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Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

City Cycling

City Cycling

City Cycling (MIT Press, 2012), edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, is a new collection of essays by a variety of transportation and urban planning experts that promotes cycling  as a sustainable means of getting to work, school, and shopping.  The central thrust of these authors is that cycling can be a viable transportation alternative if we pursue public policies that provide safe space for people of all ages and abilities to get around on bicycles.

The book is divided into 15 chapters that cover issues ranging from statistical analyses of urban cycling, documented health benefits of cycling, the role of bicycling infrastructure, integration of bicycling and public transportation, bikesharing programs, and so on.  There are several general ideas that stand out from the wealth of empirical data provided.  First, study after study confirms that the aversion to cycling in automobile traffic is one of the major factors preventing more widespread use of bicycles for sustainable transportation, especially by more “traffic averse” groups in society (a large proportion of which are women, children, and older adults).

Second, better cycling infrastructure, especially protected bike lanes and cycle tracks, as well as laws designed to protect vulnerable road users (i.e., cyclists and pedestrians) have resulted in the growth of bicycling as a mode share of transportation (especially among risk-averse groups) and, at the same time, lower injury and fatality rates.  The idea that protected space for bicyclists results in more people using bikes for transportation may not seem controversial, and in most countries with large bicycling populations (the Netherlands or Denmark, for example), it is not.

Particularly interesting, in my view, is Peter Furth’s chapter comparing the effectiveness of bicycle infrastructure in Europe and North America in encouraging mass cycling.  Furth, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University, demonstrates how European and American policies providing bicycle-friendly infrastructure and laws “strongly diverged” after the 1970s, and how these divergent approaches have affected the level of transportational bicycling.  Simply put, European countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden instituted “traffic calming” measures and recognized cyclists’ need for separation from heavy traffic as a fundamental principle of road safety.  The result is a the provision of “a vast network of ‘cycle tracks,’” essentially separated bike paths along roadways, that keep bicyclists safe and encourage “traffic averse” segments of the population to use bicycles for transportation.  Furth documents the much higher percentage of trips taken by bicycle in Europe versus the United States, as well as the much lower bicycling fatality rates.

In the early 1970s, the United States missed an opportunity to follow the European example.  Furth shows how the US DOT was preparing to accept a guideline (designed by UCLA transportation planners) for separated bikeways in 1972 that would have moved the US toward the European model of bike facilities on roadways, “recommending sidewalk-level bikeways, separated bike lanes, and regular bike lanes.” (116)  That effort was significantly sidetracked by the ideology of “Vehicular Cycling” (VC), promoted primarily by John Forester, a cyclist who saw the establishment of separated cycle space as a threat to the principle that bicycles were vehicles that had a right to share road space with automobiles.

In response to the efforts to build European-style bicycling infrastructure, Forester played a major role in developing the VC philosophy that encouraged cyclists to use the roadways like any other vehicle.  “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as vehicles,” is the central tenet of the VC philosophy, and the greatest danger to bicyclists is said to be the “lack of skill” of the cyclist (for a fuller discussion of Vehicular Cycling, see Forester’s own website).  Forester and other VC-only adherents have long argued that bike lanes and bike paths are actually more dangerous to cyclists than riding as a vehicle in the middle of traffic, and have accused bike lane advocates of being “anti-cycling.”  In his role as president of the League of American Wheelmen (now League of American Bicyclists), Forester and other VC-only advocates steered US policy away from separated bike facilities on American roadways.  It is worth noting that, for his part, Forester belittles those who see the bicycle as a viable form of urban transportation and part of a comprehensive alternative to the auto-centric transportation system we now have.  As a result of the work of the VC-only lobby, the US now finds itself 40 years behind the curve on bike infrastructure design, with lower rates of bicycle usage for transportation and higher fatality rates than European countries with excellent networks of bike-specific infrastructure.

I do not see bike paths, cycle-tracks, bike lanes, and VC as mutually exclusive.  I strongly support bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other bike-specific infrastructure, but I recognize that there currently exists no adequate network of transportational infrastructure for bicycling in the United States, and agree with some key elements of the VC philosophy, namely that bicycles have a right to the roadways and that a knowledge of how to ride safely in traffic is an essential skill bicyclists should learn.  There will always be roads that don’t have bikeways on them, and for those roads, VC is the appropriate and safe approach to cycling (if not the most stress-free).  But emphasizing only VC and opposing bike-specific infrastructure improvements, as Forester and some VC-oriented organizations have done in the past, has resulted in very low rates of cycling for transportation among all but the most fearless, assertive, and experienced cyclists.

It is especially frustrating to think that we could have been building cycle-tracks and bike-specific infrastructure for the last 40 years, could have provided people with an alternative to the automobile, could have made cycling safer for the average, traffic-averse bicyclist, and could have improved the health of millions of sedentary Americans.  Instead, as Furth writes, “the antiseparation vehicular cycling ideology has stymied America’s development of bicycling infrastructure,” and made us more dependent on the automobile. (135)

Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning.  As the studies in this book show, American cities like Portland, Minneapolis, New York, and many others have seen the proportion of people cycling for transportation boom as they’ve built separated bicycle space on their roadways, and the studies in this book prove empirically that bikeways do not in themselves make cycling more dangerous, as some VC proponents claim.

My take on bike lanes and cycle tracks fundamentally stems from my personal experience as well as my desire to see public policy for cycling to be made safe for everyone—mothers, schoolchildren, shoppers, older Americans, and working people of all ages and economic strata—who wants to get from point A to point B on a bicycle.  If you want to limit the appeal of cycling to those who are physically fit and, most importantly, not averse to riding in automobile traffic, a primary emphasis on VC is the way to go.  If you want to broaden the appeal of cycling for transportation to everyone—young, old, rich, poor, male, female, and all levels of fitness—you need to build buffered bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other bike-specific infrastructure.  Of course, bicyclists and motorists must be educated to share the road properly, especially in those instances where the two modes must share road space, so elements of the VC philosophy will always be useful, but it just shouldn’t be the primary or sole basis for bicycle transportation planning.  It is not unreasonable for people to feel uncomfortable riding a bicycle in fast-moving traffic, with 2,000-lb cars whizzing by, and simply exhorting people to assert their rights and “take the lane” will not get more Americans out of their cars.

This welcome volume should be read by bicyclists, alternative transportation advocates, and officials at all levels of government related to transportation planning.  The empirical data reinforce Peter Furth’s conclusion about the need for cycling-specific infrastructure in American cities.

For bicycling to contribute meaningfully to societal goals in the areas of public health, livability, traffic congestion, and energy use, it has to appeal to the mainstream, traffic-intolerant population.  Bicycling infrastructure in many parts of Europe has been successful in achieving mass cycling because it respects the fundamental human need to be separated from traffic stress. (135)

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4 thoughts on “City Cycling

  1. Thanks for sharing. I will try to read the book at some point.
    - Keep riding, Michael

  2. Pingback: Big surprise — ex-LAPD cop killer doesn’t like bikes, either; big silence from Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus « BikingInLA

  3. Pingback: Anti-Bike Bias | Boyonabike!

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