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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and four dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.