Friday, October 26, 2012

Should We Be Building Bicycle Facilities?

In my last two posts (here and here), I’ve spoken about bicycle use.  Specifically about how more bicycle use can benefit urbanism and how helmet laws, school policies, and low bicycle adoption by youths may be limiting the growth of bicycling.  Today, I’ll look at the arguments around another possible impediment to more bicycling.

An oft-made comment regarding increased bicycle usage is that our communities lack sufficient facilities.  The argument is that with more facilities, including bicycle lanes, bicycle paths, and even bicycle storage areas, bicycle use would increase.  I don’t think that improved bicycle facilities are a panacea that would increase usage overnight.  But I believe that improved bicycle facilities are an essential element of the future of bicycling.

But a frequent response to the request for more facilities is that devoting scarce resources toward meeting the needs of a minuscule portion of the population with a particular recreational interest isn’t justified.  And it’s certainly not justified in these economic times.

It’s a response that’s based on three deeply-engrained fallacies.

The first fallacy is that bicyclists are mostly focused on the recreational aspect.  There are certainly bicyclists who do long weekend rides for physical fitness.  I have a cousin in that category and it’s a great thing for him.

But when I think about the need for better bicycling facilities, I don’t think of the weekend riders.  Instead, I think of a friend who often commutes from Petaluma to Santa Rosa by bicycle.  And of a friend who usually bicycles to our monthly Petaluma Urban Chats.  And of an architect in my neighborhood who often bicycles to his downtown office.

The second fallacy is that improved bicycle facilities would benefit only bicyclists.  It’s just not true.  During weekday commutes, almost every bicycle on the road represents a car that isn’t sharing a travel lane or competing for a parking place.  Transit is often described as freeing up road space.  Increased bicycling would certainly do the same.

The third fallacy, and perhaps the most significant, is that bicyclists will always remain a small minority.  Today, not many folks ride bicycles to work or for daily chores.  However, they don’t ride not because they don’t want to, but because, among other reasons, they don’t have safe routes to do so.  I have a friend who wants to do his grocery shopping by bicycle, but the only route available involves a street crossing that he won’t do with a trailer behind his bike.  More and better bicycle facilities would be a key toward making bicyclists less of a minority.

So, bicycle advocates are faced with making the “build it and they will come” argument, which seems a near-impossible argument to win.  Except that it isn’t.

There are numerous precedents in our region for building facilities in expectation of greater future use.  In 2006, how many people were riding a railroad between Santa Rosa and San Rafael?  None.  And yet Marin and Sonoma Counties voted for SMART.  In the 1960s, how many people were commuting by rail between Contra Costa County and San Francisco?  None.  And yet the Bay Area counties approved BART.  In 1930, how many people were driving across the Golden Gate?  None.  And yet San Francisco and Marin Counties approved funding for the Golden Gate Bridge.

Is it possible to follow the lead of those approvals and to make improved bicycle facilities a reality?  Possibly.  But there may be one key difference between BART and a bicycle lane.  I’m guessing that many voters in the 1960s could visualize themselves commuting by rail.  But too few voters today, and too few public officials, can see themselves living their lives on a bicycle.  And that lack of vision gets in the way of funding for more bicycle facilities.

We’ll continue to fund some improvements, but unless there is a fundamental change in how we view bicycling, it will usually be through altruism, not self-interest.  And ultimately self-interest is a more powerful motivation.

Which frames the challenge for the bicycling community.  The thought that the person we see in the mirror in the morning may someday use a bicycle lane to buy groceries is probably more important to propagate than all of the visions of what a bicycle-friendly community might look like.  It’s a big challenge.

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


  1. I've had an issue with separate infrastructure for cyclists, but the numbers are starting to come in and I'm becoming a believer. See, for instance University of British Columbia - Cycling in Cities Research Program: our injury study, which I discovered from dc.streetsblog: Study: Protected Bike Lanes Reduce Injury Risk Up to 90 Percent.

    The thing I found particularly interesting about that study is that while it confirms that bike lanes aren't very safe, and that Multi-Use Paths are actually fairly dangerous for cyclists, that there are very simple and relatively inexpensive bike specific infrastructure that can do amazing things for bicycle safety.

    I also think that a particular addition is necessary to your first fallacy: It's not as though I commute from Petaluma to Santa Rosa on a bicycle (although if I'm still working here when the daylight comes back I may bring in the road bike and see if I can beat the bus home), but that the bicycle portion makes the bus/transit commute possible. Without the bicycle it'd be a long uncomfortable bus ride, with the bicycle it's still a long uncomfortable bus ride, but it's quite a bit shorter than it'd be if I had to make a bus connection. So a relatively short (1 mile in Petaluma, 3.5 or so in Santa Rosa) bike ride makes me able to consider transit at all.

  2. (BTW: Your stylesheet is making the links in my other comment difficult to suss out. There are two of them)

    1. Dan, the links show up just fine for me. And I appreciate both of them. The type of bike facilities that should be built is something I'll be discussing Monday. Thus far, I've reviewed two studies, one from Portland State and the other from the cities of Toronto and Vancouver as reported in the American Journal of Public Health. I'll be searching for other good links and will take a look at yours.

    2. By the way, congratulations on "becoming a believer" about separated bike facilities. I don't have a horse in that race, but like chatting with people who are willing to reassess their opinions when new data comes in.

    3. Grins. Greatest summarization I've seen recently, from 37 Signals talking about a discussion with Jeff Bezos: "He said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds."

      Best thing I can do is learn something that challenges my preconceptions, 'cause that's useful!

    4. I'd seen the Bezo's quote and liked it a lot. I also like the mock puzzled response to someone who remains adamantly firm in an opinion despite emerging facts "I reassess my opinion when I receive new information. What is it you do with new information?"