This is the second in a series about the importance of small urban elements that can have an outsized impact, enhancing people’s lives or modifying users’ behavior in surprising ways. Considering these elements during design processes can considerably enrich a project, and can have far-reaching positive consequences.
Cities, long designed for optimal traffic flow, are often a harrowing experience for the bicyclist. I speak from personal experience– I am often the harrowed cyclist. Avoiding opening car doors and delivery trucks can be a terrifying experience that elevates the heart rate far beyond normal exercise levels. Every time my boyfriend and I ride up Market Street, I spend the entire time brooding over what I would do if one of those cabs screeching past clipped him and killed him. Most of the routes through San Francisco are simply shared roads with cars. There are bike lanes in some places, there are a few lovely paths through the parks, but most of the bike routes are scary. As someone who is fairly risk-averse and extremely unathletic, getting to the point where I would ride on the city streets at all has been a huge victory. On the other hand, though, I’m young, healthy, and I know my way around. If cycling through San Francisco is scary for me, what’s it like for seniors, kids, for people without much cycling experience? For people using handcycles or without the resources to buy fancy lights and equipment? Should urban cycling really be optimal only for those spandex-clad cycle-monsters with rippling calf muscles?
There is another way to design bike routes– an inclusive, health-promoting, ethical way to design with empathy for all users. Designing for use from age 8 to 80 is a great way to think about public spaces– bicycling should be safe and comfortable for people of all ages and abilities. Many streets that are theoretically welcoming to cyclists are really only feasible routes for the athletic and intrepid. But bike routes for the rest of us– the unathletic, the nervous, kids, my grandma. They do exist. Mainly in Europe. But some American cities are making great strides. WalkScore has a new venture: BikeScore, that begins to rate US cities on Bikability. And new research provides a new impetus to build more bike lanes: cities with more bike lanes have more bicyclists.
The study, by Ralph Buehler and John Pucher, looks at linear milage of bike lanes and bike paths in 90 of the 100 largest US cities, and finds a strong correlation to usage. According to the study, “bike commuting [rates] in cities with the most bike lanes per 100,000 population are three to four times higher than in cities with the fewest bike lanes.” The study looks only at commuting cycling, which is what they had easily comparable data for, but cycling for other trips can be easily extrapolated from the findings.
The importance of increasing cycling numbers can’t really be overstated in the United States. With climate change looming, more people biking for their daily trips means fewer people driving—less fossil fuel usage, fewer parking lots and 8-lane freeways and car-degraded cities. And in human health terms, the US rates of obesity and overweight are the highest in the world. Not coincidentally, “within the span of one generation, the percentage of children walking or bicycling to school has dropped precipitously, from approximately 50% in 1969 to just 13% in 2009.” As streets are perceived as less safe, children’s roaming is increasingly restricted, as demonstrated by this crazy map. Safe streets and bike lanes are one way to combat that loss of autonomy and resultant health issues. Additionally, in an increasingly unequal society that relegates many people to poverty level in the US, cycling is a relatively inexpensive activity. Owning a car costs an average of $8,000 per year. But bikes are relatively inexpensive, and can provide both needed exercise and cheap transportation. The new study by Pucher and Buehler shows that the simple act of providing places to bike can have measurable results, and in turn, impact health, climate, urban form, and people’s wallets.
Above are some images of bike infrastructure solutions. Protected lanes, raised, or blocked from traffic by a hefty curb, are the safest places to ride. Very common in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, they are the gold standard to which we should all aspire.
But safe bike solutions don’t have to be expensive. Some major improvements can be made with paint. Designating normal street bike lanes with green paint and obvious markers can keep drivers away. Even simple share-the-road signage can have a positive impact. Adding bike boxes at signals to let bikes turn first increases visibility and elevates cyclists out of the gutter and their status as second-class travelers. San Francisco has just put in “sharrows” along the Wiggle bike route. Making it obvious that bikes have a place on the road can help nervous riders feel more confident and encourage drivers to let cyclists have plenty of breathing room. (The sharrows, while better than nothing, are still a sad compromise, a way to make it slightly better for cyclists while taking no space away from parking or lane width. Drivers always seem to get the most consideration at the expense of everyone else, and everyone else’s health and welfare.)
Perhaps the easiest way to cheaply protect cyclists is to just switch the parking lane and the bike lane. “Using the parked cars to protect the bicyclists instead of using the bicyclists to protect the parked cars,” as Danish architect Jan Gehl suggests, reverses the priorities of the street and gives bikers a nice buffer of safety. All it takes is some paint. I have half a mind to go do it myself.
Designers can make a difference. Putting in the safest possible bike routes through a project is a small consideration, but can make a major impact in someone’s actual life.