I Wanna Ride My Bicycle

Biking, as I’m sure many of you guys’ll agree, is something that most people have more feelings than facts about. Attitudes toward biking range widely and debates over shared roads are often surprisingly emotionally charged. From bike culture warriors to angry drivers, frustrated walkers to hesitant supporters, nearly every traveller is poised to defend their point of view armed with little more than anecdotes, questionable statistics, and an axe to grind.

No matter where you stand on the issues that bikers and pedestrians bring with them, it’s clear that there’s got to be some way to fix the problem. That’s where the Alliance for Biking and Walking comes in. “In order to improve something,” their 2012 Benchmark Report says, “there must be a way to measure it.” Their report is the third in a biennial publication that looks for trends in transportation and uses that information to advocate for change on the roads.

With support from the Center for Disease Control and the Federal Highway Administration, the Alliance issued their third report on the state of “people powered” transportation in the U.S. Their findings revolve around usage, demographics, safety, education, and spending, and highlight opportunities to increase bike and pedestrian traffic throughout the country. The Alliance’s ambitious five year plan hopes to increase walking and biking from 12% to 33% of all trips made. While it seems like a lofty goal, it just might be more attainable than you’d think. Nearly half of all trips in the U.S. are less than 2 miles long — a distance that can be covered in less than 15 minutes on a bike. The opportunity for improvement is huge: in 2012 87% of those trips were made by car.

And why wouldn’t they be? Since the 1940s, the United States population has steadily crept out of cities and into sprawling suburbs. When thousands of  soldiers came home at the end of World War II, they looked for homes in inexpensive suburban developments to start families. In the years following, more and more whites fled to the suburbs to escape rapidly integrating cities, taking economic growth and political interests with them. Fear of nuclear attack in the 1950s prompted the government to pour money into the federal highway system, making it easier than ever to expand beyond city limits. With low-density zoning keeping housing space separate from commerce in suburbs, more than half of the country remains dependent on cars for travel today.

The Alliance believes that with the right laws, education, and spending, biking and walking can be transformed into viable modes of transportation. They advocate for the creation of “complete streets” — streets that are safe and comfortable for all users — as a practical way to implement all three tools in the community. Right now, states spend 1.6% (which amounts to only $2.17 per person) of their federal transportation money on biking and walking. During the recession, this funding has been disproportionately affected by budget cuts; however the 2009 stimulus bill did allocate $750 million for biking and walking projects.

While funding for complete streets helps make travel easier for those who choose to bike or walk, some wonder whether they’re beneficial for — or even available to — those who have to. One of the drawbacks of quantitative research is that it leaves so much information open to interpretation. We know that bikers and pedestrians share roughly the same demographic characteristics when it comes to income and race and that men bikers outnumber women by 3:1, but we still don’t know why. Are these people riding for their health, for the environment, for their wallets, for convenience, or because it’s their only option? It’s this lack of information that’s spurred debates in nearly every city that’s tried to implement a new plan for people powered transportation.

Perhaps what’s really needed is a reinvention of our infrastructure. We need more than just a plan for streets, we need a shift away from insular suburbs. Something that moves us out of our car bubbles and onto our feet. Maybe you’ve noticed the difference you feel when you bike through a neighborhood you’ve only ever driven through; suddenly it becomes impossible to ignore the people and places you pass every day. And that’s important. If complete streets are what we’re aiming to create, they need to be made available to everyone, not just the people with the political and economic power to demand them in their communities. By ensuring that funding goes to all neighborhoods, biking programs can work to depoliticize and promote and what is, at its core, a cheap, clean, and convenient way to get around.

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Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 308 articles for us.

27 Comments

    • I know quite a few bikers who’s parents never taught them how to bike, and instead got help from friends in order to learn how. Some of them refuse to do anything but biking now! Not learning as a child ain’t that great an excuse :p

  1. Cyclists need a lobbying effort equal to the auto industry’s lobbying effort. The issue here is perception. Most people see a person on a bicycle and think. OH! he is poor and just another drunk. With all the rodies and their $6,000 carbon fiber road bikes out for a exercise session. Driving there cars to and from the roads they ride have a different perspective. They want the path paved in gold or at least all the debris cleared so they wont get a flat.

    My wish is that drivers would stop running me off the road. This is not Froger

  2. I always wondered how the U.S. just refused to build streets for walking and biking. When I lived in TX we almost died every time we refused to take our car across the road from the mall to Walmart because it was not meant for pedestrians to do that. Let alone cyclists.

  3. THIS is how I got that damn Queen song stuck in my head today! One little look at Facebook during work —> see this headline —> several of my coworkers loathing me for getting the song in their heads, too.

    We did have a sing-along, though. That was nice.

    Uh, also, I love my bike.

  4. I wouldn’t mind riding to work (though I’m in Brisbane, Aus), apart from the whole being sweaty thing. Showers at work don’t really appeal for some reason… Plus sections that I would need to ride are on the road I think, which reduces the appeal even further…

  5. WOO BIKES!

    (The OFFICIAL CHEER of my university’s cycling club, and what I exuberantly shout at random cyclists. Or just in general.)

    Say it with me: WOOOO BIKES!

    I adore my bikes. They live inside. I’ve always biked to work, whether it was 15km away, or 200 steps away. Rain, shine, a few feet of snow… Bikes are the best.

  6. Queer culture and bike culture are pretty much the same thing in my town (Victoria BC). Last summer I was part of a “queers with gears” group called the Droupouts (get it?). Not queer-specific but pretty queer nonetheless are the midnight mystery rides and bike proms and naked bike rides…. lots of fun. also, where i live and work a car would be a big pain in the butt. i’ve never owned a car, and i live within walking distance of pretty much every service i need on a regular basis like groceries, a farmers’ market, pharmacy, coffee shops, ocean and big park, liquor store, etc., and a 10 min bike ride to work. there are also lots of great trails for bikes around here, and i like going bike camping in the summer. i realize that not many people in north america have this kind of situation due to messed up priorities of the last few decades of urban planning and fossil fuel loving, but there are places like this if you look for ’em. i totally love cycling, and encourage everyone who wrote about not knowing how to ride to get a friend to help, and to take a bike safety course so you’ve got skills and confidence on the roads.

  7. Two things keep me off a bike:

    1. Hills. HILLS.
    2. I am terrified of the drivers here in Sydney. They already try and kill me when I’m walking on the sidewalk. (I’m not even kidding, I’ve had two near misses on the sidewalk in the past year alone.)

    So it’ll be the bus for me.

    • Word. I used to live in Newtown (surprise!) and worked in Darling Harbour. The fastest way for me to get to work was ride my bike. Public transport = slow, crowded bus or trains many of which rattle thru Newtown because they are express from the West. But I only managed it a handful of times – Bridge Rd uphill, arrrgh, and everywhere and always scary drivers and narrow, narrow streets. Twas a bummer.

  8. having moved from a city with plenty of cyclists but little infrastructure or planning, where I never rode (Berlin) to the least bike-friendly place imaginable (Bay Area California suburbs), where I rode most everywhere out of necessity and then to a city made for cyclists (Munich), where I ride recreationally, mostly, I’d say mass transit options are the largest factor determining when and why I bike.
    But, having access to well-planned bike lanes (with bike traffic lights and bike traffic jams at rush hour in summer, which never cease to amuse me) is awesome!!
    The drivers here seem to be more respectful regarding cyclists too (both in comparison to Berlin and CA), though that may just be their fear of getting the paint scratched on their fine luxury automobiles.
    Also: LOVE cargo bikes! Really wish I had one for current move – subway is great, but when you’ve got heavy boxes, extra flights of stairs are no fun.

  9. My city (just south of LA) is incredibly bike-unfriendly. It may have one or two bike lanes on its major streets. I fight the urge to curse roughly every 200 feet at reckless distracted drivers, oblivious pedestrians, and unsloped curbs. Fortunately, riding for me is more of a hobby and a way to get out and exercise rather than a mode of transportation BUT I feel for those who have to rely on biking to get around; I see them every day in the street getting too friendly with traffic.

    Some of the nearby beach cities, at least down close to the strand, are much easier to navigate on a bike…especially Long Beach, which has actual bike lanes in its streets.

    But I very much like the Alliance’s idea of “complete streets.” The gradual shift toward achieving communities that foster a safer environment for those getting around without an engine–on foot or on any number of wheels–is actually viable. Thanks, Laura, for sharing!

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