Tag Archives: effective transportation tactics

The Ineffectiveness of New Sidewalks and Bike Lanes

By Dom Nozzi

What are the effective tactics to induce more bicycling and walking?

In my research and experience, the following are the most effective ways to induce a significant increase in bicycling and walking.

  1. Scarce and priced car parking.
  2. Proximity, through relatively compact land use patterns (including a mixing of homes with shops and culture and jobs).
  3. VERY high gas prices, through an increase in the gas tax, or market forces.
  4. Slower speeds. When the difference in speed between cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists is high, it is very difficult for nearly all of us to feel comfortable walking or bicycling. High car speeds create enormous barriers to walking and bicycling.
  5. Full-time staff needs to be devoted to walking and bicycling in local government.
  6. One-way streets need to be converted back to two-way operation.
  7. Short block lengths need to be created in street design. About 200 feet is an excellent length for walking.
  8. Create human scale in street, intersection, and building setback dimensions. Rule of thumb: Smaller is better.
  9. Achieve street vibrancy. There should be 24-hour activity on streets and sidewalks. Vibrancy attracts pedestrians and bicyclists. Deploying tactics on this list helps create vibrancy.
  10. Create the perception that walking and bicycling is safe, pleasant, and hip. Understand and act on the reality that there is safety in numbers. When we effectively induce a large increase in walking and bicycling, we create a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle. Many who see large numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists are convinced that walking and bicycling is safe, pleasant, and hip. Being convinced of that leads many to start walking and bicycling more often themselves.

Notice the glaring lack of “new sidewalks and bike lanes” on the above list. It is no coincidence that many of the great walking and bicycling cities in the world have awful or scarce sidewalks and bike lanes.

Will the provision of more sidewalks lead to more walking?

I’m still waiting for the nearly 100 percent coverage of sidewalks in Gainesville FL – where I toiled for 20 years as a town planner — to induce more than 0.0001% of healthy, young, student-oriented Gainesville to engage in utilitarian walking. IMG_3045Why are more in Gainesville not walking? Is there something we could do to sidewalks to make them more “enjoyable,
comfortable, and safe”? Could it maybe be that people prefer driving to all that free and abundant parking that awaits them everywhere, rather than walking five miles? Could it be that land use densities are so low – that, therefore, walking distances are so long – that walking is nearly impossible for the vast majority of residents?

Is it a good idea to encourage more bicycling by installing more bike paths that are physically separated from motor vehicle travel lanes?

As I’ve said many times in the past, I’m still waiting for ONE example of a community in the US which has successfully employed this strategy. I know of none. Even if there was a community which could afford the astronomical costs, sidewalks, bike lanes and bike paths are not likely to induce regular commuting by mom, kids and seniors (and healthy young people) when the distances are extreme, as they are in almost all of suburbia.

Are bike lanes and sidewalks sufficient to induce more bicycling and walking?

I continue to be convinced that bike lanes and sidewalks do not meaningfully induce bicycling and walking BY THEMSELVES. Gainesville is an excellent example (as are a number of communities I have visited). Gainesville has one of the most comprehensive and adequately provided set of bike lanes and sidewalks I know of. The climate is good year-round. The topography is flat as a pancake. And the University of Florida, being the third largest university in the US, provides the city with an unusually large number of young, healthy, fit, poor, educated citizens.

Despite all those things going for it, the number of utilitarian bicyclists and walkers is tiny in Gainesville. I contend it is because Gainesville is an utter failure when it comes to car parking, density/mixed-use, gas taxes, size/speed of roads, size of blocks/connectivity, etc. If it were true that bike lanes and sidewalks induced lots of bicycling and walking, why is almost no one doing it in Gainesville?

I’ve heard people tell me over and over again that if paths or sidewalks were provided, they’d bike or walk a lot more. I’ve not noticed that being true in the cities in the US that have a failing score on my list of effective tactics. I understand that it is common for folks to say things in surveys just because they believe that it is ethical to believe or behave in the way they indicate in the survey. But it ends up mostly being lip service. Almost everyone says they’ll bike/walk/transit more if we put in the bike/walk/transit faculties. But mostly they are not being honest (or don’t realize there are a lot of additional factors that have them decide not to change the way they travel).

My list strives to identify the most effective tactics to induce travel change. Bike lanes and sidewalks are necessary, but not effective enough to be on my Top Ten list. I also didn’t have showers on my list for the same reason. Or bike parking.

By the way, one of the reasons I think it is a good idea to not have bike lanes/sidewalks on the list is that far too many people think the war has been won if those things are installed (but nothing has been achieved for the items on my list). I’m tired of that. I’m ready for some wise leadership. For a change.

Keeping bike lanes and sidewalks off a tactics list might lead to some serious thinking. America has had how many decades of failure to meaningfully increase bicycling and walking? Isn’t it time for a change in what we do?

In my experience (and note that I am referring strictly to utilitarian/commute walking/biking and not recreational), sidewalks and bike lanes don’t seem to induce a meaningful number of utilitarian trips by pedestrians or bicyclists — particularly in suburbia. In my opinion, it is irrational and therefore extremely unlikely that people will opt to walk or bike (even on bike lanes or sidewalks) instead of drive a car, for trips to work or a store or other utilitarian trips. Particularly because, as Donald Shoup so convincingly points out, the free parking spaces that Americans find on nearly all of their car trips are begging people to drive a car. Other factors that make bike lanes and sidewalks unlikely to induce new utilitarian bike/ped trips are the enormous distances one finds in low-density, single-use suburban settings.

Gainesville had sidewalks and bike lanes everywhere, yet it was VERY rare for me to ever see or hear of someone walking or bicycling for utilitarian purposes (even though we had an enormous number of college students there). I almost always felt that I was one of 3 or 4 bicycle commuters in allegedly bike-friendly Gville (where bike lanes and paths are all over the community).

In stark contrast, I have been to communities in both America and Europe (Charleston, Copenhagen, Rome, etc.) where there is an enormous amount of biking and walking. And quite frequently, such places have rather inadequate sidewalks or bike lanes. In my opinion, those places have lots of bikes/peds because of their compactly laid out town centers, their mixing of land uses (houses close to schools, culture, jobs, and shops), scarce and expensive parking, short travel distances, etc.

Other examples: A number of people have observed that in a number of “new urbanist” towns, many continue to drive despite sidewalks and short distances. Or notice that most everyone drives even though their trip is only a few hundred feet in length. Again, in my opinion, that is largely explained by the abundance of free parking that awaits at the destination.

Too often, I’ve seen elected officials unjustifiably pat themselves on the back for creating a bike-friendly community because they required installation of bike lanes or bike parking. But it was mostly window dressing, because in places like Gainesville, most everyone continued to drive for the reasons I mention above. Politicians are typically unwilling to show the leadership needed to use effective tactics like compact land use patterns, mixed use, efficient parking, etc. Instead, they engage in easy-way-out lip service that buys them votes but doesn’t meaningfully change the community.

In sum, the suburbs are in deep trouble in the inevitable future where car travel is substantially higher in cost. Their dispersed, single-use land use patterns and long travel distances means that even with bike lanes and sidewalks, most people will feel obligated to pay a lot more money to buy gas, because the distances are too daunting to walk or bike. Suburbs, to have a future, need to densify or at least create new town centers.

I am in full agreement, despite what I’ve said above, that communities should ALWAYS require new development to install bike lanes (particularly in suburbia) and sidewalks (particularly in town centers). In fact, I enthusiastically wrote ordinances that Gainesville adopted which required sidewalks for all new development. I fully agree that people should not be expected to walk on a road due to lack of sidewalks (except, perhaps, in very low-density rural conditions), or be expected to bike without bike lanes (except in low-speed town centers). If nothing else, such facilities show the community is bike- and ped-friendly. A very important message to send. It shows that the community respects such people.

Is it feasible to adopt the tactics I recommend? I am fully and sadly aware that the effective tactics I recommend are extremely difficult, if not impossible to achieve in most of the US, politically. But opting for other more feasible tactics (bike lanes, bike parking, bike showers, sidewalks) doesn’t make them effective simply because we can do them easier.

Let’s be honest: Most American communities are doomed because we have spent several decades building communities that have no future because it is nearly impossible to retrofit them for transportation choice and other forms of sustainability. We have many years of painful and costly work in front of us.

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Filed under Bicycling, Transportation, Walking