Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Missing at least three points about sustainable transportation

1. The primary reason that I don't talk about "how great it is" "to expand people's choices" when it comes to bicycle, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure is because it's not about choice, it's about efficiency and optimality.

The issue isn't giving people more choices, it's about using scarce resources more effectively.
Muenster bike vs. car vs. bus vs. walking poster
First image: Muenster, Germany bike vs. car vs. bus vs. walking poster. Second image: Mobility efficiency, Central Washington (DC) Transportation and Civic Design Study, 1977. John Passonneau, lead investigator.
Mobility efficiency -- Passonneau

It's much more optimal--given the right spatial form--to walk or bike or use transit than it is to use a car--at least for a community, if not for an individual.

It's why we talk about "mass" transit.

2. The desire to maintain the primacy of the automobile in transportation planning on the part of drivers especially is the source of the animus with regard to prioritizing (or rebalancing) transportation infrastructure development towards biking, walking, and transit.

This is what's behind the fight against bike lanes everywhere, not just in NYC. See "Battle of the Bike Lanes" from the New Yorker and "Suit Over Brooklyn Bike Lane Challenges City Initiative" from the New York Times.

While various people have written counter-pieces to the New Yorker article, the reality is that it comes down to the question of optimality and yes, externalities and properly pricing them (see "Tragedies of the commons: The world is his parking spot" from the Economist blog).

3. The third point is something deserving of a blog entry of its own, but it's not like I haven't written about it ad infinitum already.

The issue is that reframing and rebuilding the transportation mode split where walking, biking, and transit are significantly used to conduct a majority of trips _is a process_ that will take a long time.

John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker:

But from an economic perspective I also question whether the blanketing of the city with bike lanes—more than two hundred miles in the past three years—meets an objective cost-benefit criterion. Beyond a certain point, given the limited number of bicyclists in the city, the benefits of extra bike lanes must run into diminishing returns, and the costs to motorists (and pedestrians) of implementing the policies must increase. Have we reached that point? I would say so.

He is missing the point entirely. You don't build infrastructure for today's use only, but to provide the means to achieve your mode split goals.

In Copenhagen, close to 40% of all daily trips--not just trips to work--are conducted by bike.

From "Bikes, Copenhagen and Disneyland: what we have in common" in the Los Angeles Times Bottleneck Blog:

While in America an effort is being made to reintroduce the bicycle to a nation that only has 1% of all trips made by bicycle, the goal in Copenhagen, Denmark, is to increase the percentage of daily cyclists from 36% at present to 50% in 2015. Here in the self-proclaimed World's Cycling Capital, modern Copenhageners have chosen to cycle in great numbers for the better part of four decades.

This isn't because somehow Copenhagnites are specially chosen by God (I don't believe in God anyway) or are somehow uniquely different--although dealing with a totally flat topography certainly helps.

It has to do with building infrastructure and programming in all sorts of way to design behavior so to speak so that bicycling, walking, and transit are the default choice through making the physical and programmatic environment congruent in a fashion where bicycling, walking, and transit are easier than driving.

And thus far, in both Copenhagen specifically, and in the Netherlands generally, it has been about a 40 year long process to get to the point where they are today.
(A lot of) Bicyclists in Copenhagen. Flickr photo by Chris Brunn.

Yes it's true that there is a lot of bicycle infrastructure that has been installed in NYC that is lightly used.

But where infrastructure is installed in places where a bike makes a lot of sense, and where people can ride safely, usage skyrockets.

Cassidy is asking the wrong question.

It's not about diminishing marginal returns or even externalities, but (1) what are the necessary characteristics that ought to be in place to ensure high bicycle ridership; (2) are those characteristics in place where infrastructure is being installed; (3) if not, what needs to be done to assist people in making the shift?
Kent Ave Protected Bike Lane
Flickr photo of the Kent Avenue Protected Bike Lane by Jacob-uptown.

While at the moment I don't have access to my own photos of the Kent Avenue cycletrack in Brooklyn, I was astounded by the number of bicyclists I saw riding there. And it wasn't just white men under 40 years of age, it was women, children, people of color.

On the other hand, we were staying in Astoria on 36th Street (or Avenue, I don't remember which) and there was a bike lane on the street and by comparison, it was hardly used.

I am a big proponent of putting in infrastructure first where there is a high likelihood it will be used, in order to lead from a position of success, which also makes it much easier to add infrastructure in other places later.

Of course, the Prospect Park West cycletrack is likely to be wildly successful, which according to the NYC Department of Transportation, in terms of reductions of accidents and increase in safety for all users, it already is.
The two-way bike route along Prospect Park West in Brooklyn that opponents want removed.
Eric Michael Johnson for The New York Times. The two-way bike route along Prospect Park West in Brooklyn that opponents want removed. From the New York Times article "In Brooklyn, Divided Opinion About a Bike Lane by a Park."

Piste cyclable/cycle track, Parc LaFontaine, Montreal
Cycletrack in Park Lafontaine, a park designed by Olmsted, located in Montreal. PHOTO: FRANÇOIS ROY, ARCHIVES LA PRESSE

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