I’ve been an around-town bicyclist for nearly 30 years. For most everyday trips in New Haven, the bike is my favorite way of getting around, winter, spring, summer, or fall.
Until recently, however, I hadn’t written all that frequently about bike planning in New Urban News because I wasn’t sure that cycling was in tune with the campaign for walkable cities and towns. In particular, I was concerned that the push for bike lanes could result in wider streets or bigger setbacks for buildings, both of which can detract from the pleasures of urban settings.
Progress over the past couple of years has now persuaded me that biking is indeed good for urbanism. The new SmartCode Bicycle Module (see story here) is a case in point. Produced by Mike Lydon with help from Tony Garcia and Zachary Adelson, the bike module takes an intelligent, discriminating approach to the question of how to fit space for cycling into urban environments.
A major virtue of the bike module is that it distinguishes between what should be done with existing, overly wide roadways; what should be done in older urban places and new traditional neighborhood developments; and what should occur in more outlying areas.
Often it makes sense to eliminate one travel lane from an excessively broad road and use that space to create a bike lane on each side of the road. In tighter urban settings, on the other hand, it’s often best to have bikes and motor vehicles share the street, and not reserve a lane solely for cyclists. “Sharrows” — markings that indicate that a lane is to be shared by bicycles and motor vehicles — can identify preferred bike routes in urban areas without making the pavement wider.
Terri Musser, who has done bike planning for Charlier Associates in Boulder, Colorado, points out that “bicyclists on urban streets help keep cars moving at human-scale speeds.” This makes the environment calmer and safer for everyone, pedestrians included. It may also reduce the noise of traffic and thus benefit sidewalk cafes, upper-story apartments, and other desirable elements of the urban scene.
The results have been impressive in cities that have created complete bike networks, including plentiful bike parking. Boulder is one of the leaders. An estimated 30 percent of all trips in Boulder are made on bike or on foot, reports Jim Charlier. The 10,000 people who work in downtown Boulder make about 6 percent of their trips on bicycles. “That saves about 450 parking spaces at $30,000 apiece,” Charlier points out. “That’s fairly significant.”
Keeping drivers alert
Portland, Oregon, is another leader. My New Haven neighbor Bill Kaplan, who lived in Portland for many years and frequently returns there, observes: “Driving in Portland is different from what it was when I lived there, which was up until 1986. Now, there are so many bikes on the roads that car drivers must be constantly alert for them. It makes you drive differently … people in general don’t try to speed up and pass bikes in narrow spaces (for instance, when there is a parked car by the side of the road). Instead, cars mostly just slow down for the bikes and pass when it’s safe.”
As Boulder and Portland have discovered, there’s a logic to working holistically — pursuing strategies that make streets and roads serve pedestrians, bicyclists, the elderly, the disabled, and neighborhoods as well as motorists. In Portland there’s an abundance of traffic-calming devices, which work to the advantage of pedestrians, cyclists, and neighborhoods.
Bike- and pedestrian-serving designs may slow motorists at times, but they make a city livelier and more humane. People sense that the streets are not enemy territory. Musser regards even mundane components, such as artistically designed bike racks or interesting bikes, as enhancing the public ream. “Bicycle parking facilities located within the ‘furnishing zone’ on sidewalks add to the urban clutter that makes street corridors appealing to people on foot,” she says.
So far, the new era of biking looks very encouraging.