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.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to make bicycling a significant transport mode over long distances: dedicated infrastructure

Despite the prevalent belief in the United States that biking will never be a significant transportation mode, that Americans somehow are exceptional and wedded to the car, the reality is that this behavior is constructed/results from a variety of "path-dependent" policies and practices.

In a place like the Netherlands or cities in Denmark, where it is:

• expensive to buy gasoline (double the price in the US)
• expensive to get a drivers license
• expensive to buy a car (many countries assess very high registration fees)
• expensive to park a car, either in private parking facilities or in the public space (street parking)

and combined with denser, walkable communities, narrower streets, and good transit systems, "path dependency" there supports more sustainable transportation choices--transit, walking, and biking.

In the United States, all those factors are opposite and therefore supports automobility, combined with land use practices that make choosing sustainable transportation modes less efficient, often, when it comes to car vs. other modes in terms of the total time to get from one place to another.

DC proves though with the right spatial conditions (grid-based street network complemented by radial avenues) that support walking, biking, and transit, that you can increase sustainable transportation utility and usage significantly.

I was biking during rush hour on Tuesday, and I was amazed that on blocks and blocks of 14th Street, there were fewer than 10 vehicles per block, on both sides of the street.

In any case, while there are definitely serious chokepoints in getting in and out of the city and it can take a long time to get somewhere even on transit, biking allows you to get to many places in the city within 30 minutes.

NotionsCapital points us to an article in the New York Times, "Commuters Pedal to Work on Their Very Own Superhighway," about new cycle superhighways in Denmark that support long-distance--say 10 or more miles--trips by bike.

The video that accompanies the NYT story is excellent, especially in how it outlines how the conditions that shape mode choice in Denmark support and preference bicycling over the automobile.  It's a matter of fact illustration that mode choices are constructed by the previous decisions made concerning mobility infrastructure.

From the Times article:

“We are very good, but we want to be better,” said Brian Hansen, the head of Copenhagen’s traffic planning section.


He and his team saw potential in suburban commuters, most of whom use cars or public transportation to reach the city. “A typical cyclist uses the bicycle within five kilometers,” or about three miles, said Mr. Hansen, whose office keeps a coat rack of ponchos that bicycling employees can borrow in case of rain. “We thought: How do we get people to take longer bicycle rides?”


They decided to make cycle paths look more like automobile freeways. While there is a good existing network of bicycle pathways around Copenhagen, standards across municipalities can be inconsistent, with some stretches having inadequate pavement, lighting or winter maintenance, as well as unsafe intersections and gaps.


“It doesn’t work if you have a good route, then a section in the middle is covered in snow,” said Lise Borgstrom Henriksen, spokeswoman for the cycle superhighway secretariat. “People won’t ride to work then.”


For the superhighway project, Copenhagen and 21 local governments teamed up to ensure that there were contiguous, standardized bike routes into the capital across distances of up to 14 miles. “We want people to perceive these routes as a serious alternative,” Mr. Hansen said, “like taking the bus, car or train.”


The plan has received widespread support in a country whose left- and right-leaning lawmakers both regularly bike to work (albeit on slightly different models of bicycle).

The Dutch started creating cycle superhighways first (all the cycle superhighways are in London are blue painted bike lanes) and this video of the first one, connecting Breda and Etten-Leur is very good, especially in terms of vehicles yielding to cyclists, who have the priority.

It's by Mark Wagenbuur, and it's from the entry "First cycle "superhighway" revisited" on the A view from the cycle path blog.


The reality on biking as a significant mode share for transportation in the U.S. is that it is about path dependence and therefore creating anew the infrastructure and support system for biking.

See past blog entries:

- Streets as places vs. motordom
- Some things bike sharing just can't do
Best (or at least better) practices in bike parking and bicycle facilities implementation
- Best practice bicycle planning for suburban settings using the "action planning" method
State and county advocacy agenda setting for biking (walking/transit)
- Paradigm change and setting goals for mode split for biking (and transit)

for more on this general topic.

In "short," if gasoline were more expensive, it was a lot more expensive to park cars, registration fees for car purchase and subsequent renewals were much more expensive, that penalties for driving badly were significantly higher, plus it being more expensive and harder to get a license, then a lot more people would be biking, walking, or using transit, and we would be investing significantly in those modes to make it better.

A lot of people don't understand making choices about where to live and work based on the ability to make positive choices in favor of sustainable mobility (walking, biking, transit).

We chose where to buy primarily on access to a Metro station--it's 0.8 miles away, which apparently is too far for many people, but a nice walk nonetheless--complemented by bus service--but we deliberately excluded houses only served by bus, because bus "dependence" isn't very reliable.  It's about 0.75 miles to the Takoma Park commercial district and equidistant, 1.25 miles away, to two different supermarkets.  It's on the route of the future Metropolitan Branch Trail, but that wasn't an element of the decision to buy.  But I will say that if I didn't do the grocery shopping, by bike, the location would be less convenient.

A friend-neighborhood activist is moving from our general area to Greater Brookland.  She owns a car but mostly bikes to and from work, and the place she is moving to is not only 3 miles closer to work, but more importantly, is below the "fall line" so that she doesn't have to ride home from work going uphill (it is because of return rides such as these that I now am a stronger proponent of electric biking options).

That's a choice--prioritizing where you live based on bike access (and where she's moving is a bit too far from the Brookland subway station for my taste, but will be close to the eventual crosstown streetcar line)--that many people won't make.

They would if gasoline were more expensive, car parking were more expensive, car registration fees were more expensive, etc.

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