Building Bicycles Back Into Cities

Cycling offers an alternative for areas plagued by urban gridlock and Americans are working to make it a safe and rewarding experience.

An enduring Hollywood image consists of a hero riding off into the sunset on one of the highways that make up the backbone of the U.S. transportation network. These roads are great for motorists, but for the hero on a 10-speed, two-wheeled bicycle, traveling close to zooming cars and trucks can be a bit nerve-racking.

One of these new breed of heroes is 70-year-old Fred Lonas, who bikes from his home in Purcellville, Virginia to get coffee in Leesburg in a 48-kilometer loop, and has even biked across the United States in a 6,400-kilometer odyssey. “I told my daughter she has to stay in shape so she can go riding with me when I’m 80,” he jokes.

Though Lonas owns a car, on many days he does not use it. He is reckoned among the ranks of bike commuters, people who ride not just for exercise or pleasure, but as a means of daily transportation. Cities, states and the U.S. federal government are working to encourage cyclists by making streets and highways more bike-friendly.

A 2002 government-sponsored survey (new data from the 2010 census is awaited) found that approximately 57 million people, or 27.3 percent of the U.S. population aged 16 or older rode a bicycle at least once in that year. Anecdotal evidence from officials and biking enthusiasts suggests that the number of bike users is increasing rapidly.

At the same time, the United States has invested heavily in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Data from The League of American Bicyclists shows that before 1991, federal funding of bicycling and walking facilities was $4 million to $6 million per year. As of 2008, that amount had increased to $541 million. Elements like trails, bike lanes, wider sidewalks—even well-designed sewer grates that don’t snag bike tires—work together to make biking more convenient.

“We believe cycling is a safe, affordable, energy efficient mode of of transportation,” Polly Trottenberg, the U.S. assistant secretary for transportation policy, said at an event to launch a new bike sharing service in Washington, D.C. in September. “It reduces obesity, creates jobs and it’s a lot of fun.”

Cities on the move

Bicycling is an attractive solution for areas like Arlington County in northern Virginia, which is plagued by traffic jams. More cyclists mean fewer cars and easier driving conditions. “Every time we repave a street, we evaluate it to see if we can get bike lanes on the street. And that’s a very cost effective way of building your bike network,” says David J. Goodman, manager of bicycle and pedestrian programs for Arlington County, located across the river from the U.S. capital. Bike lanes generally need to be at least 1.5 meters wide, so a road has to be wide enough to be a good candidate.

Arlington County requires every new building or major renovation project to consider facilities for bikes in the site proposals. Elements such as bike parking, lockers and other amenities must be taken into account. These efforts have paid off. On a major commuter biking trail, where no cars are allowed, officials have counted about 2,000 cyclists a day. “We’ve got morning and rush hour peaks just like on the roads,” Goodman says.

On the West Coast, the city of Portland, capital of Oregon, is known for its bicycling culture and street-side innovations. Mayor Sam Adams’ goal is for 25 percent of trips in the city to be made by bicycle in 2030, up from 8 percent now. “Even if you never plan to set foot on a bicycle, you benefit tremendously. Fewer vehicles, less congestion, reduced pollution,” Adams said when he announced details of the plan in February 2010.

For instance, Portland was the first U.S. city to designate “bike boxes” on the roadways. These give bicyclists the first place in line at traffic stoplights. When the light turns green, they have a car-free intersection to travel through and to make turns. Car drivers must stay behind the bright green bike box markings, and are fined if they don’t. Also, Portland has converted 100 car-parking spaces into more than 1,000 bicycle-parking spaces. The neighboring city of Hillsboro recently launched the equivalent of a parking garage for bikes—a futuristic “Bikestation” building that has similar brethren around the country.

Greg Raisman, a traffic safety specialist with the Portland Department of Transportation, emphasizes the need for cities to think of multiple solutions when trying to reduce car use. “There has been a concerted effort to build a real transportation network that brings people from point A to point B,” he says. “This takes a very diverse network; there are no silver bullets,” that is, no single solution for every situation. Portland’s solutions include residential streets with measures to “calm” traffic, such as speed bumps and extended curbs, dedicated bicycle space on major busy streets, and a regional trail system where cars are prohibited.

The diverse network Raisman refers to is generically called “bikeways,” defined as a path or road feature which makes bicyclists more comfortable either traveling with traffic or off road. Chicago, Illinois, another prominent biking city, has plans to increase its bikeway network from the current 500 kilometers to 800 kilometers by 2015.

Expanding the network

Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made a ground-breaking announcement that policies favoring “motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized” are at an end. New federal guidelines advocate for biking and walking paths to be equally protected (think snow removal) and for data collection on bike and pedestrian trips.

A nationwide bike highway—the U.S. States Bicycle Route System—is one idea being considered. In 1982, two interstate U.S. bicycle routes were established on the East Coast, but none since then. Transportation authorities in the states of California, Virginia, Florida and Georgia have been coordinating to make new interstate bike routes as much a reality as the Interstate Highway System and the railroad networks that helped America develop economically and socially.

While many projects are funded by states and cities, the federal government also has a role. Janesville, Wisconsin received federal economic stimulus funds to add 2.8 kilometers of paved bike and pedestrian trails in 2009. A Fredericksburg, Maryland trail received $900,000 of federal air quality improvement funds in May 2010.

Small and medium towns such as these are also pursuing biking as a viable alternative to car trips. Take the example of Brunswick, a town of 5,000 people in western Maryland. It has the good fortune of being located next to a former canal site that follows the Potomac River. This canal has been transformed into a 507-kilometer park and path that is used daily by hundreds of bicyclists and hikers. Brunswick hopes to boost business by luring cyclists off the path with new signage—just like on the freeways—directing travelers to the downtown area, and offering bike racks. “People will often ask me when I am walking down the street. ‘Where can we get something to eat?’ ” says Mayor Carroll Jones. The signs will point visitors to local restaurants and other destinations.

Tech help

Though a cross-country bike route would take years, cyclists can already use a new feature on Google Maps to find the easiest way to a store across town—or all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Technology was also the key in making Capital Bikeshare, the largest U.S. bike sharing system, a reality. Subscribers can scan a card to pick up a bike at 110 locations around Washington, D.C. and Virginia, ride it wherever they like, and drop it off at another location. Payments are made in time increments—and the first 30 minutes of each trip are free.

Roger Plamondon’s Public Bike System Company supplies the bikes and created the system to make Bikeshare possible. He has set up similar systems in Minneapolis, Minnesota and in Montreal in Quebec, Canada, but the Washington operation enjoys some major innovations. This is the first to have the bike kiosks and reservations terminals run off solar power. The bicycles are special as well. “The parts aren’t easily interchangeable with existing bikes, which sort of takes away some of the enthusiasm for theft,” Plamondon says. Even the chain is protected so that “you can bike in your suit and not get grease on it.”

At the event to launch Bikeshare in September 2010, Assistant Secretary Trottenberg announced that three U.S. government departments would be earmarking $25,000 each on corporate memberships so that federal employees can use the system for free.

Road warriors
In New York City, bike commuting grew 35 percent between 2007 and 2008, and 26 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to the city’s Department of Transportation. The national Bike to Work day is promoted every year on the third Friday in May by cities and environmental groups. They put on programs, create maps, set up refreshment stalls and other events to encourage those who are not biking to work to give it a try.

Tasha Eichenseher, environment editor and producer at National Geographic Digital Media, rides her bike to work nearly every day in Washington, D.C. For her, it’s faster than a car, bus or subway. “It is to the point now where I get really impatient waiting for the bus. Biking is on your own terms, no waiting around, you can keep moving and get where you’re going faster,” she says.

Still, there are downsides. Eichenseher has had quite a few collisions with doors being opened by people getting out of their parked cars. “Not all drivers here are aware of bikers. I’ve had my fair share of accidents, and avoid biking next to parked cars at the expense of riding in the middle of the lane,” she says.

Wearing a helmet is essential for safety, and in some states it is illegal for minors to ride without one. In 2008, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report found that nine of every 10 cycling deaths involved a rider who was not wearing a helmet. That’s why the Washington Area Bicyclist Association goes into elementary schools to preach the message of safety. They also run courses for adult riders on how to safely ride in the city and manage traffic—skills that many people who may have been cycling for years need to learn.

The association’s event manager Chantal Buchser points out that though motorists are sometimes unfairly critical of bicyclists, they often have just reasons for their anger. Bikers frequently run stop lights and red lights, which creates danger for every road user. “It’s just thinking you can do whatever you want and getting away with it,” she says. “What we try to teach is ‘drive your bike.’ If you want the same space of a car, then follow the same rules.”

The association also reaches out to provide classes for the many adults who have never learned to ride a bike. In a small parking lot on the National Mall just south of the White House, one can often hear shouts of joy as 30- and 40-year-olds start successfully pedaling for the first time. At a beginners’ class in September, a young woman who had been struggling for hours to stay upright finally found the stability she needed. Zipping down the pavement, her jacket flying behind her, for a moment she looked like a superhero. And she sounded like one, too. “I’m flying! I’m flying!” she shouted.

Text and photographs by SEBASTIAN JOHN
Published in SPAN, November/December 2010