A few weeks ago I became even more of a multi-modalist by taking up urban bicycling. So far my experience has been immensely positive, as it is free, flexible, and healthy. Living at the top of a hill gets me my daily exercise, and I no longer depend on inconvenient bus schedules to get to work and school. I’ve finally gotten the chance to bike both on Seattle’s many trails and in mixed traffic; as for the latter, I’ve already observed that there are many improvements needed before city streets are truly bike-friendly. The situation is similar across much of the U.S.
Across the country, city planners are seeing bikes used more and more for commuting, but its share is still tiny compared to private automobiles. Nationally, only about 0.6% of commute trips are made by bike (up from 0.4% in 1990), compared to 91.6% by automobile, 5% by transit, and 2.8% by walking. Those numbers greatly vary by state and city, of course; among large cities, Portland leads the nation in bike commuting, with 6.1% of workers traveling by bike. Following is Minneapolis with 3.6%, Seattle with 3.4%, San Francisco with 3.3%, and Washington, D.C. with 2.9%. The top five states for bicycling to work are Oregon, Montana, Colorado, Idaho, and Alaska. The top-ranked states may be surprising because of their cold winters and mild summers, but studies have found only weak relationships between climate and bicycle mode share. Perhaps the only significant factor is heat; cities with more annual days above 90°F have less bike ridership. (All numbers are from the Alliance for Biking and Walking 2014 Benchmarking Report.)
Unsurprisingly, cities with more bicycle infrastructure have higher bicycle ridership. San Francisco currently tops this list, with 7.8 miles of of bike facilities per square mile. Seattle has about 4.0 miles per square mile. Notably, the rate of fatalities per 10,000 bicycle commuters is almost double in Seattle (1.7) what it is in San Francisco (0.9). And indeed, cities with higher amounts of people bicycling are safer for all bicyclists; this is likely because there is more infrastructure and motorists are more acquainted to sharing streets with bicyclists.
Additionally, cities with high bicycling rates have lower car ownership rates. Because one of the top reasons people don’t bike more is safety, improving bicycle infrastructure can get more people on bikes and reduce car travel, which reduces congestion, air pollution, and risk for everyone. Other reasons people don’t bike include fear of bicycle theft and limited carrying capacity. But contrary to popular perceptions, people of all ages, races, and both genders are behind the biking boom. People aged 60 and over, in particular, represent over one-third of new riders between 1995 and 2009.
The actual design of on-street bicycle infrastructure comes in many forms, with varying costs and perceived safety. Designs depend on the surrounding context, such as land uses, amount of vehicle traffic, width of the street, and connections to other bike facilities. The actual facilities range from painted “sharrows” (indicating a plain vehicle lane is to be shared with bikes), painted “bike lanes” on the outside of vehicle lanes, protected one or two-way “cycle tracks” (using empty space, bollards, curbs, planters, or parked cars to separate bikes from moving vehicles), and off-street paths that are totally separate from vehicles. An engineer from Austin has created a matrix that compares the benefits of each type of protection for cycle tracks. Not every street needs protected cycle tracks, but cities should be convenient and safe enough for bicyclists to get everywhere. Cycle tracks are appropriate for areas with high traffic, commercial and civic attractions, and routes between major destinations and neighborhoods. Off-street trails are easy to build in rural and suburban areas, and in urban areas can be built on abandoned railway lines, beneath power lines, or adjacent to waterway and freeways.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials offers an easy-to-use guidebook for integrating bicycle facilities with the rest of the street. Other enhancements include painting the bike lane or cycle track (typically green) to distinguish it from vehicle lanes, creating wayfinding signage for bicyclists, and installing bike-specific signals at controlled intersections. Below is a video showing how typical intersections can be redesigned for bikes.
So far, I have found that biking on streets without any kind of bicycle facilities is somewhat comfortable in Seattle. Most drivers are wary and patient enough to give me plenty of room, especially when going uphill. However, I still avoid arterials and prefer quiet residential streets when no bike facilities are available. This is the motivation behind the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways program, which designates streets parallel to arterials as safe corridors for pedestrians and bicyclists. Seattle’s Bike Master Plan includes a network of such greenways, along with significant expansions of bike lanes and cycle tracks citywide.
I recently joined the University Greenways group to push for better bicycle infrastructure in the U-District. Current projects in this neighborhood include repainting 12th Avenue with a bike lane and slowing traffic on Brooklyn Avenue in anticipation of a light rail station. I’m also still pushing for a road diet and one-way cycle tracks on 15th Avenue, which would go beyond the Bike Master Plan’s intentions.
Practical improvements to bicycle infrastructure are not expensive compared to the massive cost of maintaining the nation’s highways and roads. Streetsblog estimates making the entire nation reasonably bikable would need $32 billion, or $100/person. It is a large number that could be spread out over a few years (compare it to the annual federal transportation budget of about $77 billion), but significant bike investments are also unlikely at the federal level; despite 14.9% of national traffic deaths being bicyclists and pedestrians, only 2.1% of federal transportation funding goes to biking and walking projects.
Bicycling is inherently a locally-oriented mode, so cities are leading efforts to improve and increase it. A clear example of that is the rapid expansion of bike-share programs across major U.S. cities in the last decade; a regional program will launch in Seattle in late summer. Another easy way for cities to improve bicycling is to require secure indoor and outdoor bicycle parking in new developments.
Whether you bike or not (and if not, I recommend you start!), the fact is that Americans are driving less and less, more people are moving to cities, and biking is a transportation option that many are willing to use if it is safe. And paying for bicycle infrastructure is a much more efficient use of money than highway boondoggles and underused parking garages. Tell your city leaders that we need a complete and safe bicycle network that enables everyone to get around freely and conveniently.
If you’re interested in learning more about bicycling, the American League of Cyclists offers tips for getting started and riding safely. Locally, the Cascade Bicycle Club sponsors many events and group rides throughout the year.