What would it take to get Americans to adopt more cycling in their daily lives?
Perhaps a better question is: what prevents people from using the bike as a common mode of transportation?
Well, there’s a lot. Some people like to jump right into the societal norms discussion: it’s not cool, people look funny, Americans prefer comfortable vehicles with large carrying capacity. My response is that societal norms evolve and arguing from the point of view strictly over what people will accept isn’t a useful place to be. Don’t get me wrong: if you were coming to me with a business case that required some of my own cash, I’d be very mindful about those societal norms in determining whether the current market supported the expected cash flows.
So what prevents people from getting on the bike? As I mentioned previously, infrastructure is a big part of it and I argue that urban planning has a lot to do with it too. Someone who wants to ride a bike as a means to transportation is more motivated to ride on busy roads — they’re busy because they’re direct and go to useful places. These roads frequently
- Do not have clear places for cyclists to be.
- Do not tell cyclists when to wait their turns.
- Do not have places to keep their bikes at the destinations.
Instead, a cyclist is expected to know the rules of the road, and an automobile driver is expected to know a cyclists rights. It often doesn’t work out. Last week, a woman who was angry that I went ahead on my green light and forced her to stop before she could make her left turn yelled at me “YOU ARE NOT A CAR!!” If I was a car, presumably she’d have given me the legal right of way as required as she made her left turn. Bikes, in her eyes, don’t have a right to be on the road regardless of what the law says.
Are bike lanes the answer? Certainly that’s part of it but only so long, in my opinion, that the bike lanes are consistent in traffic wherever there are roads. They also can’t be placed as they are so often done in the USA: set up so close to a parking lane that cyclists are inadvertently doored as someone pushes a car door open in front of an approaching cyclist. Cyclists need signage showing them where they are expected to be and when they are expected to truly stop. You can’t ignore the need for enforcement either: nothing would make me happier than seeing more police ticketing cyclists who don’t obey traffic laws (so long as they also ticket drivers who don’t respect a cyclist’s right too).
The last key is the place to put your bike when you arrive. Looking again at The Netherlands, you see civic bike stands everywhere. Just as you can drive somewhere in the USA and find on-street parking set up and maintained by the government, in The Netherlands you have bike stands all over the place: in front of stores, movie theaters, train stations, parks, schools, government buildings. In the USA, you’ll get some attempts to provide a place to lock up a bike, but they’re few and far between. Maybe the government shoudn’t invest in something that few people use right now, but if the government doesn’t invest at all, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Government investment, a.k.a. urban/civic planning, is why I think you can ignore the societal norms argument. Look in places like Cambridge, MA, or Seattle, WA, and you’ll find lots of examples where the government has invested in cycling as a transportation option and you see more people doing it.
Government investment, of course, is a hard sell for many. Many people confuse government investment with business investment and think that the exact same rules apply. I disagree. The government often invests where we don’t expect to have a market in order to keep society livable. Otherwise, we might as well go to the Libertarian model and expect a profit-based market solution for all services: Fire, Police, roads, water, sewage, trash disposal, and so on. Yet we are where we are partly because the goverment invested in a high-speed, high-car capacity road system that lets people travel very far between work and home.
Where do we go next? What do you want the goverment to invest in for a sustainable environment?Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Filed under: Cycling, Transportation |