I’m a staunch advocate for bicycling, I admit it. In the past year, as I’ve increasingly used my bicycle and transit instead of my car, I’ve discovered the possibilities of this simple, economical, healthy, and sustainable mode of transportation. I started this blog, at least in part, to document that it is possible and enjoyable for an “average” person to reduce automobile usage significantly and share the ways my life has been enriched by it. Indeed, so much have I gained, in terms of heath, monetary savings, and the pleasures of going car-lite, to go back to automobile dependency now would be a big loss.
Convincing others, well, that has been a much tougher nut to crack. Safety, of course, is a major (and legitimate) concern of most people. Riding a bicycle in traffic, with nothing but a plastic helmet to protect you, is simply not a comfortable or low-stress option for most Americans. I am convinced that we must invest in bike-friendly infrastructure to make it easier for people to ride a bike for transportation.
But what about people who already bicycle for exercise? Particularly frustrating, in my view, have been some of my conversations with friends who are avid recreational cyclists, who think nothing of going on a 50-mile ride, but who wouldn’t dream of using their bikes to go to work or make a run to the store for a half gallon of milk. One friend of mine posts constantly on his facebook page about his mileage on the bike path and his ride times, as if it would earn him a stage victory in the Tour de France. When I ask him why he doesn’t ride his bike for transportation, he provides a string of excuses: “I had a bike stolen once …” What about buying a lock? “Locks weigh too much …” And on it goes. To me, these aren’t legitimate reasons not to ride a bike for transportation, but they are the kind of hurdles we sometimes place in front of ourselves to justify driving the car to Starbuck’s or the store instead of riding our bikes.
Nevertheless, while my friend may lack the “can-do” spirit that is required to break free of automobile dependency, he is far from alone, and we must recognize that our car-centered culture does not make it easy for people to break free and ride two wheels instead of four, even those who might be otherwise inclined to do so. In other words, our lack of bike-friendly infrastructure—bike lanes, cycle tracks, secure bike parking, etc.—makes it easier to make excuses for not riding our bikes for transportation.
I was reminded of this in a recent article by Dr. Stephen Fleming, a Canadian architect, urban planner, and author of the blog Cycle Space, who brilliantly lays bare how we need to conceptualize making bicycling as convenient as we currently make driving a car to remove the excuses:
All of our excuses for not riding bikes could be designed out of existence as thoroughly as we have designed out of existence any excuse not to use cars. There is no excuse not to use cars. Every street has been engineered to make driving safe and speedy. With no expense spared, every building has car parking slung over and under. Lifts and tunnels portal us from surrounding car parks into those buildings. Half our labours as nations has been spent making it possible to cart a tonne of steel with us, to work, to the shops, then back to garages adjoining our kitchens. The job of creating a similar city, where there is no excuse ever, not to use bikes, is hardly as mammoth as the car enterprise.
For the better part of the past 80 years we’ve built our environment around the automobile, so that it seems “natural,” that we should have endless sprawl, massive corridors of concrete we call “freeways” slashing their way through our cities, and huge parking structures to store our 2,000-lb metal boxes when they’re idle. Automobile infrastructure is massively expensive and impoverishes us in other ways as well. It is time for us to get serious about shifting a larger portion of our resources and our public space to create a built environment that is as friendly to walking, biking, and transit as it now is to the automobile.