Is This Biking Nirvana?

We complain a lot about bikes getting along with cars — or not. But what would your ideal cycling situation look like? Take a look at the city of Groningen, in the north of The Netherlands. It bills itself as “The World’s Cycling City,” and offers lots of food for thought as to how we might make some improvements in our biking infrastructure in the States. Take a look at this 15-minute film. Click the picture to play.

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Who Subsidizes Whom?

Have you ever been riding along on your bike, when a passing motorist yells something like, “You don’t pay taxes — get off the road!” or something to that effect? In my experience, those shouts are triggered because bikes slow down traffic, and adversely impact a commuter’s driving time. In my experience also, that slowdown lasts for approximately three seconds. Then, the car is free to pull out and roar past — often at a distance too close for comfort.

On the urban planning website Planetizen, blogger Todd Litman dissects the internal combustion crowd’s arguments against supporting better infrastructure for cyclists, including the one on taxes. It’s a thorough, thoughtful piece, and I look forward to more discussion on this subject.

Litman’s post, “Who Subsidizes Whom?” can be found here.

Bicycling In Large North American Cities

What is it that prompts people to ride bikes more in some cities, while in others, biking lags noticeably behind? Two academics did a report on the topic for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and it comes up with an answer that we’ve heard before.

By the way, the report is fully two years old, so I’m not trying to call your attention to new findings. But it’s likely most Bike Noob readers haven’t heard of or seen the report, so its results could be of interest.

The two researchers, John Pucher of Rutgers University and Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech, aggregated cycling data from nine major North American cities over two decades, roughly 1990-2010. The cities in their study were Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Montreal, Portland, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington. Those were picked because they already had a strong biking culture. Other major cities such as Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Detroit and Memphis were deliberately left out, because of their low rates of bicycle commuting and cycling facilities.

The rate of cycling was higher in these cities than in the rest of the U.S. or Canada, at least doubling over the two decades of the study. But the percentage of female riders was down, falling from 32 to 23 percent in the years between 2001-2009. The age group that showed the largest increase in the rate of cycling was the 40-64 year olds.

Bike commuting was up in those cities, by 64 percent in the U.S. The percentage of commuters who use bikes rose from 0.4 percent to 0.6 percent — a less impressive number.

Bike fatalities dropped in both the U.S. and Canada — by 66 percent up North, and 21 percent in the States. In fact, the researchers found the fatality rate in Canada to be a third of that in the U.S. Serious injuries also fell. Canada was down 40 percent, the U.S. 31 percent.

Perhaps the main finding of the study was that levels of bicycling positively correlate to the availability of bike lanes and/or bike paths. When cities have those amenities, cycling is three to four times higher than cities that do not. In surveys, cyclists indicated that they prefer segregated bike paths to bike lanes. Most cities have built both, and combining the two gives cyclists more flexibility in planning their trips. But cyclists were split on whether they prefer bike lanes or paths.

All nine cities in the study have been adding to their networks of bike lanes and bike paths. The study notes that bike lanes are growing at a faster rate than paths, by as much as ten times more in Chicago and New York, but even three times as fast in Washington and Minneapolis. “The increased focus on bike lanes,” write the authors, “might also reflect a shift toward promoting daily, utilitarian cycling, and away from the previous emphasis on recreational cycling.”

Cycle tracks, which are popular in Europe, are just starting to be built in North America. Cycle tracks are on-street bike paths separated from motor vehicle traffic by barriers. They’ve been built along some streets in New York, partly as a response to motorists who block bike lanes.

However, it’s the off-street bike paths that get the most use. Most of these are multi-use paths, and are mainly used for recreational cycling. Other bike amenities noted in the study are residential streets with traffic calming features (street narrowing, chicanes, speed humps) and bike boulevards, which give priority to bikes over cars.

The study is subtitled, “Lessons for New York,” and concludes that although New York has built the most bikeways in recent years, it has failed at integrating bicycling with public transit and bike parking.

The report concludes that while biking is enjoying growth, its growth is limited to the few dozen cities that have policies to promote cycling. In the U.S. South, from Texas to North Carolina, cycling rates are still extremely low. The cities that are undergoing a biking Renaissance offer great examples for other cities to follow.

 

 

 

Reporting On Cycling

I might have mentioned a time or two before that I am a journalism professor. As such, I see a lot of academic research in that area. In one fairly new venture, the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University sends synopses on research being done on current news topics, with ideas for incorporating that research into news stories.

This morning, I got the latest batch of synopses, and one caught my eye right off the bat. It’s titled, “Ten key issues for covering bicycling and bike infrastructure in your community.” The Center’s newsletter editor suggests that taking a look at these ten issues and related studies can “facilitate deeper coverage of cycling in your town.” Some of these will be old news to seasoned cyclists, but others offer the germ of an idea that just might trigger some more in-depths looks at the role of cycling in a community.

Here are their ten issues:

1. Cycling trends. The Center links to two studies of cyclists, one from big cities, one from smaller towns. “Both include data on trends in the age, gender, incomes and race of cyclists,” the item says. “This background information, much of which comes from Census Data, can help indicate how your state and city are doing relative to others.”

2. Helmets and safety. (Oh oh.- Bike Noob.) The Center cites studies on the effect of helmet laws on children’s cycling injuries, and the health impact of mandatory helmet laws. It also notes that helmet use is less prevalent in Europe than in the U.S.

3. Balancing health benefits and risks of cycling. A British study examined the use of a bike share program in Barcelona, Spain, and found that deaths rose when people used the bike share, but because of increased physical activity, 12 times that many deaths were avoided each year. With any physical activity comes risk, the Center notes.

4. Automotive air pollution and cyclists. A 2011 environmental study found that cyclists who share the road with motorized vehicles have decreased heart rate variability for three hours after being exposed to car exhausts. That is associated with a higher risk of heart attacks.

5. Bike-specific infrastructure and laws. One study looks at cycle tracks, and how they reduce the chance of injury, while another finds that even in a city with a bicycle-friendly attitude, bike infrastructure can be “patchy.”

6. Conflicts between cyclists and cars. One study used helmet cameras to track commuter cyclists, and found that in 90 percent of collisions, it was the motorist at fault. Another found that the three-foot passing law in Baltimore is routinely ignored.

7. Car-free events. You’ve heard of “ciclovias” — when city streets are closed to cars for a day? One study looked at the health benefits of four different ciclovia programs. It found the more often such events are held, the greater the health benefits.

8. Immigrants and cycling. One study showed that immigrants are 41 times more likely to use bikes than to drive cars, while another found that as the number of cycling immigrants goes up, so does the rate of car-bike collisions.

9. Commuting by bike. One study did an overview of the literature on bicycle commuting. It found that the distance of the commute was a factor, but so was bike infrastructure and the availability of such amenities as showers at work.

10. Commuting by car, transit and other modes. Two studies look at the health costs of commuting by car, compared to other means. The numbers are startlingly high: $180 billion/year for traffic crashes, and $50-$80 billion from traffic congestion. Any ideas for a healthier, cleaner and cheaper mode of transportation? (Oh, you mean bikes?)

Most, if not all, of these issues have been touched upon either here or in other popular cycling blogs. Maybe it’s time to revive some of these discussions. I’d be happy to tackle them, using the studies suggested by the Shorenstein Center. What’s your take? Are these ideas worth investigating, or have they been done to death? I’m interested in your reaction.

Bike Lanes Are Inadequate

I’ve noticed that more bike lanes are popping up around town. I think that’s generally a good thing. My attitude is, if I stay in my lane and motor vehicles stay in their lane, we should have no problem.

Of course, we’ve all had experiences with drivers who can’t seem to control their vehicles and cross into the bike lane from time to time. In addition, bike lanes tend to become repositories of broken glass, gravel, and other debris that can make riding there hazardous.

Still, if I have the option to use a bike lane, I generally take it.

But during the week, my attention was drawn to an interesting collection of infographics regarding bike lane design. In essence, the infographics suggest that a three-foot wide bike lane is inadequate to meet the safety needs of cyclists. They’re part of a web site called “I Am Traffic,” whose stated goal is to achieve equal status for bikes with other vehicles on the road. Some of their information is new to me, and quite thought-provoking. Here’s a sample:

BikeLane

Click the image to enlarge.

To see the whole collection of infographics, and get an in-depth dose of cycling infrastructure ideals, visit I Am Traffic.

Bicycle Injury Study

This blog is aimed primarily at road bikers, and based on the comments and feedback I get from readers, most fit that description. However, I think it’s also safe to say that lots of road bikers don’t stick exclusively to road riding. They might engage in other types of riding, too, such as commuting or utility biking.

That kind of riding is usually done on city streets, and transportation cycling garners a small share of overall trips — as low as one to three percent in the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Australia. One reason often cited for this is safety. Bicyclists tend to be injured more often in countries where transportation cycling is less common.

Examples of cycle tracks in Holland.

A study done in 2008-09 in Canada has gotten some renewed attention here. It’s called the “BICE” study — for “Bicyclists’ Injuries and the Cycling Environment.” The study — of 690 bicyclists who had been hurt in bike crashes — found that the kind of infrastructure available for cyclists is associated with the risk of injuries from bike crashes.

The highest risk infrastructure was a city street with no bike lane and with parked cars. Other high-risk features included train or streetcar tracks, downhill grades, and construction.

Lower-risk features included off-street bike paths, major streets with bike lanes and no parked cars, and residential street bike routes. But the safest bit of cycling infrastructure was the “cycle track.” That’s a segregated bike lane adjacent to a street. They’re not seen much in the United States, but are quite common in the Netherlands.The authors of the study suggest that transportation planners can use the results to help pick cycling structure that will improve safety, and thereby, promote transportation cycling.

The University of British Columbia has a synopsis of the study on its “Cycling in Cities” website, and a complete version of the study can be found as it was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

How is safe cycling infrastructure being incorporated into your area?

 

A city bike plan

Cycling in Austin from Citizens for Transportation Choice website.

Cycling in Austin from Citizens for Transportation Choice website.

With the growing number of cyclists, cities will have to adapt to increased strain on their infrastructures as bikes and motor vehicles compete for space. In Austin, the city is considering a new bike plan. It calls for some interesting additions — most of which make perfect sense.

  • A north-south and east-west dedicated bike “boulevard.” This would probably be a bike lane added to existing major thorofares, but the hope is that more people will choose to cycle if bike lanes are available on busy streets.
  • Prohibiting parking in bike lanes, and making them tow-away zones.
  • Requiring bike lanes on all new roads, and adding them to existing roads.
  • Full time funding for the city Bicycle Coordinator (this has been an easy target for budget cuts in the past).
  • A permanent Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission to make sure the city keeps meeting the needs of cyclists.
  • A timetable to make sure these things get done in a timely manner.

Heck, these kinds of improvements could probably be made in cities all across the country. Austin grew rapidly during the 1990s, and that growth catered more to cars than to alternative or mass transportation. We have some catching up to do.

Today, I signed a petition encouraging the City Council to adopt such a Bike Plan. I’m looking forward to riding in a more bike-friendly city.