How to Fix America’s Bad Bike Infrastructure

Drivers and cyclists don’t have to be angry and fearful. With smart planning, a city can design safe roads for all.

Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Last week Alderman Pat Dowell made a lot of news by proposing that all Chicago bicycles be licensed, at a cost of $25 dollars each, and that cyclists have to take a mandatory safety class. Dowell isn’t hostile to bikes; as John Greenfield points out, she’s done good work on infrastructure here and has supported a youth bike camp. Nonetheless, the idea was greeted with skepticism, and I don’t expect it to go anywhere, because other cities have tried it and found the expense of enforcement greater than the revenue it generates. (The city’s efforts to license dogs, a more logistically reasonable comparison than cars, have been extremely modest.)

More interesting to me was the reaction, and how it reflects on cycling here and in American cities. The usual complaints about cyclists arose:

“Those 20-somethings who zip through red lights know what the rules of the road are. They just don’t follow them"—from Greg Hinz, who is a cyclist himself (drivers aren’t the only people who complain about cyclist behavior).

“We’re not suggesting the cars should own the road simply because they were here first, but we do think the cyclists joining those cars on the road ought to observe the same rules. It’s confounding how many will argue point blank that no, they shouldn’t."—the Trib editorial page, arguing in favor of the tax.

“And bicyclists — especially the aggressive kind with their spandex shorts, cleats and wild yellow shirts, zipping through red lights — they don’t pay a dime.”—John Kass, trolling for traffic.

The presumption is that the “mayhem” downtown, to use the Trib edit page’s word, is the inevitable result of aggro cylists not following the same rules as cars. And, yeah: a number of cyclists break the rules, which frustrates drivers and other cyclists. And if nothing changes, waiting for cyclists to change their behavior is about the best we can do—an assumption that we rarely make in other forms of public policy. But it’s the assumption inherent in the Tribune’s editorial, and it’s a familiar one.

But what happens if you take a step back, and consider the possibility that such behavior is an inevitable result of the infrastructure we have? It’s a shared car-bike infrastructure that satisfies no one, encourages and even causes risky interactions, and self-selects for risk-taking. And it’s absolutely not inevitable—it’s the result of decades of confused policy, based on the essential flaw that bikes should be treated and operated like cars, being confusingly remedied. Other countries took a different route decades ago, and none do it better than the Dutch.

The Dutch did get an early start—or a late one, rather. Peter Furth, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University in Boston and an expert on Dutch cycling policy and history, explained to me that Holland was a poor country, and embraced the car much later than other developed countries. Cycling never collapsed, as it did in America in the early 20th century, and by the time they began building modern road systems, they included separate cycling infrastructure, and continued to do so when rebuilding after World War II.

This post shows images of Amsterdam in the 1950s, a time when the American cyclist was an alien species, making clear how critical cycling was to Dutch transportation. (There’s not a “cycling culture” there; it’s just how people get around.) In particular, according to Furth, cycling was the most common form of transportation for junior-high and high-school-age students, which would be critical to reviving Dutch cycling.

But if you go down to the bottom, there’s a graph demonstrating how they weren’t immune to the postwar Western world. In the 1950s, cycling was already in decline. In the 1960s and 1970s, it bottomed out as the Dutch embraced cars. And cyclists began to die.

That time was a turning point for transportation in both the Netherlands and America. The Dutch organized over cycling culture, and if you think American cyclists are angry, you haven’t seen “Stop de Kindermoord”—a rallying cry that translates to “Stop the child murder,” which began as the title of a column by a Dutch journalist whose child had been killed. The Dutch could honestly say this, since cycling was a prevalent form of transport for children, as it remains today, but the framing is still shocking from an American perspective. Presented as a life-and-death scenario, the Dutch began developing the best cycling infrastructure in the West, one in which safety was paramount, and one that recognized that the bicycle is utterly different from a car.

Meanwhile, the seed of Dutch cycling was planted in the United States, if very briefly. Californian cities like Davis, Palo Alto, and Berkeley began to implement Dutch-inspired infrastructure. But then a funny thing happened—arguably the original sin of cycling in America. A British-born Californian traffic engineer named John Forester, the son of C.S. Forester, began to advocate for a concept called “vehicular cycling,” popularized in the book Effective Cycling (recently re-released by MIT Press).

The concept is simple: bicycles are a form of vehicle and should act as one, with deference to cars’ greater speed but with confidence in the cyclist’s right to be there. Forester developed behavioral rules for cyclists to follow with consistency. They’re intuitive and sensible for biking on a street without any cycling infrastructure, and tend to be the basis for laws governing cyclist behavior.

But Forester’s belief in vehicular cycling was so strong that he reflexively opposed the development of bike infrastructure, especially the separated cycle paths so prevalent in Europe. Forester’s belief that separate cycle tracks caused drivers to lose respect for cyclists (“cycling inferiority”) became enshrined in American engineering guidelines through AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials), which for decades set the guidelines for cycle infrastructure in the U.S. “One of the reasons that you should not have separate facilities is that you’ll be ‘harrassed,’ according to AASHTO,” says Furth.

And “harrassed” is exactly the word that AASHTO guidelines use. “Bicyclists using the roadway may be harassed by some motorists who feel that in all cases bicyclists should be on the adjacent path.”

Despite the lack of scientific support for vehicular cycling—Davis, California, remains both one of the most popular and safest places to bike—the acceptance of vehicular cycling by AASHTO led to the minimal facilities you see throughout American cities, and arguably selected for a certain type of cyclist: young, fast, and experienced, the kind of cyclist who is willing to “take the lane” while surrounded by cars traveling at two or three times his speed (and in America, it’s statistically likely to be a young man). The elderly, parents biking with children, and children themselves, all frequent cyclers in the Netherlands, are much less likely to be able or willing to act as a vehicle on fast, high-traffic streets.

Even Furth bought into vehicular cycling initially. When I told him that the biggest impediment to cycling for me wasn’t safety or weather but just the weariness of being wary all the time, Furth told me what happened to him when Boston built a cycle path on his way to work: “I read all the propaganda, the vehicular cycling stuff. I rode in that road for a year, a four-lane road, racing cars every day, until I thought ‘what are you doing, dummy? Why don’t you ride in the path?’”

When Furth began cycling in Holland, he initially brought over an American mindset: “For the first month I thought ‘these people are slow.’ And it lasted about a month. Then I discovered you could be thinking about other things.”

Rather than expecting much smaller, considerably slower bicycles to behave as cars, Streetsblog Chicago co-editor Steven Vance explained to me, the Dutch are cognizant of mass and speed when designing infrastructure and traffic laws. “Things that go slow don’t hurt each other,” Vance says. This is spelled out in the principles of Dutch transportation infrastructure: five principles of design quite different from the still-influential concept of vehicular cycling. For instance (emphasis mine):

Large differences in speed and mass of different road users in the same space must be eliminated as much as possible. Road users can best be forced to travel at lower speeds by road design. This works better than with signs. If crashes occur at lower speed differences they cause a lot less damage to the most vulnerable road user. Where speed differences cannot be eliminated types of traffic must be separated. On roads with higher speeds road users travelling in opposite directions should be separated by a division as well, to further eliminate conflicts. Cycle paths and pedestrians are always separated from these through roads, following the principle of homogeneity of mass as well as speed. Because of this principle the Dutch will never implement a combined bus/cycle lane as is common in some other countries. Instead there sometimes even are bus lanes separated from other motorized traffic because the mass of cars and buses do not match either.

Or, as Vance describes it, “mix if you can, separate if you must.”

The five principles also describe another assumption that’s very different from vehicular cycling: “Humans make errors and willingly or unwillingly break rules. This is a given that cannot be changed. So roads and streets should be designed in such a way that this natural human behavior does not lead to crashes and injuries.”

The principles of vehicular cycling are optimistic, and in my personal experience they’ve worked well for me—if you are alert, cautious, and predictable when cycling, following principles familar to drivers, it minimizes risk. There’s logic to it, if you presume a lack of infrastructure. But if someone makes an error or breaks a rule, whether the cyclist or the driver, the consequences can be catastrophic.

And their broader approach has worked, not just for pedestrians and cyclists, but for drivers as well:

The American emphasis on safety over the last several decades has led to a reduction in annual traffic fatalities from 44,000 a year in 1975 to 37,000 a year in 2008. This is an accomplishment to be proud of and is particularly impressive in light of our population growth over that period.

During the same period, however, the Dutch have reduced their fatalities from 3200 a year to 800. If we calculate the rate per 1000 people, the Dutch fatality rate is now only 40% of the American rate. This is remarkable, particularly when one considers that in 1975 the Dutch fatality rate was 20% higher than that of the US!

If we had achieved a similar reduction in fatality rates, our annual fatalities would drop to just under 15,000 a year—22,000 less deaths than we currently experience.

Progress is being made in the United States. NACTO, an urban-centric counterpart to AASHTO that Vance calls the “anti-AASHTO,” is becoming a stronger voice in infrastructure circles. While I hate throw obscure acronyms around, it matters: civil engineers rely on organizations like NACTO and AASHTO, and you can see the difference in Chicago and other cities.

But returning to the reaction to Pat Dowell’s proposal, the presumptions of vehicular cycling remain deeply ingrained: We’re not suggesting the cars should own the road simply because they were here first, but we do think the cyclists joining those cars on the road ought to observe the same rules.

In the absence of dedicated, thoughtful infrastructure, observing the vehicular-cycling-based laws of the road here in Chicago makes some sense. And despite the city’s considerable progress in recent years, much of the city has no or minimal bike infrastructure.

But it’s worth considering the long-term effects of relying on this as public policy—infrastructure that encourages speed and risky interactions while selecting for commuters with higher risk tolerance—and how much of the “mayhem” and irresponsibility cyclists and drivers both decry can be attributed to poor planning and not man’s fallen state. And, eventually, whether we should rely on an organic increase in the common sense of individual commuters, or common-sense infrastructure.

 

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