Infrastructure for Cycling

Infrastructure for Cycling

I’ve said form decades that bike infrastructure is (in economics terms) a lagging rather than a leading indicator.

In plain language, decent numbers of riders lead to infrastructure, but that in turn leads to only marginal changes.

IMO- what drives urban bicycle use are external factors like economics, demographics and trendiness. Right now we’re on the third ripple from the WWII baby boom, so there are larger numbers of young single adults, and young childless couples. This is the age group that is most likely to live downtown and go carless. Some years down the road (no pun) many of these will have kids, move to the burbs, and buy some sort of car.800px-Bicycle_Parking_Lot_Niigata
Economic factor like a slow (no) real growth economy and high fuel, and insurance costs are also making people delay buying cars. Lastly, while bicycling, especially urban cycling seems cool right now, this has happened before and if history is any guide will blow over to an extent.

I hate to be so pessimistic, and actually expect that discounting cyclical trends, that cycling will remain a larger part of the urban landscape.

OTOH- many of the stats being trotted out to show that infrastructure leads to ridership, are only showing a parallel, not causative relationship.

I might also point out that, like many things, bicycling suffers from the success plants the seeds of failure mode. Greater number of bicyclists, lead to greater numbers of accidents. Actually not only do the number rise, but for a while so do the rates while the percentage of newer riders is higher. These accidents eventually catch the eye of the media who start reporting them creating the illusion of an epidemic. Eventually the message gets out that bicycling is dangerous (despite the fact that as more riders gain experience the accident rate is actually declining) and politicians feel they must do something (doing meaningless unnecessary things is how they get re-elected). Eventually the numbers revert to a more historical level setting the stage for the next generational cycle.

My only hope is that this particular cycle doesn’t reach the point where folks talk seriously of things like helmet regulation.

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A few comments that are recurring features here in A&S got me wondering if there

really is a direct, provable correlation between building bike-specific infrastructure and people changing their primary means of transportation over to bikes from, well whatever it is noncyclists use. Obviously, completely answering that is a bit beyond my pay grade, to quote a famous person. However, I thought I would start by looking at the city that almost everyone agrees is THE leader in infrastructure building in the U.S., Portland, Oregon, and see how that is going.

After digging through an immense, if expected, amount of PR, here’s where we find ourselves:

From the U.S. Census American Community Survey, here’s the percentage of Portland residents riding bikes to work:
2006: 4.2%
2007: 3.9%
2008: 6.0%
2009: 5.8%
2010: 6.0%
2011: 6.3%
2012: 6.1%

Let’s put that together with a little something from the Portland city government:

1. It’s called the saturation point. It applies to many if not most trends and/or products. No matter how fine, desirable, or valued a product you make… there is a limit to what percentage of the population will buy it. Is the bicycle commuter limited to 6, 8, or 22 percent the population? Honestly… NO ONE knows. But there is a point of saturation… where nothing will cause a continued increase.

2. Profit centric organizations have been reporting a drop in cycling sales (and use) since the peak of the 2009 great recession. The number I saw was 43 million cyclist in 2009 down to 39 million in 2012. That’s a drop of roughly 7%. Yet every city in America that has “invested” in alternate transportation reports continued increases in usage. There is a math problem for you!

3. The numbers are fudged! If the politician th

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at favored… and associated their name with… a public expenditure wants the project to look successful they will do what they can to cause that to happen. Of course… nothing lasts forever. But if you are compiling numbers and spitting out stats and your boss thinks the numbers should look… better. With a lack of provable data… the boss gets what he wants.

I’ve never been to Portland… but I have heard great things about the city… and I am sure it’s a fine community. But in the Midwestern city [near] where I live I’ve seen alternate transportation “investments” that seemed very suspicious. Even the most dedicated cyclists make comments regarding the soundness of the infrastructure.

People hoped and dreamed of human powered transportation centuries before Harry Lawson invented the “safety bicycle”. And not much has changed with the basic bicycle design since 1876. Back then… whether it was a Dandy Horse, or an Iron horse, penny-farthing, or safety bicycle… bicycles inspired the world.

In Harry Lawson day immigrants to America spoke of smelling America a full day before their ship arrived within sight of port. That’s how much odor the horse waste created. The fly populations were unimaginable to present day people. Residents of NYC wrote of not being able to smell food in summer months because of the overwhelming stench. Horse manure made its way into the drinking water. Life in the city with animal powered transportation was nearly unbearable.

Replacing horses with machines… was a dream. And with the creativity and investments of people from around the world. Solutions were found, machines replaced the animals. Although many people loved the horses… others loved bicycles. Many loved the steam powered trains and boats. Almost everyone loved the gasoline powered cars.

Some think we should turn back the clock and get a re-do for the bicycle. Since 600 million cars seem to have problems of their own. But… in my experience… going back… getting re-do’s… living in a simpler time… doesn’t ever happen. Iron… er.. mechanical horse-machines will always have a place in society. As much as I love cycling myself…. I also accept that human power will never dominate in the modern world.

There will be new and creative solutions. Fantastic and fascinating inventions. Bicycle paths… won’t alter that.

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