Bike commuting is green, healthy & cheap, so why don’t more people do it?

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By Billi London-Gray
Green Right Now

It’s May, which means it’s Bicycle Month. Cities and cycling clubs around the country are promoting bicycle riding by sponsoring group rides and bike commuter events , culminating around Bike to Work Day on May 21. But the presence on the American calendar of a designated month to encourage bicycle transportation underscores the fact that most people in this nation get around by driving cars, not by riding bikes.

Bicyclist (Photo: Savo Ilic/dreamstime)
Bicyclist (Photo: Savo Ilic/dreamstime)

Public transit and bicycle commuting are gaining ridership, but it is estimated that only 0.05 percent of Americans use a bike as their primary means of transportation — even though 40 percent of our daily trips and errands require less than 2 miles of travel, according to the National Household Transportation Survey.

What keeps people from hitting the streets with two wheels instead of four? According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics the main reasons people choose to travel by car and truck  are “convenience” and “safety from accidents.”

Only 23 percent of respondents felt “very satisfied” that their cities were designed for making bike riding safe, according to the same nationwide survey.

National statistics show that the danger doesn’t quite match the fear: In recent years, bicyclists have accounted for about two percent of all traffic fatalities. In 2008, six times more pedestrians (4,378) than cyclists (716) were killed in traffic collisions, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The perception of bike riding is risky and inconvenient — as well as the reality that bikes and cars don’t mingle well — are issues that cycling advocates, community planners and some city governments are trying to overcome.

Boulder, Davis and Portland make bikes a priority

Cities around the country are trying to make the streets safer for bicyclists, developing infrastructure and outreach programs to increase bicycle commuting and reduce collisions. Many have sought and received the “Bike Friendly Community” award from the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) , a national cycling advocacy group based in Washington, DC.

The Bike Friendly Community designation, awarded at four levels (platinum, gold, silver and bronze)  is based on a thorough evaluation of a city’s infrastructure and cycling programs.

Topping the list of Bike Friendly Communities at the platinum level are Boulder, Colo., Davis, Calif., and Portland, Ore. All three cities have put bicycle transportation on equal footing with motor vehicle transportation, devoting money to the constant improvement and promotion of bike travel within their communities.

Boulder, for example, contains 380 miles of bike routes throughout the city. Along those routes 76 underpasses allow cyclists to bypass busy intersections and roadways that would otherwise be considered barriers to bike travel. Snow plows hit the bike trails as soon as they hit the streets in Boulder’s white winters. According to the Bike Friendly America Yearbook for 2010, Boulder’s “bike use and other non-automotive modes of transportation have limited the growth in vehicular miles traveled in Boulder to approximately 1 percent annually since 1990.”

Davis, like Boulder, has bike lanes along 95 percent of its arterial roads and has branded itself as a bike-centered community. An estimated 14 percent of city residents commute by bike, the highest rate in the country. Portland supports many programs to build interest and enthusiasm for bicycle commuting, such as providing commuter bikes to low-income adults and installing increasing numbers of bike parking corrals in commercial districts. The city reported that bicycles accounted for 13 percent of all vehicles traveling on bridges to and from the downtown area in 2009.

These top tier bike-friendly cities “have infrastructure, education programs, lots of encouragement activities, even enforcement, and they track it all with good evaluation and planning for the future,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists.

“Bottom line though is [they have] places to ride where normal people feel comfortable riding.”

Creating these routes is key to increasing bike commuting, because the fear of being injured inhibits many would-be cyclists, said Clarke, an experienced cyclist who commutes daily from Fairfax County, Va., to his office in Washington, D.C..

“Along with every other person on a bike, I worry about cars,” Clarke said. “In too many cities in this country you still have to be really committed to get out and ride every day everywhere.”

Establishing routes where riders can feel comfortable is a big challenge for cities seeking to integrate bicycle commuting networks with existing roadways. Most American cities have been built with cars, not bikes, in mind. Planning and constructing bike routes to meld with existing infrastructure is a long process that requires years of evaluation and, in many cases, the wooing of public opinion by city planners.

“Complete Streets” make room for bikes

Bike Route
A bike route in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Photo: GRN Network)

Stefanie Seskin, a policy advisor with the National Complete Streets Coalition helps cities design, adopt and implement “Complete Streets” policies to guide capital projects and make roads accessible for pedestrians, cyclists and disabled travelers alike. Boulder, Davis, Portland and most other Bike Friendly Communities have adopted these methods to streamline development of  “multimodal roadways”. Seskin points out that Complete Streets’ policies won’t get adopted without public support.

“Officials often feel policy change is an uphill battle. They don’t feel there’s support for change,” Seskin said. “Planners and engineers want to be backed up.”

Cities that have been successful enjoy widespread enthusiasm for transportation change among city planners and residents, she said.

“When the community is on board, it helps a lot,” Seskin said. “You don’t have to change anyone’s mind.”

Austin, Texas, a silver-level Bike Friendly Community, has faced a mixture of enthusiasm and opposition to the development of its bicycle infrastructure. Although thousands of residents commute by bike on a daily basis and the city government is actively pushing for bike network development, a recent proposal to turn one downtown street into a bicycle boulevard received strong opposition from businesses along the route. However, the city continues to work with local cycling advocates to address the main concerns faced by local riders: barriers, road conditions and traffic.

Heading to Austin on the Lance Armstrong Parkway
Heading to Austin on the Lance Armstrong Parkway (Photo: Justin W. Moore)

In consultation with local cyclists, the city developed and adopted a Bike Master Plan in 2009. The city also is recognized by the League of American Bicyclists as a Bike Friendly Business for encouraging and enabling its employees to commute by bike.

According to Nadia Barrera, Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for the City of Austin, the city is installing showers in three of its buildings for bike commuters and over 2000 city employees have taken a bicycle safety course offered by the city. City planners worked with area cyclists to create a list of 25 barriers that affect bicycle commuter routes around the city. Barrera said that creating ways around these barriers is a priority for the city.

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