10 February 2018

"Cars Are So 2005"

No one wants more cars in cities.  Cars are so 2005.

So said a spokesman from Milan, Italy, where private vehicles were recently banned for six hours.  

Officials from just about any major city could, and would, have said something similar.  Even the most adamant opponents of congestion pricing admit that shoehorning more motorized vehicles into Manhattan streets will not do any good.  If nothing else, they're tired of sitting in traffic jams if they're not cognizant of the health hazards from pollution.

Likewise, even some of the folks who hate cyclists will admit, if grudgingly, that one of the best ways to keep more cars from funneling into the bridges and tunnels that lead to Manhattan is to move people's feet from gas pedals to bicycle pedals--or the pavement.

But, they will point out, people will pedal or walk to work, school or wherever else they need to go if those places are within, say, a couple of miles.  Some people simply don't have the time for longer bike commutes: If they have to spend an hour or more in a car or on a bus or train, how long will it take them to pedal to the office or classroom? On the other hand, there are many people for whom bicycle commuting would be feasible, but are afraid of (or just don't want to deal with) motor traffic.

The solution for that latter group seems to be incentives to cycle.  I'm not talking only about tax credits (which would be nice) or other "perks" governments or employers might provide; I also mean things--what some might call "infrastructure"--to make cycling more convenient and safe for those who would consider riding to work, school or shop.

One criticism of the bicycle infrastructure, such as it is, in the United States is that it is concentrated in major urban areas and serves mainly the young and affluent within them.  As an example, ports and bikes for Citibike, New York City's share program, are abundant in Manhattan south of 125th Street as well as in the Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods nearest to Manhattan.  But there are none in the Bronx or Staten Island, or in the outlying area of Queens and Brooklyn.

One reason for that is that planners don't seem to think bicycle infrastructure, however good its quality, would be of any benefit outside of large cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco.  If it takes an hour to drive to the nearest supermarket, according to their thinking, there is little hope of encouraging anyone to get out of their cars and onto bike.

That may well be true.  But there are other areas, such as those in and around college towns and other small- to medium-sized cities, where bicycle facilities might encourage people to ride.  One such area is a stretch of the Ruhr Valley in Germany, where a "bicycle autobahn" has been under construction.  It is more than half-finished; when it is complete, it will span 100 kilometers and connect three mid-sized cities (Duisberg, Hamm and Bochum) as well as four universities.

It's hard to believe that there aren't similar areas here in the United States.  An longtime Iowa cyclist has identified one such area in his backyard, so to speak.  Chuck Oestreich, in a recent editorial, said that Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, could be connected to Quad-Cities, which is--you guessed it--100 kilometers away. 

Now, he doesn't envision anyone commuting between those cities.  Rather, he sees people taking weekend excursions or riding instead of driving to places in between.  Even those of us who have no business in such places would, he says, have the opportunity to see the small towns and countryside, and thus get "a true taste of the real Midwest."

Moreover, Oestreich points out, a "bicycle interstate" could take cars off some of the highways--which, at certain hours of the day, become elongated parking lots.

And we can look at those traffic jams and sigh, "That's so 2005!"

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