Learning about the tragic deaths in the bicycle community that have happened recently in the Pacific Northwest gives me goose bumps. I know that when I decide to ride to work – nearly 12 miles each way on the shoulder of a highway where cars speed by at 50 miles per hour – I’m taking a risk. Anyone takes a risk when commuting to work, no matter what mode of transportation they select. However, my road bike doesn’t feel as safe as riding high inside my Honda CR-V with the seat warmers on and NPR keeping me company. If one thing goes awry during my bike commute, I’m likely to wind up in the hospital or worse. When I began riding to work, most people were genuinely concerned for my safety. I can’t imagine letting my son ride on the roads I ride unless there are significant changes to our region’s infrastructure. And that’s part of the reason I ride – to show support for cycling as a mode of transport despite its marginalization. Yet, learning of the loss of life of the cyclists in this region gives me pause.
Safety is a big barrier to bicycle commuting in America. Cyclists in the US face a far greater risk of death when choosing to ride than in more bike-friendly countries. According to a recent piece in The Economist, you are three to five times more likely to die while bicycling in the United States than in bike-friendly countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, or Germany. Safety is often cited as a major factor in why people do not ride in America. So it’s not surprising that Census data shows less than 1 percent of Americans commute by bike.
And I was not one of that fraction of a percent who ride to work until recently, even with my degrees in urban planning and my devotion to use my car as little as possible. It wasn’t until I moved to Copenhagen, Denmark that I realized the potential of bicycles as a mode of transportation. In Copenhagen, you can’t really ignore cycling. It’s a respected way to get around – about 50% of all Copenhagen residents who commute within the city’s boundaries get to work on bicycle.
What is there to learn from cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam that might help address the enormous gap in safety between riding in the US and bike-friendly countries in Europe? One major difference is that bike-friendly cities in Europe have set out to create a network of bike lanes that is mostly separated from vehicular traffic. In Collection of Cycle Concepts put out by Denmark’s Road Directorate, a manual for traffic engineers and planners, they state simply: “The road administration has a choice: either car speeds must be adapted to the conditions, or conditions must be adapted to car speeds. On cycle routes where cyclists and cars use the same traffic area, a desired speed for cars of up to 40 kph is suitable….If car speeds are higher than 40 kph, traffic calming or separation of the types of traffic is advisable” (page 50). Forty kilometers per hour is equivalent to about 25 miles per hour. Michael Wang, the Seattle cyclist who was killed on Dexter Avenue (a heavily used cycle route) was on a bike lane separated from vehicles traveling 30 miles per hour by a painted line.
Alan Durning wrote about the connection between car speeds and pedestrian deaths in a recent post. A UK study from the mid-1990s reviewed vehicular speeds and the chance of pedestrian death. When cars are traveling at speeds of 20 miles per hour, the likelihood of pedestrian death is 5 percent. Add ten more mph, and pedestrians have a 45 percent chance of death. At 40 mph, there is an 85 percent chance of death. And I’m riding on a road posted at 50 mph with no separation between cars and me except for a fog line. Yikes.
I think it’s obvious that in the US, cycling is a riskier endeavor than in bike-friendly cities and countries in Europe. But there is also another component that keeps people off the roads: the sense of safety or security. This is obviously linked to safety statistics, but it is also more subjective. The City of Portland did an interesting survey a few years ago that asked why people chose not to ride. As with most surveys that asked this question, the choice to ride or not to ride hinged on concerns about safety. Based on the survey results, four categories of riders were created, as shown in the below graphic.
The study concluded that Portland’s impressive increase in bicycle commuting numbers resulted from encouraging more “Enthused and Confident” riders to get on bikes by adding bicycle facilities to more city streets. This group will ride on the road occasionally, but prefers bike facilities like lanes and bike boulevards. However, there is gigantic potential if the city can convince those “Interested but Concerned” riders to get on two wheels. This group would consider riding, but not if it requires mixing with cars on busy city streets.
I think the “Interested but Concerned” mentality can be summed up best by pointing to Alan Durning’s words:
What if cities had no sidewalks and everyone walked on the road? Or, for urban recreation, they walked on a few scenic trails? What if the occasional street had a three-foot-wide “walking lane” painted on the asphalt, between the moving cars and the parked ones?
Well, for starters, no one would walk much. A hardy few might brave the streets, but most would stop at “walk?! in traffic?!”
Fortunately, this car-head vision is fiction for most pedestrians, but it’s not far from nonfiction for bicyclists. Regular bikers are those too brave or foolish to be dissuaded by the prospect of playing chicken with two-ton behemoths. Other, less-ardent cyclists stick to bike paths; they ride for exercise, not transportation. Bike lanes, in communities where they exist, are simply painted beside the horsepower lanes.
People react reasonably: “bike?! in traffic?!” And they don’t. “It’s not safe” is what the overwhelming majority say when asked why they bike so little.
Increasing the numbers of riders also appears to make cycling safer and encourage more people to give bike commuting a chance. Research is showing that cities with high figures of bikes on the road also have, on average, lower rates of traffic fatalities – for all road users. Researchers Norman W. Garrick and Wesley E. Marshall provide a compelling argument that the “safety in numbers” phenomenon that many cities lust after is best sought by making changes to street design “to create bicycle friendly streets that will make it comfortable enough for the average Jane and Joe to take up bicycling.”So, the question becomes how to encourage people who don’t currently ride to start bicycling – not just as a hobby, but for transportation. Cities with bicycle facilities that are dedicated to riders – not placed randomly throughout the city and then only located between moving and parked cars – have more riders. An interesting post in the New York Times by Nancy Folbre makes a case that bicycle infrastructure is an important component in compelling people to ride – many of the “top 10” cities for bike infrastructure also top the list for numbers of bike commuters.
Recent research provides support for focusing on separation of cyclist facilities. Harvard researcher Anne Lusk found a 28 percent lower injury rate for cyclists riding on separated cycle facilities compared to a similar street without separation. The separated bike facilities also had about 2.5 times as many riders. In New York City, protected bike paths are increasing bike modal share and safety. Both women and men are using separated bicycle lanes at more equal rates, whereas roads without separation (even the same road before redesign) are used predominately by men.
It’s interesting that changes in infrastructure are being met with gains in both ridership numbers and diversity. But infrastructure improvements are just half the battle. Changes to the “culture of cycling” are also paramount. Europeans don’t view bike riding as a hobby or limited to child’s play. Instead, it’s a “serious form of urban mass transportation.” Bike riding in the US is usually for the road-bike-using, spandex-wearing elite – not everyday commuters in work slacks going a speed that won’t merit a shower at the end of the ride. I have long felt a little scared of hopping on my bike and sharing the bike lane (or more likely the road shoulder) with these cyclists. I didn’t want to get in their way, with their toe clips and bike computers. The typical US cyclist is often stereotyped as “an exotic species – macho, ultra-fit, almost entirely young, white, and male, clad in lycra or spandex, who ride like madmen all over city streets. Some of us admire them, some of us revile them, but most of us can’t imagine joining their ranks.”
Making riding in the US safer will require work on at least two fronts. We need to implement plans for networks of bicycle facilities. We need to push for more research to show what works and what doesn’t. We need to add infrastructure to city streets to give bikes a place on the road. This needs to be informed by research on when separation of cyclists and cars is essential. This will encourage those riders who are “Interested but Concerned” – a giant piece of the pie of potential riders – to try commuting on two wheels. We need to push for solutions that encourage women, children, and elderly riders to take to the streets.
I am convinced about the importance of planning and infrastructure improvements when comparing a cycling culture like the Netherlands with the US. Side-by-side, here are the numbers:
|Country||The Netherlands||United States|
|Miles of separated cycle tracks||18,000 miles||20 miles|
|% of commuters on bike||25 percent||Less than 0.5 percent|
|% of bike commuters that are women||55 percent||Less than 25 percent|
Infrastructure improvements will naturally help develop a culture of cycling in the US and a greater diversity of riders. As more people are riders and drivers, I think that cycling will become less marginalized in the US. My fear is that bike crashes like the ones lately will scare more potential riders away. My hope is that the community who would like to see riding as a respected and mundane form of urban transportation will stay on their bikes – eyes wide open, lights flashing, florescent vests on – and keep pedaling to a better future.
Are you planning or thinking about a Greenway in your neighborhood? Meet with Neighborhood Greenway organizers from across Seattle (Ballard, Beacon, Wallingford, University, NE) at a dinner potluck meet-up Wed, 9/14 6:30-8:30pm. Mosaic Den 4401 2nd Ave NE in Wallingford (behind Dick’s on 45th) http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=159675627448629
Speakers: Frederica Merrell of Beacon BIKES presents tips on organizing and success stories for community organizing. Seattle City Council Member Sally Bagshaw reflects on political organizing.
Hold the Date!: We just found out yesterday that Greg Raisman & Mark Lear (the “dynamic duo” behind Portland’s Neighborhood Greenways program) will make a public presentation, while they’re in town for an SDOT visit. Thursday 9/22 @ 7:00 PM at Savery Hall Room 264 on the University of Washington campus. RSVP at: https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=105586422882727
If you’re interested in plugging into the Neighborhood Greenways network, you can join the google group at http://groups.google.com/group/seattle-greenways-organizers
We’ve blogged about our ideas for reforming sidewalk cafe rules before, noting that it would take a change at the state level to put sidewalk seating in smarter locations from a mobility and accessibility standpoint. We’re thrilled to learn, via the West Seattle Herald, that a new interim rule does just that:
The Washington State Liquor Control Board this week adopted an interim policy allowing Seattle restaurants to establish sidewalk cafés in more locations. Existing rules limit sidewalk café alcohol service to areas immediately adjacent to a building. In many cases, sidewalks in these areas are not wide enough to allow for both pedestrian travel and a café. The new rules give restaurants more flexibility, including an option for curbside sidewalk cafés.
“This rule change is a big win for our local businesses and neighborhoods,” said Mayor Mike McGinn. “We worked closely with the Seattle Department of Transportation, the Department of Planning and Development, and the Liquor Control Board to get this done. Allowing more sidewalk cafés will help improve urban vitality and give restaurants and patrons more choices.”
“We support the City of Seattle’s efforts to make outside dining more accessible,” said Washington State Liquor Control Board Chair Sharon Foster. “This has been a collaborative process that we hope will be positive for licensees choosing to participate. While the effort was shouldered by the City of Seattle, this interim policy will apply statewide.”
“We’re really excited about this new rule change,” said Josh McDonald, of the Seattle Restaurant Alliance. “This will help bars and restaurants expand and provide a better climate for new customers, and will also help with the city’s plan to activate outdoor spaces including sidewalks, plazas and parks.”
Restaurants with an on-premise liquor licenses will be able to extend their food and alcohol service to the curb side of a sidewalk public right-of-way areas if their request to the Liquor Control Board is approved and if they are given a permit from the City of Seattle.
This new policy supports Seattle’s comprehensive Nightlife Initiative, which aims to maintain public safety and provide businesses with greater flexibility to adapt to the market demands of residents and visitors. Last month Mayor McGinn took the first step toward changing state policy to allow extended service hours. More information about the Nightlife Initiative and its components can be found at http://www.seattle.gov/nightlife/.
|A recent blog written by Justin Martin of SvR Design caught my attention and brought back some fond memories of Copenhagen. I decided to pull out my external hard drive and find my own photos of Copenhagen’s “Potato Rows” – a community of townhouses in the Østerbro neighborhood that was built in the 1800s as housing for workers and is now one of the most popular and highest-priced addresses in Copenhagen (oh, gentrification).|
The Potato Rows, or Kartoffelraekkerne in Danish, features narrow streets that are utilized as a shared space between people and cars. The townhouse homes all have small gardens or courtyards that face the street, with front porches where neighbors can enjoy their private outdoor space. The private courtyard space has landscaping and short fences to buffer residents from the street activities and provide privacy, but there is a visual connection between the street and yard. When I visited the Potato Rows on a sunny afternoon, many neighbors were sitting on front steps reading a book or just enjoying the sunshine. Others were taking advantage of street furniture within the public rights-of-way.
American planners know the advantages of density, the need for a proper transition from private to public space, and the importance of encouraging homes to face the street. But, to me, the Potato Row’s shared streets are what really makes the community stand out. While the streets have “sidewalks” that are slightly above the road, most people walk down the middle of the road. This is because the sidewalks are usually where cars park or where the many street amenities, including benches, play structures, picnic tables, and landscaping, are placed.
A few months ago, I wrote a deliberately provocative piece for the Great City blog that was meant to reframe some of our recent conversations around transportation and understand how they relate to civil rights. It was a sincere try, but perhaps painted with too broad of a brush and too dull of a mind.
In the future, I’d be wise to leave it to folks like Angela Glover Blackwell from the Bay Area’s PolicyLink to make the case instead. In a recent interview with Grist, Blackwell takes on the issue of transportation and how it relates to creating a more just society. She states, in part:
One is that the bottom fifth of the nation, the poorest fifth of Americans, spend 42 percent of their annual household budget on an automobile budget, more than twice the national average. So for people who are poor, owning an automobile is a burdensome thing.
Nearly 25 percent of African-Americans do not have access to a car, compared that with 7 percent of non-Hispanic whites. You have nearly the same number of Latinos who do not have access to a car. So this is huge, this is not an isolated problem. For people who are spending too much of their income — over 40 percent just to own a car — clearly this has a devastating impact on the economy in terms of all of the things that people cannot do and cannot participate in.
For people who don’t have access to cars and depend on public transportation, the current crisis is devastating. More than 110 cities have public transit routes that are at risk. Children can’t get to school; people can’t get to work. 80 percent of the nation’s systems are either considering or have recently enacted fare increases or service cuts.
But here’s something else that Americans need to know. Spending on transit generates more jobs than spending on highways. If our nation’s 20 metro areas shifted just 50 percent of their highways funds to transit, they would create over 1.1 million new transit-related jobs in over 5 years. That’s without spending a single dollar more.
Did you ever wonder where the term Liveable Streets comes from? It wasn’t a Madison Avenue meme, but rather it is a term that came from the UC Berkeley academic Donald Appleyard who studied the effects that traffic have on the social performance of a street: how well people understand their environments, how safe they feel, and how connected they are to one another.
In this Streetfilms reexamination of Appleyard’s work, we’re reminded that mobility isn’t just about getting around. The externalities of our transportation system also profoundly impact the broader world around us, including our sense of place.
Enough of counting calories. For the past two years, AIA architects and government officials in New York City have been looking at ways architecture can promote healthy lifestyles. They’ve compiled their ideas in a 135-page booklet, Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design.
And, from Infrastructurist, why suburban sprawl is so bad for us:
• Jeff Speck and Andres Duany, the authors of Suburban Nation, argue that sprawl is a root cause of many problems that America faces, from health to environmental issues. (WashPost)