The biking tail is wagging the dog

Bikes are the same length as a car and - with saddle bags and elbows - about half as wide and may take up a whole lane, all for one person

In the old days, an undergraduate at a mid-level university might be criticized for asking the research question: How can people be encouraged to walk or cycle more?

Who says we need this activity? Is it safe? Isn’t this like famous builder Robert Moses asking how to get more cars on the road? Was that a good idea?

Shouldn’t we be asking the questions before this question? General questions that don’t presuppose an answer, about:

  • How to make a more livable city.
  • How to get people moving around more easily.
  • How to lessen the need to move around in a city.

But today, this is a legitimate question and it’s asked in the first line of an article by researchers Ann Forsyth and Kevin J. Krizek in the journal Built Environment. They come to eight conclusions after a dozen pages (forgive my parenthetical commentary):

  • Cycling and walking are different (as I notice when I cycle and walk or watch those who cycle or walk). Promoting one doesn’t necessarily promote the other. (I’ll up the ante – many walkers are dissuaded from walking because of bicyclists.) Most people walk but much fewer cycle.
  • More study is required. We really don’t know what drives people from one mode of transport to another.
  • Cycling is more popular among people without driver’s licences or who don’t like driving. It’s also popular with new residents and those with low incomes. Young, old and female potential riders are tough to motivate.
  • No one is sure if education, rental bikes, more transit or car-free zones will motivate and, if motivational, what the result will be (more taxi rides, walking, staying home?).
  • Most people like shorter trips but not all. Many people like footpaths but not all. Some like separate bike facilities but not all.
  • There’s no silver bullet to get people walking and cycling. Accessible destinations are good but aesthetic paths are not so important.
  • Several measures at once may work: “infrastructure, community design, pricing and enforcement of traffic regulations.”
  • More public education may encourage more non-motorized travel.

Imagine if other professionals with a big potential impact on your life knew this little about the topic at hand:

  • Your lawyer would say, “You might obtain an easement on your neighbour’s land, get fined $10,000 or perhaps go to jail for two years.”
  • Your dentist might say, “We could pull the tooth, leave it there, put in a new row of implants or change your diet.”
  • Your architect’s advice would be, “This should look really nice if you like the look of these kinds of things or it might fall down. Either way, it will be expensive.”

Like it or not, we’re on the walking and biking bandwagon. I see little commentary on the implications for others in wheelchairs, with strollers, canes or other issues.

Single-digit percentages of the population bike in North America and that tail is wagging the dog. A bike takes up roughly the length of a car when parked or driven. With saddle bags and elbows, it’s about half as wide as a car and may take up a whole lane, depending on how it’s ridden. But it moves just one person. It may be more environmentally sound to move four or five people in a high-mileage clean diesel vehicle and leave the sidewalks to walkers.

How about asking your civic leaders, elected and appointed, why they’re doing what they’re doing in your city. Will it work? How do they know? How much will it cost? What will be the effect on others?

See what happens if you ask the right questions about urban transportation.

Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. 

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