Time to put the pedal to the metal: Create bicycle-friendly cities

Copenhagen has invested about a third of a billion dollars in bicycle-friendly infrastructure in just the last decade. (Dave Harp)

My hope for America’s future? With any luck it’ll be a yawn.

Such a future begins with cities. About four in five of us already live in urban areas. Since the 1950s, U.S. cities with populations of more than a million people have increased from 12 to 53.

So cities, yes, but cities fit for people? The U.S. city of today is meant for cars, surely as the auto industry decades ago pushed laws to punish jaywalking — the term “jay” meaning a clueless bumpkin who dares impede motorists by walking outside the lines decreed by traffic engineers.

“Car habitat” accounts for about half to three quarters of the impervious cover — paved or otherwise hardened surfaces — in the urban-suburban landscapes around the Chesapeake Bay watershed, according to a study by the Center for Watershed Protection.

The focus of the study was water quality. It has been well-documented that impervious surfaces like highways, driveways and parking lots degrade streams and amplify the stormwater runoff that is a significant part of Bay pollution. But it was also telling about quality of life, nicely demonstrating what anyone who’s tried to hike or bicycle in developed areas well knows. Cars rule.

Cities can serve their pedalers and walkers a lot better. And in metropolises from Europe to South America many already do, as richly documented in a new book, Copenhagenize — The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism, by Mikael Colville-Andersen.

After the Arab oil embargoes of 1973–74 caused soaring fuel prices and gas rationing, nations like the Netherlands and Denmark, where Colville-Andersen lives, made commitments to favor bicycles over cars. In Copenhagen today, about 62 percent of people get to work or school by bicycle. Another 21 percent use mass transit, and the rest split evenly between driving and walking.

Last summer, I shared a beer with Dutch friends seated outside in the quiet, urban heart of Zwolle, their prosperous hometown of 124,000. It was quiet because cars are banned for more than a mile radius. Imagine that around the City Dock of Annapolis or your favorite urban spot.

“The bicycle is the most important and powerful tool in our urban toolbox for making cities better,” Colville-Andersen states. His city of 700,000 people, Copenhagen, has invested about a third of a billion dollars in bicycle-friendly infrastructure in just the last decade. This ranges from major bike bridges and (soon) a “bike interstate” from the suburbs to trash cans cleverly angled so passing cyclists can toss a coffee cup as they pass or streetlight posts placed for bikers to lean on while waiting at intersections.

The proof of success? My favorite is a full-page, color picture in Copehagenize. A young woman on a bicycle, dressed as if she’s commuting to an office job, pedals through a busy (with bicycle) intersection — yawning. “If you don’t see cyclists yawning in your city, then you’re doing something wrong,” the author notes.

The bicycle is a marvelous people mover, propelling a rider on flat roads around three miles with an energy expenditure equivalent to the calories in a large apple (100). It is non-polluting, quiet, good for your health and cheap.

None of the above, by the way, will get lots of people to give up cars for bicycling, the author explains. The key is to design cities so that a bicycle is the quickest, easiest way to get from point A to point B.

That’s not as impossible as you might think, even with our current car dominance and greater distances between destinations. About half of Americans live within 5 miles of where they work, Colville-Andersen says.

In a chapter of the book called Mythbusting, he takes on all the reasons bicycle naysayers cite: too hilly, too cold, too hot, too sprawling, bicycle thieves.

Don’t try to figure how everyone, everywhere can ride bikes all of the time, he says. Start with the low-hanging fruit, of which there’s plenty. Start with shifting the lens to “believing anything not massive and enclosed and fossil-fueled is the future.” That includes putting more onus on the automobile for cyclist safety, rather than targeting whether they have proper lighting, high-visibility (dorky) clothing, constant high alertness and helmets.

For example, if cars move at 20 mph, almost all bikers and walkers survive collisions or suffer no injury at all. At about 32 mph, though, the result is often injury or death (about 50–50). At 45 mph, you almost always die. In Sweden, Volvo has developed cars with protective exterior airbags.

U.S. cities don’t have to invent bicycle-friendly design. Virtually all of that work has been done in Europe and Brazil, and it is eminently transferable. Colville-Andersen’s firm has been doing such work worldwide for years, so he is no armchair enthusiast.

Yet he admits he is “not a cyclist in any sense of the word … just a modern city dweller who just happens to use a bicycle to get around because it is safe and efficient.”

What he is saying is that the typical cyclist here in the United States, who dons Spandex and all manner of other special gear, who rides mainly to see how fast or far they can go, is not the future, or at least not the mainstream.

The future is people who just want to get to work, to school, to the store and back — quickly, safely and with yawning ease. Our cities of the future should offer nothing less.

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.


Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay, including Turning the Tide and Island Out of Time. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University.

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