The willingness of so many city officials to move forward with plans to better accommodate bicycle and pedestrian traffic is a sign that change really is coming. The automobile industry and some motorists may not like it, but the public is demanding bike- and pedestrian-friendly urban design. Leaders are realizing that their cities’ attractiveness—especially to an emerging generation of young adults—depends on it.
The good news—for bicyclists, walkers, transit users and motorists alike—is that “complete street” design concepts that foster bicycle-friendly cities can benefit everyone.
(Note: Not all bike lanes are created equal; while any dedicated lane for cyclists is an improvement, the ideal is the protected bike lane, where the lane is divided from traffic by parking spaces and/or a curb or planter. When a nonprotected lane runs between auto traffic and parking spaces—such as on Madison Avenue in Albany—there is still a risk of collisions, lanes blocked by double-parked cars and the “dooring” of cyclists by motorists getting out of their cars.)
Here are some reasons why improved bicycle infrastructure and bicycle-friendly cities are good for all of us:
- There’s a place for everyone. The anxiety often felt by both motorists and bicyclists stems from the fact that our streets were designed for conflict. Drivers don’t like bikes on the street, and pedestrians don’t like them on the sidewalk. With bike lanes, everyone knows where they belong.
- Not only is everyone happier, they’re also safer. This is a direct corollary to item No. 1; cyclists, of course, are safer because they’re not in direct conflict with cars. But there is a clear safety benefit to pedestrians, as anyone who observes urban behavior knows. While cyclists are supposed to use roads and not sidewalks, often they compete with (and sometimes crash into) pedestrians anyway, because unsafe road design and irritable motorists, drive them to choose the sidewalk.
- Roads designed for sharing encourage more civil behavior. Preliminary research suggests that both bicyclists and motorists act more politely and cooperatively when they aren’t competing for space. One study even showed that cyclists were 161 percent more likely to stop for red lights when using protected lanes.
- More people on bikes and on foot increase the vitality and livability of cities. Bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets are almost by definition more social, with people moving more slowly, stopping to chat with neighbors and making use of amenities, such as shops and cafes, along the way.
- A more diversified transportation infrastructure reduces traffic congestion, and along with it, air and noise pollution. In concert with a good public transit system, encouraging more bicycle and pedestrian traffic ultimately means fewer cars on the road. Transportation planners long ago learned that adding highways and car lanes only encouraged more congestion. Now we are seeing the lesson in reverse, and as a result, cities are becoming more attractive places to live, shop and do business.
- A good bicycle infrastructure can bring more opportunity and less inequality. The average cost of owning and operating one car is about $8,500 per year, which low-income families will scrape together—to the detriment of their other needs—when they believe they have no other choice in order to find and keep employment. The option of commuting by bike, taking public transit, or using the two in tandem, can save families a lot of money. The same goes for middle-income couples and families who can switch from two cars to one.
- Bicycle transportation is healthy for cyclists—and for society. The health benefits of bicycling, as bike advocate Jay Walljasper has noted, “look almost like a miracle.” Citing an Exercise is Medicine fact sheet, he writes, “Moderate physical exercise such as bicycling for only 30 minutes a day reduces a person’s chances of diabetes, dementia, depression, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and high blood pressure by 40 percent or more.” And it’s not just the individual who benefits: Physical inactivity costs the U.S. healthcare system more than $100 billion annually.
We only have to look at European cities bicycle-friendly cities to see the benefits they already reap from a healthy bike infrastructure. They are well ahead of the rest of the world: The Copenhagenize Design Co.’s Bicycle Friendly Cities Index for 2017 includes 18 European cities in the Top 20, with Tokyo coming in at No. 9, and Montreal being North America’s sole representative, at No. 20.
We have a lot of catching up to do, and a lot of very good reasons to make the investment.