Monday, October 29, 2012

Do We Wrongly Pigeonhole Bicycling?

In my last three posts (here, here, and here), I’ve written about bicycling.  Specifically about how increased bicycling can benefit urbanism, about how helmet laws, school policies, and low bicycle use by youths may be limiting the growth of bicycling, and about how a frequent argument against new bicycling facilities is largely based on fallacies.
Today, I’ll look at one more possible impediment to increase bicycling.  The difficulty in grasping the full range of transportation options that are offered by bicycles.

Bicycling covers a remarkably wide range of human locomotion, seemingly more than any other method of transportation.  The six-year-old pedaling along the sidewalk with training wheels and the professional bicyclist climbing a mountain in the Tour de France are using machines that are, at their essence, identical.

Surely the bicycle in the Tour de France is the greater technological achievement, but both bicycles have human legs rotating pedals which move a chain which drives a rear wheel.  It’s a simple technology with a remarkably broad range of application.

And that broad range of application can trip us up.  In our planning documents, we differentiate between the needs of motor vehicles, addressing local travel, freeways, parking, and emergency vehicles.  But bicycles tend to be considered as a single element even though different bicyclists can have very different needs.

To illustrate my point, I’ll share an anecdote.

Many years ago, I was a consulting engineer for an Oregon project.  The site included some 600 homes, a golf course, extensive paths, and much else.  As the project developed, there was a regular need to return to the county planning department for amendments to the project approvals.  I organized and wrote most of applications.

About three years into the development, with another amendment application in preparation, the local bicycle community came forth with a request that their right to traverse the property be acknowledged.  The project lay astride the best routes between the city and some fine bicycling trails, so the request was reasonable.

The developers agreed to the request.  But when I went to write that that part of the application, we disagreed about where the bicyclists should ride.  Much of the project had 28-foot roads paralleled by 8-foot pedestrian paths.  The developers thought that bicyclists should be restricted to the paths and that only motor vehicles should be allowed on the roads.  (It was and remains a very typical perspective.)

I was appalled by the thought.  My first attempts to argue against it were unsuccessful.  But then I had an idea.  I sat down with members of the project management team, drew boxes representing the 28-foot roads and 8-foot paths, listed the likely users of both including cars, emergency vehicles, golf carts, recreational  bicyclists, children on bicycles, joggers, casual walkers, and children at play, and asked the managers to divide the users between the roads and paths.

Faced with the vision of golf carts and children at play sharing an 8-foot strip of asphalt, the managers saw the error of their thinking and agreed that golf carts and serious bicyclists should use the road instead.  And that is how the land use application was written.  The range of bicycling had been acknowledged.

You might think that the lesson, once learned, would be long remembered.  You’d be wrong.  I recently received an email from the community association for the project.  “On a safety note, when operating golf carts on … walking/bicycle paths, you must yield to pedestrians and bicyclists.”  Twenty years later, we’re back where we started.

Ironically, I recently sold my lot in the project.  I moved to California years ago, but continued to own land in the development.  I watched the land market go way up.  I watched the land market collapse.  I was prepared to wait for a rebound, but received an offer I couldn’t refuse.  It was the right decision, but it still feels hollow to let loose of my last connection to a major part of my life for more than twenty years.  My last action on behalf of the project will be to forward a link to this blog post, hoping to restore the road and path, including bicyclists, into where they best fit.

While we still work to grasp the current range of bicycling, technology offers the promise of further challenges.  Take a look at this “chainless e-bike”.  Is it a plug-in bicycle?  Or is it the more minimalist motorcycle ever?  I don’t know.  But I do know that if we don’t come to grips with it and its forthcoming kin we’ll be failing to make use of all the future has to offer us.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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