Maura Kelly: US cities are becoming more bike-friendly

After lagging behind Europe for years, the United States is finally starting to catch up when it comes to making life better for bicyclists. In a country that’s increasingly troubled by traffic, obesity and – perhaps worst of all – climate change, that’s great news.

Two cities in particular have been leading the way. Portland, Oregon has seen a 400% increase in bike traffic in the last 20 years. And since 2000, the city has installed more than 200 additional miles of bike lanes, bringing the total number close to 300. Not coincidentally, an estimated 16% of Portlanders currently use two wheels to get to work.

Davis, California is the only other US locale besides Portland that the League of American Bicyclists has designated as Platinum-rated for bicycle-friendliness. While it isn’t as hip as its neighbour to the north, Davis has been a supreme bike city for even longer – it actively began to incorporate cycling into its transportation infrastructure in the 1960s. Back then, as the city notes on its website, its “commitment to a multi-modal transportation network was simultaneously hailed … as both crazy and visionary.” If only every city was so insanely brilliant.

But Davis hasn’t been, um, coasting on its history. In the last 10 years alone, it has spent over $14m on bicycle projects, and now Davis has bike lanes on approximately 95% of its arterial streets. The locals love it. They own more bikes than they do cars, and use them for 17% of all trips they make. “What’s more, Davis pioneered the use of bike lanes and bicycle-only traffic signals in the US,” says League president Andy Clarke. As if that wasn’t enough, the city logo is – you guessed it – a bike.
Most other American cities have only gotten serious about cycling more recently. When I first started riding in New York eight years ago and tooled around the city on a bright blue 1970s Raleigh five-speed with a huge seat, I quickly discovered that bikers were clearly second-class citizens here, and that cycling was often more of a hassle – involving angry drivers, cabbies and pedestrians – than anything else. But today, as Clarke points out, local governments all across the country – from Alaska to Florida, from Maine to Washington – are starting to innovate and improve. Even in New York, which is not a place usually associated with initiatives that might be qualified as “crunchy granola”.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been pushing to make it a better biking city after a 10-year study of cyclist fatalities found that all but one of the 225 bikers who had died between 1996 and 2005 weren’t in bike lanes – and that 97% of those deaths involved riders who were not wearing protective headgear. The city promptly handed out 1000 free helmets, and then got to work implementing some long-term improvements. Since 2006, 110 miles of bike lanes have been added, and an additional 90 will be laid by next June. Between 2000 and 2006, the number of bike commuters increased by 100%, and the NY department of transportation is determined to double the count again by 2015. Of course, only 0.6% of all New Yorkers now bike to work.

Still, that’s progress – especially in a city of its size. It’s also about twice the national average. And, in the interest of encouraging cyclists and pedestrians, Bloomberg is conducting an experiment: During three Sundays this August, he’ll ban cars from a seven-mile path that will run from Brooklyn Bridge through Central Park to the Upper East Side. “If it works, we’ll certainly consider doing it again,” he has said.

Washington, DC, for its part, has successfully borrowed an idea from Europe. Its SmartBike pilot programme – a self-service rental system – will launch later this summer, becoming the first of its kind in North America, although similar efforts have long been popular in Spain, France and Scandinavia. “You can get a bike by swiping your credit card at a kiosk,” says Karen LeBlance, communications director for DC’s department of transportation. “And a chip in the handlebar recognises when the bike has been returned.” For only $40 a year, members can access bicycles at 10 stations throughout Washington’s downtown business area. The big catch is the scale of the project: only 100 bikes will be available. “But we’re already looking into expanding it!” says LeBlanc, acknowledging that there’s been a lot of interest.

Chicago is working on a similar but much larger project, which it hopes to launch as soon as possible – possibly even later this year, according to Chicago department of transportation spokesperson Brian Steele. The city’s mayor, Richard Daley, introduced an ordinance in February that increases penalties for motorists who endanger cyclists. And now, all wanna-be taxi-drivers must be trained on sharing the road with bikes before they can get their licenses.

Despite all the good news, however, the number of American bike-commuters is still puny compared to those in countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. “Even Canadian cities are way ahead of us – they have three times the level of bike use,” Clarke notes. One of the most common complaints Americans have about bike-commuting: they don’t want to be sweaty when they arrive at the office. But some forward-thinking corporations, like software developer Macromedia in San Francisco, are installing showers and lockers in their office buildings to encourage bike-commuting.

Other businesses are doing their part, too. The Discovery Channel, in Silver Spring, Maryland offers cash incentives to employees who buy bikes, for example. “One of our favourite companies is Humana – a Louisville, Kentucky health insurance company that started a bike-sharing programme for its staff,” says Clarke. If every corporation did its part to keep its workers out of their cars, it would only work in their favour. They’d have healthier employees who’d arrive at work energised, less stressed and – since they wouldn’t get caught in traffic all the time – probably a little earlier.

Nearly 100% of all trips beyond the home are still made by car in the United States – despite the fact that 40% of them are two miles or less. But now that gas prices are at all-time high, it’s the perfect time for Americans to start using two wheels more often than four. The only fuel that’s required? A few extra calories.

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