free parking for motorists. Each of those factors are enormous barriers to widespread bicycling in the US, due to the very low levels of compact density, the relatively large distances to destinations, and the enormous amount of free car parking provided in US cities.