04 March 2012

Bike Lanes Don't Make People Ride More

I have long suspected that the construction of bike paths and lanes has very little to do with how much cycling people actually do, at least here in the US.

Of course, my belief was based on nothing more than my own observations and experiences.  One thing I've always noticed is that racers and dedicated cyclists tend to ride whether or not there's a bike lane, or even a well-paved road that doesn't have much traffic.  (The latter category includes routes departmentales, on which I did much of my cycling in France.)  On the other hand, there are lots of people who say they'd "love" to ride to work or for pleasure, but feel that "it's too dangerous" or that it's inconvenient.  Such people never seem to be swayed--with good reason, I've come to realize--by the construction of a bike lane, even if it takes them door-to-door from their homes to their workplaces or wherever they shop or entertain themselves.

Don't get me wrong:  I appreciate the efforts of governments to improve conditions for cyclists.  As an example, I am very happy that lanes were constructed on the Queens side of the Edward I. Koch/Queensborough/59th Street Bridge. I often cross that bridge. Its entrance at Queens Plaza is also a conduit for traffic to and from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Long Island Expressway. Getting to and from the Bridge could be, until the construction of the bike lane, a harrowing experience.

On the other hand, I've seen a lot of poorly-conceived and -constructed bike lanes that were actually more dangerous for cyclists than the nearby roadways.  Or, they simply went from nowhere to nowhere and were therefore not practical for any cyclist who actually had to go someplace.

To be fair, we have a lot of impractical bike lanes and paths in the US because we don't have the history of cycling that many European nations, Japan and other places have.  Or, to be more precise, our cycling history was interrupted for about three generations or so.  The result is that American transportation experts and urban planners are still learning things their French, Dutch, British, German and other counterparts have long known.

Funny that I should mention the Dutch.  They have long been seen as the avatars of bicycle commuting.  It's been a while since I've been to Amsterdam, but I'm told that one still sees bikes everywhere in that city.  In spite of the increasing numbers of Dutch who drive, the bicycle remains one of the, if not the, main means of transportation in that city.

I'm thinking about what I've just mentioned because I've stumbled over some studies that argue, in essence, that what's happened over the past two decades in Amsterdam parallels what I've seen in New York and other parts of the US.  That is to say:  Ridership has almost nothing to do with the construction of bike lanes and paths.

According to the studies cited, the (relatively small) increase in the number of cyclists over the past two decades has as much to do with the increase in population (fueled more by immigration than, shall we say, the noncycling recreational activities of the Dutch) as anything else. There has also been an increase, however slight, in the length of cyclists' commutes and the distances ridden for other purposes.  The authors of the studies in question argue that the increase really has had to do more with the warmer-than-normal weather in the Netherlands during that time than it's had to do with other factors.  

Of course, one can find flaws in that argument.  The most obvious is that other nearby countries (e.g., France) have also seen unusually warm weather, but no increases in cycling, during that time.  Also, whatever increases in population the Netherlands have seen are mainly a result of immigration from the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia and Suriname.  If anything, those immigrants are actually less likely, for a number of reasons, to ride bikes to work or weekend picnics than the descendants of longtime Dutch people.  

Still, the argument that bike lanes and paths have little or nothing to do with whatever increases in cycling or the number of cyclists are quite plausible, especially if you understand what motivates cyclists to ride.  One might say that there simply isn't that much room for cycling to grow in the Netherlands, which is one of the most bike-intensive nations on Earth.  There, even more than in other places, bike paths won't have much impact on who rides and doesn't ride, and when they ride and don't ride.  

Still, I think that those studies hold important lessons for American planners.  One is that simply constructing bike lanes isn't going to get people to forsake their cars and pedal to the Home Depot.  Rather, there has to be a cultural as well as a physical infrastructure that supports cycling as a practical alternative to driving. That is what the Dutch have long had and the US will need another generation or two to develop, if indeed such a thing will develop on this side of the Atlantic.


  1. It has to work for people better than driving works. Bike paths or lanes are only one potential element of what a person needs to take up cycling. I keep going back to an essay written more than a decade ago by Cliff Slater in Honolulu, "Why We Commute by Auto". Simply put, people drive because it works for them better than the alternatives. In order to bike, biking has to work for that same person's lifestyle choices better than driving. I am sure there are a few people whose ONLY objection is being traffic averse, but that might get you from 0.9% to 1.2% mode split. One has to add other drivers, such as inconvenient or nonexistant parking, high costs of driving, close enough range, and a lifestyle that doesn't seem to require a car. Or, people who just want to ride a bike.

    "Build it and they will come" is a gross simplification.

    Good essay. Thanks.

  2. Khal--Thank you for your comments. You seem more familiar with research methods than I am, and you hit the nail on the head when you said, "In order to bike, biking has to work for that same person's lifestyle choices better than driving." That is the challenge here in the US, even in cities like New York: So much of the physical infrastructure, as well as the social and economic construction of this country, is skewed toward the automobile.

    In Europe, homes, workplaces, schools and stores are closer together than they are in the US, and gasoline is actually subsidized to a greater degree in America than it is in Europe or Japan. Unless those things change, cycling won't be as "convenient" as driving for most people, save in a few urban enclaves.

  3. I do not know of a single person who whines about there being no bike lanes that I believe would actually ride to work if there WERE bike lanes. The excuse would merely change. It is a combination of convenience, cost, social norms, and inclination that are the key. Obviously, the three of us have an abnormal inclination.

  4. Steve, I won't speak for you or Khal. But more than a few people have told me I have an "abnormal inclination"! It certainly makes life interesting sometimes.