Weekly Reading: Making the Bikeable City

What makes a bikeable community? Is it bikeable for some, or bikeable for all? What are the structures--social, infrastructural, economic--that promote cycling?

Safety First

Thank goodness for New York. Mayor Bloomberg and Janette Sadik-Kahn have used their outsized media-shed to demonstrate to Americans around the country the profound influence cities can have in making great, liveable, bikeable communities. Through strategic interventions, data-backed policies and a fearless implementation approach, they have transformed New York's infrastructure. In doing so, they have also provided a powerful lessons for other cities looking to create safe cycling infrastructure. Covering a newly released report regarding the impact of NYC's new cycletracks, Portland-based Elly Blue writes:

True to form, this bike infrastructure did more than make cycling safer: The study found a 35% decrease in traffic crash related injuries to all street users on the 8th Ave path, and a whopping 58% on its 9th Ave counterpart.

What's so exciting about this data is that it has a real impact on opinion leaders and skeptics around the country. For example, one of the Seattle Times' editorial board writers, Jonathan Martin, recently penned an opinion piece advocating for the implementation of cycletracks in various locations throughout the city.

If You Build It...


Cities are recognizing the many benefits of cycling and are at various stages of transforming their public works approaches to support cycling infrastructure. But does new infrastructure result in new riders? Yes according to a new report released by the League of American Bicyclists:

From 2000 to 2011, the bicycle commuting rate has risen 80% in the largest Bicycle Friendly Communities — far above the average growth of 47% nationwide and more than double the rate of 32% in the cities not designated as bicycle-friendly.

In some Bicycle Friendly Communities, bicycle commuting rates have skyrocketed by more than 400% since 1990, including cities as diverse as Portland, Ore., and Lexington, Ky. Meanwhile, cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Denver have more than doubled their bike commuter share since 2000.

All About the Benjamins

In Elly's blog post from above, she also discusses the economic impacts of installing the cycletracks, and notes some astonishing findings.

...retail sales income in locally-based businesses along the 9th Ave lane went up as much as 50%. Yep, half again what they were before 2007. And this was during a recession. In the same period, borough-wide retail sales only increased 3%.

Those numbers are remarkable, but they're not necessarily uncommon. Momentum Mag reports on a group of community activists in Memphis who looked to bikes as they searched for ways to transform their deteriorating neighborhood.

They painted temporary bike lanes and crosswalks and invited the community to “A New Face for an Old Broad,” a celebration, complete with live music, street vendors and a kids’ bike parade down the freshly striped cycle track.

“Until then, the area had been doing art walks once a year and, at best, those were bringing in 1,000 people,” Brown said. “Our goal for this day-and-a-half event, where the street itself would be a sort of theatrical performance, was maybe 5,000 people. We had 15,000 show up. The energy level was incredible. It was a huge tipping point for us – it changed the trajectory of the revitalization efforts.”

The energy didn’t wane once the event was over and bicyclists started taking advantage of the temporary lanes. Since then, the promise of permanent facilities has drawn more than $6 million in private investment. More than 15 new businesses have opened and nearly 30 properties have been renovated. Traffic has slowed, new customers are arriving on two wheels and, suddenly the rock-bottom neighborhood is one of the hottest spots in town.

Covering another economic angle, Oregon recently released a report about the economic impact of cycling on its tourism industry. Fast Company picked up the story, noting:

The Oregon study, by Dean Runyan Associates, measures the impact of bike tourism. Based on a survey of about 5,000 people, it finds that vacationing bikers spent $400 million last year, or $1.2 million a day. Of that, $175 million went on accommodation and food, $54 million on groceries, and $28 million on bike repairs, clothing, and gear. Bike tourism also secured 4,600 jobs, the report says, and $18 million in tax receipts.

A Culture of Cycle-Acceptance

As important as safety and economics are, so too is a culture of cycling. And on that front, here's the good news: we don't live in Saudi Arabia where the kingdom is just now set to end its ban on women cyclists.

At the same time, we should be open to the possibility that many of our institutional structures and programs may have hidden biases against certain demographics. For example, a recent report from the American Journal of Public Health:

"finds that highly influential transportation engineers relied on shoddy research to defend policies that discourage the development of protected bike lanes in the U.S. In their paper, the researchers point out that male-dominated engineering panels have repeatedly torpedoed street designs that have greater appeal to female cyclists," according to Streetsblog.

Kids, too, are impacted by this lack of separated facility. As Susie Strachan, a mother quoted in a recent Guardian article, observes when asked whether she'd let her seven year old cycle to school, ""It's too dangerous at this age. I don't know anyone who does it but I think a lot of us would consider it if there were segregated bike lanes."

Henry Grabar, writing at Atlantic Cities, argues that this separated infrastructure may also re-frame the enforcement debate. In his thought-provoking piece he argues that we should never fine cyclists for traffic infractions, asking:

Why should people riding 20-pound bicycles obey laws designed to regulate the conduct of 4,000-pound cars, to say nothing of accepting the same penalties? In terms of the damage we can cause and sustain in an accident, cyclists have more in common with pedestrians than cars and should be treated accordingly.

He continues:

It will be separated bike lanes, not the threat of fines, that reduce our incentive to jump ahead of fast-moving traffic, hop up onto sidewalks, and pedal up one-way streets. That infrastructure will also provide structural enforcement of group behavior (the first people in line decide how the rest will act) and the social pressure of group riding, which veers towards the sensible and the safe. Among the cyclists I join each morning on my way to work, there is a palpable sense of group-regulated conduct. We all make the same decisions at each light. Some of them are illegal, but all of them are safe.

The Ideal Cyclists we all strive to be

Finally, for some tongue-in-cheek fun, check out the Greater Greater Washington description of the Ideal Cyclist. It is Swiftian perfection. An excerpt:

The Ideal Cyclist stops at all traffic lights and all stop signs. He stops at all lights period, red or otherwise. You can render the Ideal Cyclist immobile with a flashlight. An octagon of any sort is paralytic.

Copenhagen II: What Separates Us is Our Separated Bike Lanes

Part Two: What Separates Us is Our Separated Bike Lanes In our last post we began to explore some of the ways that Copenhagen’s bike culture differs from the United State’s and how, if we are to “Copenhagenize” our bicycle culture—something that many, though not all, local cyclists desire—certain assumptions will need to be re-thought.

One of the most difficult values to rectify in bringing Danish practice to the U.S. is that American cyclists must follow the same traffic laws as automobiles…in fact, US bicyclists have fought to establish and defend these laws for decades.

For example, in Copenhagen bicyclists are required to use cycletracks wherever they exist, and citations are a real possibility for those who choose to ride in traffic with the cars and buses – to ride as U.S. laws allow.  Left turns from most cycletracks require waiting two signal cycles – one to cross the street moving straight ahead, and then across the street to the left on the next signal.  Moving to the left turn lane to make a turn on the next available signal is illegal.

To their credit, Copenhagen’s civic authorities are keenly aware of the limitations and dangers associated with separated right-side bike facilities.  The city has done a thorough job of adding bike boxes in advance of stop lines, introducing advance green cycles at major intersections – green for bikes first, then transit, and finally general traffic.

Traffic Lights with Bicycle Prioritization

More recently, the City has added flashing in-pavement lights extending through intersections to alert right turning motorists of the presence of riders in the cycle track.  It’s impressive technology, to be sure – and necessary due to the vulnerabilities of bicyclists riding in that particular location on the right of way.

Law & Culture

This system works in Denmark for a number of reasons – most relating to Danish culture generally and not so much to “bike culture.”  As with so many ancient cities in Europe, compact land use patterns are very conducive to cycling, and trip distances for the Danes are generally shorter than for their American counterparts.  So, who needs to rush and blow through a light?  The Danes will be the first to tell you that they put a huge cultural emphasis on civil obedience and not “standing out” – it’s all about we and not me in Danish society.  Accordingly, adhering to rules and regulations that would send US cyclists to the ramparts are perhaps more easily accepted.

So, we are fast, hard riding rugged American individualists and the Danes are subservient sheep?  Not really. But their urban form, culture and topography certainly helps the odds for making easy cycling a useful means of getting around.  Our cities (and perhaps Seattle in particular) require more effort from the bicyclist, which likely places a limit on the potential population of riders, and perhaps creates more of an identity of our cyclists as, well, cyclists.

Does this mean there is no place for cycle tracks in Seattle?


Our trail system (300 miles in King County alone) remains an enormously popular place for a broad spectrum of the public to cycle – for perceived safety, lack of hills and a generally pleasant environment.  The Burke-Gilman and Sammamish River Trails (and so many others) generate new bicyclists in our region on a constant basis – these users seek the same characteristics in their rides as the Danes experience on their cycle-tracks.

A one-track mind

What made this trip so interesting and timely is that we have heard a growing chorus of local urbanists advocating a similar cycletrack approach for Seattle. US bicycle practice has been built (with strong support from local and national bicycling advocates) upon a foundation that the bicycle is a legal and accepted part of the on-street traffic mix. With that background, solutions mandating the use of separated parallel facilities has been discouraged for years.  The Denmark model would seem to fly in the face of such a philosophy, and might stand to antagonize or alienate the very urban constituency that has fought for bike lanes, better access to transit, regional trails and other bicycle infrastructure.

If we look both at the design characteristics of Danish facilities and the real-world realities of cycling in the US (and Seattle) then some lessons emerge that point the way:

  • The Danes have emphasized cycle-tracks on their busiest arterials, and spent accordingly on the technological fixes in these locations.  The Seattle Bicycle Master Plan identifies a number of similar streets here “for future study.”  Many of these corridors (such as Westlake Ave between Fremont and South Lake Union) are flat arterials that wouldn’t involve any loss of parking spaces.  In fact, the busier the street, the better the benefit of the trade-off between “vehicular freedom” and the desire to encourage new riders.
  • If installed, new cycle tracks should focus on areas of high residential or employment density, good to excellent transit access, and, if possible, areas with a surplus of available on-street parking – as there will almost certainly be issues with merchants over the loss of what they often consider a critical resource.
  • Whatever we do, we probably can (and certainly must) do a better job of preserving safety and mobility for pedestrians than is the case on many of Copenhagen’s cycle-track corridors.  Oddly, it seems that the space for the tracks came equally from the vehicle lanes and sidewalks in a number of locations surprisingly close to downtown. That simply would be unacceptable in Seattle.

Done properly, cycle-tracks can serve close-in urban neighborhoods (Eastlake, South Lake Union, portions of Capitol Hill) and areas served by high capacity transit (Rainier Valley, 12th Avenue E., the Bel-Red corridor on the Eastside) to encourage new bicyclists without stripping the rights of existing riders.  There is still a place for bike lanes, sharrows and (eventually) bike boulevards, but, after Copenhagen, I am convinced that cycle tracks can and should be a tool in our kit for expanding the benefits of bicycling to a larger portion of the public.

Finally, for a little fun, check out this wonderful video from Portland explaining their cycletrack:

On the Right Track from Mayor Sam Adams on Vimeo.

On the Right Track from Mayor Sam Adams on Vimeo.