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Making Biking Irresistible

Zach Vanderkooy is International Programs Manager for the Green Lane Project. The Green Lane Project is an initiative of Bikes Belong, an America Bikes coalition organization. This post was cross-posted from the Green Lane Project site.  

Next-generation infrastructure and programs are inspiring cities across the United States to make bicycling irresistible. Here's a peek at ideas and innovations from the Netherlands and Portland, Oregon that are pushing the envelope. 

1. Dedicate space for low-stress bicycling

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To make bicycling a way of life for a large share of the population—not just committed cyclists—it’s crucial to offer riders a sense of protection from traffic on busy streets. Dutch cities routinely create bike lanes with physical barriers between riders and cars. Not only does this give people on bikes and in cars more room to breathe, it increases bicyclists’ psychological sense of comfort, which encourages more people to ride.

New York was one of the first U.S. cities to follow suit by creating a physical buffer between bike lanes and moving car traffic on city streets. Commuter bicycling in NYC more than doubled between 2006 and 2010 while crash rates have decreased on the re-engineered roadways.

The post-war Dutch city of Rotterdam resembles an American city with wide streets, glass skyscrapers, fast traffic, and aggressive drivers. But 22% of trips are made by bike—a number that’s rising 3% annually thanks to efforts to physically separate bike lanes from traffic, notes city planner Wim Hinkamp.

2. Bike Lanes Built for Two

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When traveling with a friend or a young child, it’s only natural to want to move side-by-side to chat. But unfortunately, the narrow width and minimal protection of most bike lanes makes this uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. To accommodate the basic human desire to travel in pairs, Danish and Dutch planners are now building bike lanes wider than the typical 5-foot ones used in the U.S. A parent riding abreast with a comforting hand on the back of a child is a common sight in the Netherlands and Denmark.

In Denmark, planners now recommend 2.5 meter (8 feet) widths for bikeways whenever possible. In the Netherlands, Hillie Talens, a transportation engineer with the Dutch transportation and public space organization CROW, recommends that cycle tracks (bike lanes separated from busy streets) be 2.5 to 3.5 meters (8–11 feet) wide.

3. Bike boulevards aren’t just for bikes 

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Experienced travelers always know the quiet side streets that offer a safe, pleasurable ride. Now some of these streets are being redesigned as bike boulevards, (also called neighborhood greenways) where local cars are allowed but two-wheelers and walkers get priority. These residential streets pass near popular destinations and offer convenient access across busy avenues, but feature a low volume of cars traveling at low speeds. Many are designed with special pavement colors, decorative vegetation, or signage to identify that the streets are optimized for people on bikes. Some also feature diverters, which permit people on bikes and on foot to pass through directly but route motorists to adjoining roads more suitable for car travel. Studies conducted by Portland State University show that bicyclists, especially women, will travel out of their way in order to ride on low-stress bike boulevards. Bike boulevards are an especially cost-effective way to complete a bicycling network—on average they cost 25% as much as an off-street path.

Portland features 36 miles of bike boulevards, locally called “Neighborhood Greenways” to emphasize that it’s not just bicyclists who benefit. Many projects include vegetation that collects rain runoff that would other otherwise enter the sewer system, making the street more beautiful and reducing the need for costly water treatment facilities.

4. Put safety first on the road

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Experts agree that a critical way to keep bicyclists safe on city streets is to make sure motorists notice them. This can be accomplished with a whole toolkit of roadway improvements, many of which are simple and inexpensive. These include bike boxes (where cyclists can gather in plain view in front of cars at red lights), colorized bike lanes (which remind drivers they share the stree), and bicycle-only traffic signals (which control movements of cars and bikes separately to minimize potential conflicts).

Roger Geller, Portland’s Bicycle Program Coordinator, believes that markings on the pavement are better than street signs to communicate with both cyclists and motorists. He advises using bright colors in bike lanes and bike boxes (the preferred color in the United States is green; in the Netherlands it's red) and extending the markings far into the intersection.

5. Bike Sharing, American Style

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Bike sharing, which transformed European cities like Paris and Barcelona, is now taking root in North America. The idea is simple: provide high-quality bikes at handy spots around town that can easily be rented for short rides with a credit card or annual membership and returned to any number of convenient stations scattered around the city.

Montreal launched its system in 2009 with 3,000 shared bikes on the streets. In 2010, bike sharing spread to Minneapolis, Denver, Des Moines, and Washington, D.C, followed by Boston and San Antonio in 2011. Cities including San Francisco, Chicago, New York and many others are following with plans for their own systems. Not only does bike sharing make it easier to get around, it provides a boost to the city’s image that can attract businesses and spur other improvements.

In its first year, the Minneapolis system disarmed skeptics who said bike sharing would never work in America. In June, 700 bikes hit the streets at 65 stations and were taken for more 100,000 rides before winter. Only three bikes were vandalized, two stolen, and there were no reported injuries. Financially, the system wound up in the black and will be expanded in 2011.

6. Encouragement campaigns

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What stops the 71% of Americans who say they would like to ride more from actually getting on bicycles to do it? The lack of good bike infrastructure is a major reason, but so are a host of other obstacles, many of which come down to simple questions about how to dress, how to lock a bike to a rack or which streets to take to get from A to B. Personal encouragement programs can provide the answers, as cities from Copenhagen to Portland have found out.

These campaigns start by urging would-be bicycle commuters to consider riding more often, especially people who may not have ridden bikes regularly since they were kids but still find the idea appealing. Transportation ambassadors then follow up with personalized solutions to their specific concerns via one-on-one conversations. It’s like having a personal transportation coach.

Portland’s Smart Trips campaign begins with fun community events and a mailing to households asking about their interest in biking, walking, or taking transit. Anyone interested can meet with a friendly transportation ambassador who offers maps and can field questions about how to get started and choose the best routes. They will even escort first-time bike commuters to work, showing how easy it can be.

7. Riding to School

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Most Dutch children ride their bikes to school, which not only offers them more freedom but also establishes bicycling as a natural habit that endures throughout adulthood. This is possible because Dutch cities promote traffic safety at an early age and create special bike streets, separating bike lanes from cars on busy roads.

Kids learn how to get around by bike, foot, and public transportation in special classes given weekly at primary schools as part of core curriculum.

In Utrecht, all schoolchildren spend some time at Trafficgarden, a miniature city complete with roads, sidewalks, and busy intersections where students hone their pedestrian, biking, and driving skills (in non-motorized pedal cars). A Dutch study shows that kids who bike to school on their own are more self-confident and earn higher grades than those who are driven to school by parents.

8. Catching a boost up the hill

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The growing popularity of pedal-assist e-bikes could dramatically boost the number of two-wheel commuters and longer-distance riders. These bikes are powered by pedaling just like an ordinary bicycle, but a small electric motor kicks in to give you a boost up hills, into the wind, or over long distances. Electric-assist bikes make it easier for older people and residents of hilly cities to enjoy the benefits of biking and are popular with commuters who don’t like to arrive at work sweaty. In the Netherlands, where electric bikes now account for 10% of sales, planners are starting to build inter-city bike highways to support the longer range of travel possible with e-bikes.

There are a half-million electric bikes on the streets in the U.S, compared to 120 million in China. Many Americans cyclists dread sharing bike lanes and paths with speeding motor-powered electric vehicles, but e-bikes (as opposed to mopeds and scooters) have top speeds of 16–20 miles per hour—about the same speed as a hard-pedaling rider.

9. Connecting Bikes, Trains, & Buses

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Studies show that people ride bikes more frequently if they can easily transfer to public transit to cover long distances or to dodge inclement weather. That’s why the Dutch have invested heavily in providing secure bike parking close to train stations across the country.

Many American cities have now installed bike racks on the front of buses, and also make it easier to bring them on trains. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, for example, all buses, light rail, and commuter trains will carry your bike.

Public transit doesn’t always get you exactly where you need to go, but it can almost always get you close. To help passengers travel that last mile from where the train or bus stops to where they need to be, the Dutch national rail transit agency launched its own bike sharing program. For a low daily or hourly fee, you can pick up a bike at a station to ride to your destination and back, then return it before catching the next train home.

10. Bike parking paradise

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In many neighborhoods nowadays, you can no longer count on finding a traffic sign or parking meter that you can use to lock your bike. As bicycling grows in popularity, so does the need for secure, convenient places to park. This is especially true for commuters, who may not want their bike exposed to weather and potential thieves on the street eight hours a day. Solutions being pioneered in the leading cities include requiring builders to include bike parking spaces at businesses and apartment buildings (similar to cars), adding places for bikes in car parking garages, streetside bike sheds, high-capacity on- street bike corrals, and staffed parking lots with attendants at transit stations.

With as many as 25%of their customers coming on bikes, some Portland businesses are taking part in a city program to convert a curbside parking space for one car into “corrals” for 10 or more bikes. The conversion is hugely popular with local merchants, and there is long waiting list. Several other cities have launched similar programs and local businesses are profiting from the increased customer parking.

11. New neighborhood designs

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For the last 50 years most new neighborhoods have been designed for heavy automobile use, often making it difficult to walk or ride a bike for transportation, exercise, or recreation. But that’s changing as developers come to understand families’ desires to live in places where they can bike, walk, and play safely in their neighborhood streets. In both Europe and the U.S., some newly built communities now balance bike and pedestrian access with automobile convenience, resulting in healthier people and safer streets.

The latest trend in Dutch urban planning is auto luw (“car light”) developments. A shining example is Java, a desirable new neighborhood in Amsterdam’s harbor where motorized traffic is channeled to underground parking garages on the edges, so people can leisurely bike or walk. Kids run freely through the green common spaces, and everyone seems to enjoy strong connections with their neighbors. According to Amsterdam city council member Fjodor Molenaar, car light is now the official planning policy of the city.

12. Car-free days

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A growing number of cities throughout North and South America close certain streets on Sundays for the enjoyment of families and residents on bikes or on foot. The Colombian capital of Bogotá pioneered the idea, and today it’s spread from Latin America to a growing list of North American cities, including Atlanta, Madison, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Cleveland, Chicago, Tucson, and El Paso. Traffic-clogged avenues are temporarily transformed into a rolling street fair, with food vendors, dancing, and games for the kids. In Bogotá, as many as two million people turn out for the weekly festivities.

Close to 100,000 Angelenos turned out for the inaugural ”CicLAvia” in 2010 to pedal through miles of streets closed to cars in downtown Los Angeles. The event drew many families, even young children who rode in trailers or tag-alongs hitched to their parents’ bikes. Participants made frequent stops to enjoy entertainment, food stands, and bicycle information booths along the routes. Experiencing city streets at a leisurely pace without the presence of car traffic is a delightful, eye-opening experience that fosters civic pride.

13. Bikes mean business

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The data is in. Bicycles make a measurable contribution to the vitality of our economy, especially considering that investments in bike infrastructure cost only a fraction of those for highways or transit. A study from CEOs for Cities calculates that Portland keeps $800 million yearly that would leave the local economy if people there drove cars at the same high rate as other U.S. cities. Because they spend less money on gas and less time behind the wheel, Portlanders have more of both to spend at local businesses. Mia Birk, CEO of Alta Planning Design with 15 offices nationwide, points to studies of the Portland area showing that bicycle-related businesses directly pump $90 million into the local economy annually and account for 1,000 jobs.

Dutch bike expert Hans Voerknecht cites a Danish study showing that every 10 kilometers traveled by car costs society $4.36 in health, infrastructure, and other expenses, while every 10 kilometers traveled by bike saves $1.36. People who ride bikes regularly live three years longer on average than people who don’t and have lower healthcare costs, according to another Danish study. A Dutch study offers similar findings: if no one in the Netherlands rode a bike, the country would be forced to spend $2 billion more for healthcare each year and another $2 billion in road construction and other costs.

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