Building a Culture of Bike Safety.

15 May

In my career I’ve spent so much time thinking about cars, that I’ve overlooked the bicycle…until now.

After joining Tindale-Oliver & Associates as an urban designer this year I’ve become involved in the Multimodal Transportation Planning Team that designs bicycle and pedestrian master plans. It has been enlightening to understand the technical and data analysis that is required to make sure cyclists can get where they need to go safely. There are many factors to consider, including facilities, context-sensitivity, implementation, funding, and regional and local policies. It is a much more complicated process than you would expect.

Simultaneously, I have been settling into my life in Florida and have found myself for the first time using a bicycle as a form of transportation instead of a form of leisure activity. When I made this shift, my requirements and expectations as a cyclist completely changed. I have felt empowered to have been given the opportunity in certain parts of my city to be able to ride my bike from one destination to the other while feeling safe doing it. However, despite my increased interest in cycling, and my awareness of the detailed planning behind it, there is one gap that I believe still exists in bike planning, at least in Florida: actual safety vs. perceived safety.

This was an issue touched upon some at the CNU20 conference in sessions like “From Balanced Roads to TOD” and “Beyond the Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bike Safety,” but I felt it was not covered quite enough. The concept of perceived safety vs. actual safety  is a concept that filters through all layers of urban design. Similarly, pedestrians might be actually safe walking along a city street alongside lifeless buildings with blank walls. But they probably won’t feel safe because people need other people in close proximity when they are in a public space to feel comfortable. Therefore they won’t walk there. Similarly, while I might be actually safe riding my bike down a collector road in my neighborhood since I have a dedicated bike lane and two 10′ lanes of traffic, I do not feel safe. Therefore, I do not ride.

As it turns out, I am not unique. While cycling has become a big grass-roots movement through organizations like Pro Walk/ Pro Bike and The National Center for Bicycling and Walking, and is becoming a more expected form of transportation, there is an enormous gender gap among users. Nearly all the new riders on the U.S. roads in the last 20 years have been men between the ages of 25 and 64. Considering the demographics of U.S. citizens, that is a relatively small constituency that we are currently designing our streets for. So for all the investment made in making our streets more “complete,” how can we do this in a way that reaches out to more users?

A 2009 article in Scientific American states that there are two reasons for the gender gap: 1) women are more averse to risk than men, and 2) cycling to work will impede on women’s ability to conform to social norms, including makeup, hair, and hairstyles. The second reason is a big bite to chew, so let me concentrate on the first. I will say, however, that there are lots of ponytail wearing women (like me), who would hop on a bike if they felt safe. Jan Garrard, a senior lecturer in planning states, “If you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’—just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female.” I personally can’t remember the last time or if I’ve ever seen a woman on a bicycle on the Tampa streets.

Bicycle Lane - Woman Cycling to work

This cycle track is a less-risk-averse way to travel by bike. (Source: Monica Bradley) The second picture shows a woman cycling to work despite her need to comply with professional norms. (Source: kilthebird via Grist)

The first step is to substantially lower the risk of cycling, which will be done mostly through a change in infrastructure. Cycle tracks like the above example in New York City are becoming more popular in certain cities across the country. Because of the complete physical separation from the threat of cars, all users will perceive a lower threat to their safety. The problem besides the constant challenge of funding, is finding the right-of-way to accommodate them, especially in a car-centric culture like Florida. There will have to be evidence of a high enough level of ridership to justify cutting out a lane from a congested street. What we have is a chicken and the egg conundrum: there is not the required ridership now because a majority of 50% of the population doesn’t feel safe. A good compromise to this is allowing room for a physical separation between a one way bike lane and car traffic. Creative medians and plantings used in Denver is one example of this, and simply placing parallel parking between car traffic and the bike lane is another. (See photos below) And then, of course, there is the hope that as towns and cities go on the increasingly popular “road diets,” that they will provide scope for these facilities in addition to placemaking and pedestrian elements. With the right-of-way space to spare, hopefully these can serve as good evidential examples for more congested cities that are hesitant to turn that car lane over.

safe cycling infrastructure in the right-of-way

Examples of safe cycling infrastructure in the right-of-way (Source: Live Downtown Denver, Streetsblog.org)

Many might say that building a bike culture is more than just infrastructure. And they would be right. But Billy Hattaway from the Florida DOT said to me this past week that infrastructure is an integral piece, and if we don’t improve bike lanes to cater to a larger part of the population, we might lose the justification to have bike lanes at all. I agree with him.

The second step is to get more riders. In “Beyond the Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bike Safety,” with Wesley Marshall from the University of Colorado, he showed that evidence proves that the more cyclists there are, the more safe it is to bike. There is a belief by some transportation planning engineers that more cyclists and users in the road will make it unsafe, but “safety in numbers” is true. This is for a couple of reasons: 1) people feel more comfortable doing an activity that they see other people doing, and 2) drivers are more aware of cyclists since they see them more often, in other words, they are on the lookout for them. Of course, infrastructure supportive of biking culture will play a part in this, but Marshall argues what’s even more important are land use patterns.

This takes us to the third step. Land use is instrumental in making cycling or walking a viable and efficient transportation choice for users. First of all, people will only choose cycling as a mode of transportation if it is convenient and efficient. Ridership in parts of the city without mixed-uses and with low density will be low compared to more urban areas with many commercial/residential/institutional uses nearby and close together. Riding to a local grocery store to get a gallon of milk is realistic. Riding to a Wal-Mart for your weekly shopping is not. But Marshall’s research showed that the biggest aspect of achieving bike safety is the intersection density. The more intersections there were in a development, the safer it was for riders. At first thought this might go against common sense because intersections are the sites of many crashes, but more connectivity = slower speeds = more awareness. Connectivity also allows for more mixed-uses and higher densities. Many cities put their resources into developing recreational cycling trails. While this is very admirable, as a “wanna-be” cyclist, I’d be a proponent of putting those funds into street design instead. Putting the infrastructure on routes where people go in their everyday lives, will lead to the most increase in ridership.

And the fourth step, although, I happen to think it’s the least important, is encouraging people to cycle by making it a pleasant experience. I mention this only because William Lindeke, a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, summarized his research quickly in the session “From Balanced Roads to TOD” as part of the CNU20 conference. When he interviewed regular cyclists about their favorite thing about choosing cycling as a form of transportation, their responses were: “I like to see how long I can go without holding the handlebars” and “I love the sound of my tires crunching acorns beneath my tires.” I will add to that by saying my favorite thing about riding my bike down Bayshore Blvd. is feeling the wind hit my face when it’s hot outside. Many people ride for many different reasons. This research is definitely worth being aware of when planners design cycling infrastructure.

So there are a lot of factors that need to come together to increase ridership and bridge the gender gap in cycling. As someone who would love to ditch my car in favor of my bike on my daily commute, the risk aversion holds me back. I think Billy Hattaway’s warning is very relevant in the future of bike/ped planning. Providing the lane along the side of the road is not enough: we must examine the evidence and psychology behind riding in order to make it a real choice for the majority of the population or we will find ourselves losing the justification to provide them at all.

This article can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

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4 Responses to “Building a Culture of Bike Safety.”

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