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Design Impact » Cycling

18 Minutes

Guest blogger Greg Kushmerek continues his series of articles on bike commuting:

I am the parent of young children, one of which has recently started at public school. As with many working parents, I need to juggle my work schedule with their school schedules.

This week I tried a little experiment: compare a car-based vs. bike-based commute while doing school drop-off for a 15-mile commute.

Bike Day

  • Put bike seat on back of bike.
  • Load child on bike.
  • Ride to school (5 blocks).
  • Lock bike to fence (no bike racks).
  • Drop-off
  • Ride back home and deposit bike seat.
  • Bike to work

Bicycle: Dahon Cadenza (my slower, heavier bike). Arrive at work: 9:28

I was showered and working before 10AM. Had the work VPN been up that morning, I’d have had 30 extra minutes at home to check and respond to messages.

Drive Day

  • Walk child to school
  • Drop-off
  • Walk back home
  • Drive car

Car commute conditions were a touch heavier than normal, but within the mean. Arrive at work: 9:10

Conclusion

Sacrificing the bike for the car (or forsaking the bike for the car — your call) doesn’t yield major gains, at least not for me. Had it been inclement weather or a good deal colder the car puts in a more obvious advantage. The time gains from the car are even a bit inflated when you consider that on car-day, I arrived at the school five minutes earlier. One could argue that less traffic would lead to bigger time gains, but I know I can get to work faster on my Felt (about 3mph / 5min faster).

Given a flexible work environment where some on-line work or staying a touch later is allowed, the time difference isn’t enough to warrant giving up the bike for the car.

For some people arriving 18 minutes later and sweaty is just a no-go. For those who live a lot closer to where they work, that time gap could practically vanish, and one might not even need to clean up.

Posted: September 18th, 2009 | Filed under: Cycling, Transportation | 4 Comments »

Practical Implications

Guest blogger Greg Kushmerek continues his series of articles on bike commuting:

Someone I like to follow on-line is Andy Kessler. He’s a financial journalist and author of sorts who’s written a few books and used to run a hedge fund. He’s very practical, has an excellent sense of the arbitrary nature of “value”, and I’ve come to realize as I’ve followed him that he seems to hate cyclists, or at least cycling evangelists.

Andy’s made a few comments denigrating, really almost fearing, a vision of the future where cars are not dominant and cyclists such as me have “won”. He has a real distaste of a future where everyone lives in densely populated areas in order to make a greener place. If I’ve read him correctly, he thinks that would attack the very nature of what it means to be American — that having onerous burdens that force people to live in cities would create a society devoid of innovation.

There are some great areas for discussion in that position, the first and foremost being that it’s a real concern shared by many people who would rather not have to face arriving at work sweaty from a summer ride with dirty hands from trying to rebuild a snapped chain. That little saddle doesn’t sound as appealing as a cushy leather seat and air conditioning (or heat in winter). How do you reach these people? If you can’t, are you going to force them towards that vision via government regulation?

Now Andy has a sharp wit and it’s very tempting to point out that the proper market-oriented answer is that rich people like him would ultimately pay teams of people like me to come out to his vast estate and cart him around in our little cycling paradise. The ruling class could grow to a race of Jaba-The-Hut proportions and lord it over the rest of us.

However it’s at this point I think one should step back and look at this from a more practical standpoint: could the cycling vision really work in America? I’ve previously mentioned that The Netherlands only oriented itself to cycling in the 1960s, which implies that with enough will the same kind of thing can happen elsewhere. The problem with that position is that it ignores what 40 years of infrastructure development in the USA have created: a population spread out over a wide area, much bigger than tiny Holland.

Think about it: if the Feds suddenly put out bike friendly infrastructure and created an economic environment more favorable to cycling, what would it mean? My city condo would go up in value as some people would find my dense neighborhood more attractive, but plenty of people in the suburbs and exurbs would neither want to move or appreciate a reduction in their own property values. The houses in far flung places won’t magically disappear and the communities won’t just transplant themselves. Some people hate dense areas and generations have grown up in spacious suburbs. People will still live in places with long roads in between their destinations. They’ll start driving more efficient four-wheeled vehicles before they move. You don’t have to be especially bright to see the real implications.

In this kind of environment, what do you do to make cycling more attractive in suburban areas? Bike lanes are ridiculous on most roads since they’re plenty wide enough. It’s the main connecting roads that you have to think about. Should there be bike lanes on those? Should there be more “bike stops” so people can duck out of the rain? One policy I like, that would make some people howl, is to reduce the percentage of car use on those main arterial roads by 40%. Shove cars in narrower lanes in the middle, put up some raised granite separators on the outside, and make the space from the granite to the side of the road exclusive to cyclists and mopeds.

Maybe you could buy them out? The Great Smokies National Park used to be plots of private farmland until the 1930’s. We spent the 60’s using eminent domain to raze the center of cities and put in highways. Should we now use those same policies to reverse engineer what’s in place?

In the end, this only confirms Andy’s fear. The houses won’t get any closer if you force the roads to be more cycling friendly. Not everyone will leave and those who do will not do it all at once. Some business will not want to expand into suburban areas if the government creates market conditions more favorable to denser cities or exurbs. While I think that this kind of environment won’t stifle innovation — it will enhance it as people rush to fill voids that a new market condition creates — that’s cold comfort to Andy’s point of view.

Still, I am vexed over what to do with all of those suburbs. You can’t simply say “too bad”. The political backlash would kill pro-cycling integration policies if those policies became onerous to suburban living. Yes you can create market conditions that encourage people to give that existence up, but you need to think of ways to accommodate those who do not switch. After all, even the most avid suburban cyclist is likely to have a car for errands.

I’d like to know what you think?

Posted: August 5th, 2009 | Filed under: Cycling, Policy, Transportation | No Comments »

Uniform Policies Are Key

Guest blogger Greg Kushmerek continues his series of articles on bike commuting:

A key design tip in the world of print is consistency: keep consistent design elements in place. People recognize a designed page as “belonging” to the overall product. Apply this to the physical world and you get predictability, and that’s good for something like traffic management.

We don’t have enough predictability on today’s roads, however, for drivers or cyclists. For example: should bikes be subject to all rules of the road, or should they have their own set? Aside from the fact that some cyclists create their own rules, I have seen plenty of examples where bikes have been given the right to do things that cars cannot.

For example: it’s the law in Massachusetts that bikes can pass cars on the right so long as the local town or city hasn’t explicitly outlawed the practice. Pass someone on the right in a car, and you’re subject to a ticket (it was the first one I ever got when I was a teen). Of course, few people know this — I once had someone try to use his car as a rolling roadblock to prevent me from going down the right side.

More signage would help as would other aids to navigation. Intersections can have bike traffic lights or bike signs explicitly dictating what cyclists may do. Signs in advance of major intersections could warn cyclists and drivers that the road is about the change and thus the dynamics are about to be different.

Consider bike lanes again: the non-uniformity of how they appear, how long they last, on what kinds of roads you’ll see them all lead to ambiguity. Ambiguity in traffic is bad. When are they solid lines? When are they dashed lines that allow cars in them? And, as I previously mentioned, how close to the side of the road are they? I personally prefer the idea of redefining the idea of a road to be partly a place where cars travel and then partly a place where “other things” happen. Some roads are generously wide enough that you can cut out eight feet from the side, leave six feet for parking, a foot of space, and the last foot be available for bike lanes. Consistent marking would make it clear where moving cars do and do not belong, and people would form new habits.

What about sidewalks? Any cyclist who’s spent enough time on the road has been asked, rhetorically, “Why don’t you go back on the sidewalk where you belong?” (Presumably, the thought of a cyclist rapidly sneaking up on a baby stroller is more appealing to these drivers than having to share the road.) Just when is it a good time to be on a sidewalk? Ever? Never? I think they’re even more dangerous for cyclists than most roads, but the laws here are also quite mixed even encouraging cyclists to use sidewalks.

I think it’s time to consider a federal-level set of guidelines tied to highway and road funding. Signage, lane width, location, requirements on which kinds of roads should have bike lanes, consistent rules — all of this can come right down and level the playing field to create the predictability we need on the roads. It won’t stop cars from complaining about bikes on the roads, but hopefully it will move their complaints over how someone is biking on the roads and not whether someone should be biking on the road.

Posted: July 22nd, 2009 | Filed under: Cycling, Policy, Transportation | No Comments »

Bike Lanes: Bad Policy Begets Bad Design

Guest blogger Greg Kushmerek continues his series of articles on bike commuting:

There’s a lot of arguments out there about whether bike lanes are good or bad, and a lot of the arguments against them seem to come down to “They create more problems for cyclists than they solve”. Perhaps that’s an oversimplification, but it’s an opinion I agree with with when looking at many implementations of bike lanes in my own area.

Consider Boston. Boston really should be a great biking city. It’s not that small, has lots of parks, fairly wide roads, and isn’t all that hilly right in the city area. However, biking in the city feels risky. The few attempts to put in bike lanes have simply stunk. The first bike lane I’m aware of is behind Jamaica Pond on Perkins Street. There’s some parking between the curb and the bike lane, and then the parking lane ends and the bike lane takes over. What happens is this: people fill up all the parking spaces and then just park right over the bike lane when parking runs out.

Now you can point your fingers at the Boston Transportation Department or Boston Police Department and say that they should be out there doing more ticketing, but that ignores the larger point. The implementation stinks. The bike lane competes with parking in a highly desirable location. The bike lane could have been one foot further out, eating into the regular road. This would make it clearer that there’s a real lane there. The lane could be using different paint than the simple white lines that, everywhere else in the city, denotes the shoulder.

Worse still is that the placement of the bike lane puts cyclists in a zone of danger. People come in and out of that area with their cars all the time to go walk around the park (yes, they drive to the pond to go jogging, but I’m not going there today — at least Massachusetts has the 2nd lowest rate of obesity in the country today). In other words, the risk of a cyclist getting doored is pretty good.

Imagine if the federal government had a law giving states and municipalities the incentive to put in bike lanes only if those lanes had little boxes all alongside them that randomly punched out at passing cyclists? That’s kind of what’s happening today. If you are resurfacing a road, you can ask the feds to chip in on the cost, which they’ll gladly consider if you agree to spray on some bike lanes.

So here we are: you have local transportation departments taking the cash and laying down lines about as close to the side of the road as they can get it, regardless of the parking situation. In Cambridge, MA, this led to a cyclist’s death a couple of years ago when a female cyclist in her lane on Mass Ave was doored and fell to the ground in front of a passing bus.

I don’t think this automatically makes all bike lanes bad. I think that bike lanes are a really good thing when they’re done correctly. I point to The Netherlands as one such example of doing these things well frequently, but this time I don’t have to look so far. Right in Newton, on Beacon Street, the town effectively cut the road in half by making a shoulder out of what was an unofficial second lane. It’s not now considered a bona fide bike lane, but that’s how it’s frequently used by many commuters and college students. Parking is limited and where there is parking, a passing cyclist has enough space to get around the car and not be in traffic.

I’d like to see more of this, and I’d like to see the feds put in some guidelines on just how a bike lane gets implemented rather than having them simply hand over a check.

What do you think makes a successful bike lane? How can the policy be better?

Posted: July 8th, 2009 | Filed under: Cycling, Policy, Transportation | 2 Comments »

The Next Level of Support (Part 2)

Guest blogger Greg Kushmerek continues his series of articles on bike commuting:


Last time I discussed how much something seemingly simple, parking, can have a strong effect on whether people cycle to work. Today I want to argue for the second seemingly simple thing that can make a big difference in whether someone cycles to work: having a convenient place to shower.

If you’re an American reading this, it might seem awfully obvious and almost a given. I say this as an American: people don’t like to smell your stink and you don’t like people smelling yours. On this basis alone, many people put biking as a non-starter. No place to clean up? No bike ride to work.

There are people who go through heroic motions. I read once about a guy who works out in San Francisco and cycle commutes. He’s got his place to park the bike, in a room in the basement of the building, and he also has adult-sized wet wipes to clean up from his ride. It makes for an interesting read, but I doubt that’s inspiring enough to spark a movement.

I’m fortunate: my employer has a gym on-site that includes a locker room with clean showers and towel service. I use this every time I come in. I keep a set of clothes at work that regularly go through a dry cleaning service (that I pay for) and I ride in with my shirt nicely rolled up — rolling helps prevent wrinkles. This makes riding in exceptionally easy from a logistics standpoint. I skip the shower at home and heck I save on hot water too. I consider this arrangement ideal.

So what could we do in designing our workplaces to make this available to more people? Many larger business have on-site gyms; if they provided safe bike parking then it’s easy enough to make the commute workable. It’s the medium and smaller places that are harder to manage.

One idea is to engineer change through the tax code. Businesses could receive tax credits if they provide a parking/shower package for cycle commuters. Sound outlandish? Businesses already receive tax breaks if they close down a building. That’s why some places stay empty for years but don’t get sold (I once worked at a place that redecorated a floor and then moved everyone out to claim the credit). A counterargument that nags at me is that the tax code is already so tortured that it’s become inefficient and costs society in a myriad of other ways.

What else? Well there’s the simple but blunt approach of making car commuting more expensive. The last time I checked, gas taxes didn’t even cover 60% of the cost of maintaining roads meaning that non-drivers are continuously subsidizing the roads that they don’t use. Here again is where I have some sympathy with the Libertarian point of view: if people find the service is worthwhile, then make people pay for it. I don’t want to privatize the Fire Department, but I do think the subsidy to car drivers is ridiculous and they should pay more for the roads they use as well as for the times they use them (look up “congestion charging” for more on this idea).

Whether through congestion charging (design) or market forces (demand as in $4 gas when the world economy was humming), a smart business will see the advantages of putting in more parking and showers to attract tenants. After all, once companies start to hire again, how better to burnish Green credentials than to promote their friendliness to cycle commuters?

Posted: June 24th, 2009 | Filed under: Cycling, Transportation | 1 Comment »

Education by Bike Recap: What Readers Have Learned About Driving by Cycling

My earlier post, What Cycling Can Teach us About Better Driving, addressed how spending some time biking can help us become safer and more fuel-efficient drivers. This article prompted some insightful feedback from readers via blog comments, email, and LinkedIn. Here is a summary of what I heard from you:

  • Interaction: Cyclists learn to establish communication with motorists around them to ensure drivers are aware of their intentions, and vice versa. Drivers with experience cycling tend to be more vigilant with things like using turn signals, since they appreciate the importance of informing other road users what they plan to do. A motorist failing to use a turn signal can in some cases be a severe hazard to cyclists. One reader suggests always driving with lights on to help cyclists who use mirrors, particularly in foggy conditions. Another reader observed that establishing eye contact is ‘an important mode of communication’ for both cyclists and motorists.
  • Awareness: Cyclists develop the habit of being very aware of what’s going on around them. The habit of checking to see who is around you and what they are doing carries over to driving, as well as being extra alert for cyclists. Experience cycling gives drivers some insight into where to look for cyclists and what to expect from them.
  • Interpretation: It’s possible to discern much of what a driver is planning to do by paying attention to ‘body’ language, whether the actual behavior or facial expressions of the driver, or vehicle positioning, movement, or even what direction a car’s wheels are pointing. Cyclists develop these skills by necessity; drivers with enhanced anticipation and interpretation skills can drive more defensively and safely.
  • Appreciation: Exprience cycling helps motorists understand just how much space cyclists need while being passed, and the wide variation in speeds cyclists can travel at. It’s important for motorists not to assume all cyclists are travelling slowly; underestimating speed can lead to trouble. In addition, minor road hazards that might not mean anything to a motorist (like some road grates) are significant obstacles for cyclists; if driver’s can recognize this they can anticipate cyclist actions better. One reader ‘would like to see laws requiring cycling skills as part of driver’s licensure’ to help drivers gain a deeper appreciation for the dangers and challenges faced by cyclists. Another reader pointed out that drivers in the Netherlands are ‘far more considerate of cyclists’ because so many drivers also cycle.

Posted: June 22nd, 2009 | Filed under: Cycling, Education, Transportation | No Comments »

The Next Level of Support (Part 1)

Please welcome back Greg Kushmerek for another installment in his series on bicycle commuting. He contributes every second Wednesday, and you can read his previous posts here and here.


mcdbicyclecenter[Image Credit: Flickr]

I’ve spent time so far discussing general issues that affect anyone considering using a bike for transportation. Today I want to think about issues of infrastructure development that support cycle commuting specifically.

Why cycle commuting? Most Americans commute by car, and increasingly those car trips are by solo drivers. Anyone familiar with rush hour traffic knows all of that stop and go is bad for gas mileage. In other words, we have plenty of people spending time creeping through traffic on a daily basis burning hydrocarbons when they could be on a bike instead. Put more commuters on a bike, and I think you’ll have a greater number of healthy (and less-stressed) people breathing cleaner air.

What helps support cycle commuters? If your bike commute is short, your interests include parking. When I lived and worked in The Netherlands, my company had two large bike racks right out front with overhead cover. Think about these attributes: these commuter bicycles were not relegated to the back corner behind a dumpster where vandals and thieves can prey in privacy during work hours. Access from the rack and the front door was just as quick as for any car in the lot, and a rainstorm, a daily guarantee, would not mean a wet seat awaited you for the ride home.

Don’t underestimate the need for a place to park. A friend of mine gave up his daily 3-mile cycle commute because the management company of his Kendall Square firm wouldn’t let him park his bike inside. It didn’t matter that there was space in his office and his company was OK with it; the lease said no and the bike had to go. There wasn’t any nice bike rack out front either. If he wanted to bike in, he faced leaving a theft magnet locked to a parking meter.

Just one mile away, anyone visiting the Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston’s Longwood medical center can park their bike for free at one of the many racks in the parking garage. Your bike is by the attendent collecting cash from car drivers exiting the garage and right next to the main door in to the facility. These racks are heavily used during the day: free parking, a protected space, easy access to the door. Many companies could provide the same at a minimum of cost. Convert a few spaces in a parking garage into bike racks. Put those racks in a decently trafficked area. The same happened when Boston Healthcare for the Homeless built a new facility at the Boston Medical Center. The parking structure was created with cyclists in mind. Bike in there, and you have a protected bike spot in a highly visible area. Many of the staff converted to cycle commuters so they wouldn’t have to park in overflow a half mile away.

Is crime a concern? Some companies have bike lockers where four people share the space, limiting the list of suspects if something goes awry. This is a feature people are even willing to pay for if the traffic density is high enough. I’ve heard of waiting lists to get into these kinds of setups.

My favorite idea along these lines is one I first saw pop up in Chicago: the McDonald’s Cycle Center, a secure bike parking center that provides indoor storage and a locker/shower facility for yourself. I’ve been inside: it’s clean and well-located. Bike in, change, and either walk to work in your nearby downtown office or hop the L and go. The center even offers an on-site bike mechanic — and any cycle commuter worth his or her salt knows where the bike shops are on the way into work and when they open. These types of places are perfect for existing high-density cities.

Do you think your city has enough density to support a facility like the McDonald’s Cycle Center? Has your employer ever considered converting car spaces to bike spaces in a garage? Have you asked?

Posted: June 10th, 2009 | Filed under: Cycling, Policy, Transportation | 3 Comments »

What Cycling Can Teach us About Better Driving

cm03

Now that bike month is drawing to a close, it’s a great time to reflect on a few things that can be learned by riding our bikes more. In particular, what can cycling teach us about driving? It helps us learn two main things: how to drive more safely, and how to drive more efficiently. Cyclists must be the ultimate defensive drivers, and more frequent cycling can help us develop safer defensive driving habits. With respect to energy efficiency, the cyclist is his/her own power source, and so he or she is very aware of the energy requirements for different activities while riding. Recently I read through again the 100 tips for more efficient driving suggested by Ecomodder, and realized that many of these tips are learned naturally by riding a bike. Most cyclists tend to adjust their riding style to reduce their energy output; we get instant feedback on energy requirements, and have good motivation to minimize them. Here are some examples of things cyclists learn that transfer to efficient and safe driving of autos:

  1. Momentum: It takes a lot of work to build up speed on a bike. Cyclists really appreciate their momentum. This gives you a sense of what might happen if you hit something with all that momentum, but it is also motivation to maintain your momentum. When you brake, all that kinetic energy is dissipated as heat from your brake pads, and then you have to redo all that hard work to get your momentum back up. When driving, you save energy by avoiding routes that require frequent starts and stops. This helps maintain your momentum. Alternate traffic control devices could also help. Replacing stop signs and traffic lights with yield (give way) signs and roundabouts helps drivers keep up their momentum, not to mention cutting down on wasteful idling and time lost sitting in traffic.
  2. Gravitational Potential Energy: Pedaling up a hill can take a lot of work. It’s hard for a cyclist to let all that work go to waste by not maintaining speed developed by going back down the hill.
  3. Anticipation: This is a key skill. We can tie together items 1 and 2 with the idea of anticipation. For example, if you are at the top of a hill, and there is a stoplight at the bottom, but you anticipate that it will turn red, then stop and wait at the top until the light turns (or time it so that you get to the light when it turns green) so that you can maintain your speed through the intersection. A cyclist also learns to keenly anticipate intentions of drivers as part of being a defensive rider. Cyclists learn how to look ahead, think ahead, and plan ahead. Drivers could benefit substantially from improved anticipation skill.
  4. Small Profile: When you are riding fast or in windy conditions, the effect of air drag is very clear. Cyclists learn that crouching down and making yourself small cuts down significantly on drag force. Similarly, cars with a small profile, and fewer extra protrusions (like roof racks), have less drag. This can be especially important with cars since they generally travel much faster than cyclists. The power required to overcome drag force increases cubically with speed, that is, if you double your speed, it requires EIGHT times as much power to overcome drag force from air resistance.
  5. Drafting: This is actually not so advisable for driving, but cyclists who have ridden in a pack understand the benefit of drafting. Basically, cyclists take turns in the lead position, and cyclists who follow behind benefit from lower air resistance. Average speed is noticeably higher when riding in a pack and drafting.
  6. Good Tire Pressure: Anyone who has ridden with low tire pressure can attest that their bike is very sluggish compared to when their tires are fully inflated. It’s amazing to feel what a difference airing up your bike tires can make. It does make a difference with your car, but you don’t feel it the same as you do with a bike.
  7. Well-tuned Drivetrain: A well-lubed chain and tuned shifters makes a bike a joy to ride. Otherwise it can be a struggle. Keeping your car in tune is also essential to efficient driving. Be sure to find out what the engineers who made your car recommend for maintenance, and stick to it. Back when I was an auto technician (clear back when there were a lot of carbureted cars still on the road), I found it very satisfying to take a poorly running car, tune it up, and see immediate big differences in how it drove, as well as big reductions in exhaust emissions.
  8. Smooth Roads: Cyclists can sail over fresh, smooth roads so much more easily than rough terrain. Plowing through sand, mud, or snow takes a lot of extra effort. The same holds true for cars. Driving on dirt roads or through the snow burns more energy than driving on smooth asphalt.
  9. Interaction and Courtesy: Cyclists are out in the open. Everyone can see our body language. We don’t have anything to hide behind, so it’s important to keep emotions in check. To be defensive riders, cyclists learn to interact and communicate with drivers as much as possible, to be sure each knows the other’s intention. Travelling in an interactive and courteous way can be much more pleasant (and safe) than driving in isolated bubbles.

The list above is far from comprehensive. Can you share with us things you have learned while cycling that helped you become a better driver?

Posted: May 31st, 2009 | Filed under: Cycling, Transportation | 4 Comments »

Better Urban Design

I usually write about better design of vehicles, renewable energy systems, or other engineered systems. We need to keep in mind the importance better design of other things. Here is a nice video I came across tonight that presents a vision for better urban design:

 

 

In engineering system design one must consider the interaction between all the subsystems. For example, in designing a car, the powertrain engineers need to work with the suspension designers to make sure the two systems work together well. Otherwise you could end up with great individual subsystems, but an unusable car. I view our plans for new transportation and energy systems in a similar way. There are a lot of interactions that we need to manage. Urban design is an issue that interconnects so many other aspects of life, and it deserves attention. We need to think about how our cities are laid out influences how people move, interact, and work. Better urban design and infrastructure could make transportation options viable that are not right now. For example, like cycling works in some situations right now (check out this bike move), but the right infrastructure (along with incentives, education, and availability of high-utility bicycles) could make it work for a large portion of our transportation needs.

Posted: May 28th, 2009 | Filed under: Cycling, Design, Policy, Vision | No Comments »

Getting More People Riding

The following is the second installment by Greg Kushmerek, a Design Impact guest blogger writing about cycling as a viable and sustainable form of transportation. Greg’s last post is available here.


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 | 6 Comments »