What if cities had no sidewalks and everyone walked on the road? Or, for urban recreation, they walked on a few scenic trails? What if the occasional street had a three-foot-wide “walking lane” painted on the asphalt, between the moving cars and the parked ones?
Well, for starters, no one would walk much. A hardy few might brave the streets, but most would stop at “walk?! in traffic?!”
Fortunately, this car-head vision is fiction for pedestrians in most of Cascadia, but it’s not far from nonfiction for bicyclists. Regular bikers are those too brave or foolish to be dissuaded by the prospect of playing chicken with two-ton behemoths. Other, less-ardent cyclists stick to bike paths; they ride for exercise, not transportation. Bike lanes, in communities where they exist, are simply painted beside the horsepower lanes.
Cascadians react reasonably: “bike?! in traffic?!” And they don’t. “It’s not safe” is what the overwhelming majority of northwesterners say when asked why they bike so little. (As it turns out, it’s safer than most assume—on which, more another day.)
So what would Cascadia’s cities look like if we provided the infrastructure for safe cycling? What does “bike friendly” actually look like?
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Good bicycling infrastructure is something few on this continent have seen. It doesn’t mean a “bike route” sign and a white stripe along the arterial. It doesn’t mean a meandering trail shared with joggers, strollers, and skaters.
Bike friendly means a complete, continuous, interconnected network of named bicycle roads or “tracks,” each marked and lit, each governed by traffic signs and signals of its own. It means a parallel network interlaced with the other urban grids: the transit grid on road or rail; the street grid for cars, trucks, and taxis; and the sidewalk grid for pedestrians. It means separation from those grids: to be useful for everyone from eight year olds to eighty year olds, bikeways on large roads must be physically curbed, fenced, or graded away from both traffic and walkers. (On smaller, neighborhood streets, where bikes and cars do mingle, bike friendly means calming traffic with speed humps, circles, and curb bubbles.)
Picture a street more than half of which is reserved for people on foot, bikes, buses, or rail; on which traffic signals and signs, street design, and landscaping all conspire to treat bicycles as the equals of automobiles. This is what bike friendly—what Bicycle Respect—looks like.
Such “complete streets” are common in Denmark, the Netherlands, and other northern European countries. This photo is from Copenhagen, which has more than 200 miles of “bicycle tracks” and another 40 miles planned or under construction. (Photo courtesy of Jayson Antonoff, International Sustainable Solutions. See more photos here.) These tracks, which are typically above street grade and below sidewalk grade, can move six times more people per meter of lane width than motorized lanes of Copenhagen traffic. That’s right: because cyclists can travel close together, bike tracks have higher traffic “throughput” than do car lanes. Copenhagen has even synchronized its traffic signals—for bikers. An average-speed bike commuter going downtown will rarely see a red light.
What does bike friendly look like? It looks like a 60-year old and her granddaughter on two wheelers, getting the green light at each intersection they approach, while drivers brake to stay out of their way.
What does bike friendly look like? Watch this video to see. Though it’s Big Apple-centric, it includes footage of physically separated bike lanes from around the world. (Note: The eight-minute video buffers slowly; you may want to start it loading in another browser window and return to it after you finish reading. The image below is not a live link.)
(Aside: If you’re part of the YouTube generation and want to see more video of bike-friendly cities, there is plenty to choose from. The best I’ve found online are Copenhagen—City of Cyclists made by the city government and Amsterdam: The Bicycling Capital of Europe.)
Compared to these two-wheeled meccas, how bike friendly are Cascadia’s cities?
They’re not. Even leading cycling cities such as Corvallis and Eugene lack continuous, interconnected grids of physically separated bikeways. It’s true, Corvallis has painted bike lanes on almost all its arterials. Eugene has 33 miles of separate bike paths, and it lights many of them at night. But they’re more of a recreational resource than a transportation network, because they don’t form a grid. These towns are North American models, but they’re still a long way from bike friendly. You wouldn’t send your eight year old to school or soccer practice on these bike lanes.
The big Cascadian metro areas all lag these smaller cities, though they’re above average, by North American standards. Among them, Portland and Vancouver have invested more aggressively in bicycle infrastructure than has greater Seattle. And both are exploring new forms of bikeways to attract new riders, such as converting neighborhood streets into calmed, “bicycle boulevards” or greenways.
Vancouver, BC, is the cycling-est big city in the Northwest, and the City of Vancouver has been inserting bike routes into its urban grid at a pace of one mile every two months for almost two decades. It has emphasized waterfront bike paths and calmed, side-street bike lanes. (See, for example, this report [large pdf], especially pages 37-44.) The greater Vancouver area boasts an impressive 1,500 miles of designated bike routes, but most of them are just white lines in traffic.
The City of Portland has expanded its bikeways fast in recent decades, as shown in this animated map of bike routes over time. (Static maps [large pdf] courtesy of City of Portland, Office of Transportation. Thanks to Clark for animating.) It’s also shown in the chart below. The city has added them at a pace approaching one mile a month since 1980, outstripping even Vancouver. In fact, with 277 miles installed in Portland, the Rose City now claims more bikeway miles than Copenhagen.
The City of Seattle reports 67 miles of bike paths and lanes, plus another 90 miles of signed bike routes—a fraction of Portland’s network. The greater Seattle area has about 470 miles of paths and bike lanes, which is one third the total in greater Vancouver, a smaller, more-densely settled metropolis. The emphasis in the Puget Sound region, according to the Cascade Bicycle Club (large pdf), has been on building recreational paths shared by bikers and pedestrians, not building transportation infrastructure for human-powered travel. Tacoma is especially ill-fitted for bicycling at present, as the News Tribune recently reported.
Of course, raw numbers of bikeway miles are difficult to interpret. Researchers John Pucher and Ralph Buehler (pdf) adjusted reported bikeway length for population size in various North American cities, determining that Portland has 38 bikeway miles for every 100,000 residents, while Vancouver, BC, has 18 miles and Seattle has 9 miles. But these figures conceal as much as they reveal: a low value may reflect either fewer bikeways (for example, in Seattle) or higher population density (for example, in Vancouver).
Moreover, the quality of biking infrastructure matters as much as the quantity. Slapping a “bike route” sign on a road may qualify it for a city’s registry but doesn’t help cyclists much. Conversely, traffic calming on residential streets may make entire neighborhoods bike friendly without adding a mile to the bikeway count. Portland claims to have more miles of bikeways (277) than Copenhagen (204). But two-thirds of Portland’s are white lines on the pavement, while Copenhagen has an integrated, continuous network of physically separated bike tracks. Consequently, Copenhagen’s bike “mode split”—the share of all trips taken by bike—is ten times higher than Portland’s.
Cascadia is no novice at building bike-friendly cities, but we may be no more advanced at the art than apprentices. Still, our intentions are good. Take, for example, the City of Seattle’s Bicycle Master Plan—an official policy document that’s in the final stages of public comment and review. The plan will guide the cyclo-fication of the city over the next decade. If fully implemented, the plan will bump the bikeway count up to 452 miles and put bike lanes on 62 percent of arterial streets—reaching within a quarter mile of 95 percent of city residents. The plan doesn’t envision groundbreaking on northern European-style bike tracks, but it does raise the bar in Cascadia’s largest city, setting it on a trajectory to catch up with its neighbors.
The question is, which Cascadian city will push on into the realm of true bike friendliness—of true Bicycle Respect? Doing so may not be politically easy, because in most cities, it will require taking street space away from cars and trucks and converting it to separated bikeways. The benefits will be immense and immediate, because bicycles are clean, healthful, democratic, fun, and affordable for all classes.
But who will lead the way?
Until some city does, until we can see “bike-friendly” right here in Cascadia, most northwesterners will continue to say, “bike?! in traffic?!”
(Thanks to Deric Gruen, who did research for this series.)