Recipe for Creating a Bicycle-Friendly City

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

What are the ingredients for creating a bicycle-friendly community? A community that feels safe, convenient and pleasant for all ages and abilities to ride a bicycle. It is important to understand, to begin with, that there are no easy, painless, overnight solutions. Over the past several decades, we have unconsciously done everything we could possibly do to make bicycling an exceptionally dangerous, unacceptable way to travel. It will therefore take quite a while for our cities and towns to see bicyclists crowding our streets. And change will need to be incremental and from a great many sources. There are no silver bullets.

Here are my top 5 recommendations for how to make a more bicycle-friendly community.

1. Parking Cash-Out. Local employers (particularly local government agencies and large private employers) must establish a parking cash-out program. By ending this enormous subsidy for driving a car to work, cash-out is the most effective tool we know of to recruit new bicyclists. An increased number of bicycle commuters dramatically increases bicyclist safety and comfort while riding, and promotes political action to improve bicycling conditions.

2. Centralization and Residential Density. Important facilities and events, such as the county farmers market, the conference center, the major movie theatre complex, the major fitness center, the main post office, major government facilities, and annual festivals must only be allowed in the central area of the city (subsidiary or duplicate facilities and events can be allowed in the periphery). Those facilities and events that are currently located in peripheral locations must be incrementally moved to central locations. Locating these facilities and events at peripheral locations substantially reduces their accessibility by a large percentage of commuter bicyclists. Such an effort is not only crucial to bicycling, but is also essential in creating a sense of community. Similarly, a city must establish higher density residential development within the central areas of the city. Doing so dramatically increases bicycling because such housing increases the convenience, safety and practicality of bicycling. Destinations such as school, retail, recreation, government facilities, jobs and culture become more proximate (more w/in bicycling range).

3. Traffic Calming and Road Diets. High-speed, inattentive car travel is one of the most significant reasons bicyclists feel unsafe and uncomfortable while bicycling — and why so many are discouraged from bicycling at all. Each time a street is traffic-calmed, or has travel lanes removed (road dieting), bicycling is dramatically improved and there is a significant increase in bicycling. A large percentage of streets carry car traffic that features uncomfortably and unsafely high speeds, and a number of streets can greatly benefit from travel lane removal (for example, 5- or 4-lanes to 3). Many of these diet opportunities provide a way to install an in-street bicycle lane on streets that do not have space today, and in-street bicycle lanes are, by far, preferable to off-street paths for commuter bicycle travel. Because 4-, 5-, and 6-lane streets are a primary cause of high speed car traffic and inattentive, reckless driving, it is important for a community to avoid building them, and to “diet” those that are already at that size. High-speed, inattentive driving significantly discourages bicycling in most every community.

4. Off-Street Path System. The off-street bicycle/pedestrian path system in nearly every community is either non-existent, or contains a number of path opportunities that have languished, unbuilt, for decades. The gaps in this “greenway” system must be eliminated. While completing the system will not result in a significant increase in bicycle commuting, it would dramatically increase recreational bicycling. A completed greenway system also plays the crucial role of recruiting novice bicyclists and non-bicyclists into becoming regular, confident bicyclists, because off-street paths provide a “training ground” that allows large numbers of untrained bicyclists to learn the skills and joys of bicycling in a safe, non-threatening, sociable environment.

5. In-Street Bicycle Lanes. Despite what is often believed, in-street bicycle lanes are much more desirable to a commuter bicyclist than are off-street paths or sidewalks. Paths can only feasibly link a tiny number of destinations that a bicyclist seeks to travel to, and even for the small number of destinations that can be reached by a path, using the street is nearly always faster and more direct than using an off-street path. And just like motorists, a primary desire by bicyclists is to find the fastest route to a destination when commuting. In addition, contrary to popular belief, studies have shown for several decades that in urbanized areas where there are numerous crossing driveways and streets, in-street bicycle lanes are significantly safer than sidewalks. Because paths usually create the same safety hazards as sidewalks (by having numerous driveway and street intersections), they are generally discouraged as a design treatment within urbanized areas. Given all of this, a bicycle-friendly city must ensure that as many major streets as possible contain in-street bicycle lanes. It is important to keep in mind that one size does not fit all. In general, in-street bicycle lanes are NOT appropriate on low-speed downtown streets or neighborhood streets. Their application tends to be most appropriate on higher-speed suburban arterial streets.

References for #5 above:

Florida Dept of Transportation (1998). Florida Bicycle Facilities Planning and Design Manual. Tallahassee FL.

Florida Dept of Transportation (2002). Plans Preparation Manual. Tallahassee FL.

Wachtel, A. and Lewiston, D. (1994). Risk Factors for Bicycle-Motor Vehicle Collisions at Intersections. ITE Journal. September.

Forester, J. (1984). Effective Cycling. MIT Press.

Forester, J. (1983). Bicycle Transportation. MIT Press.

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