Comfort Level

11 Aug

American cities have finally caught on, and in a big way: the number of bikeways separated from car traffic is exploding, relatively speaking.  According to a recent piece in Momentum Mag (via Sports Backers’ email newsletter Pulse), the number of protected lanes or “cycle tracks” in the U.S. nearly doubled last year, from 62 to 102.  More than 32 cities now have at least one.

Cycle track in Barcelona with "zebras" separating cyclists from cars.  From

Cycle track in Barcelona with “zebras” separating cyclists from cars. From

The reason is simple: separated lanes on busy streets give a lot of people the comfort level they need to bike in traffic.  It seems that every cycle track installed brings at least 50 percent more bicycles than before, and in some cases, such as Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C., it increased the number of people on bicycles by 200 percent.  Cities like Indianapolis and Chicago are now touting their protected lanes to attract young talent and businesses — and even trying to outdo one another.  Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel went so far as to say recently that he would use bicycle infrastructure to lure people and businesses from Seattle!

How Did We Get Here?

The Momentum article is  comprehensive, and that includes an enlightening section explaining how U.S. cities came out of the oil crisis of the 1970s with almost no bike lanes, while many cities in other countries started doing then what we’re just now getting around to.  The reasons are many, but a crucial piece of the puzzle is “vehicular cycling.”  Bicycle advocacy in the U.S. at that time was dominated by the idea that the best approach is to treat bicycles as vehicles on the road.  So most American advocates focused a lot on educating cyclists to ride confidently and safely with car traffic, not much on getting bike lanes installed.

Knowing how to ride in traffic is important, and the vehicular cycling approach does work well — for those willing to ride in traffic.  But the number of people using bicycles to get around in the U.S. reveals the problem: the percentage of trips taken by bicycle has remained stubbornly around 1 percent in most places.  Even in cities where cycling has “exploded” in recent years, the percentage of trips taken by bicycle has not yet reached 10 percent.

A Different Approach

The oil crisis in the 70s prompted cities like Copenhagen, in contrast, to start building bicycle infrastructure, and the results are well known.  (See the recent Grist series on cycling in Copenhagen for more).  It’s worth highlighting here that Copenhagen was not always so bike friendly: bicycles were a primary form of transportation through 1950 or so, but by the mid 70s the use of bicycles had plummeted in favor of cars.  Despite its status as a premiere cycling city, Copenhagen has yet to match its pre 60s levels.  But it is trying: the current goal is to have 50 percent of all trips by bicycle by 2015 (it’s now about 37%).  Part of the strategy is — you guessed it — more infrastructure, including bicycle “freeways” to make it easy for suburbanites to bike into the city.

It’s possible to go on too much about Copenhagen and similar cities.  American society and cities are different; but not so much so that looking to a place like Copenhagen can’t inspire and give us some clues of what our future might hold if we get engaged and push our leaders in the right direction.


2 Responses to “Comfort Level”

  1. Bob Burch August 12, 2013 at 2:28 PM #

    Great ideas! Here’s hoping Richmond can inspire it’s leaders to action.
    Meanwhile, anybody know then the Forest Hill Ave project will begin?
    A trip to Martin’s or Lowe’s is dicey!

    • jarendt August 18, 2013 at 12:58 AM #

      The city posted information about the Forest Hill project but only dates for what has happened already at

      The project will only go as far as Hathaway Rd. Those improvements will get you from the Powhite to Food Lion and almost to Martin’s but not all the way to Lowe’s.

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