We have a ways to go before cycling is normalized in North American cities. Instead of cracking down on cyclist infractions, let's work on making it easier and safer to ride a bike in the first place.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 16, 2013
An article published this week in The Atlantic Cities tries to stake out a compromise between people who advocate for urban cycling and people who are annoyed by cyclists.
At issue is a double-edged policy by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel that increases both the fine for motorists opening their doors into the path of cyclists and for cyclists breaking the law. Under the ordinance, "dooring" will now carry a fine of $1,000 and cyclist infractions will range from $50 to $200.
The author of the Atlantic piece praises the move, arguing that cycling is becoming mainstream and that cyclists should therefore be brought into the fold of legal norms.
I am truly sick, at this late date, of people wanting to have it both ways: calling for protected bike lanes and a bike-share system, demanding that cops step up enforcement when it comes to cars, and then blithely salmoning up a major thoroughfare and expecting everyone look the other way.
There is a price to be paid for trying to move beyond the life-threatening rodeo days of cycling in major American cities. It's called civic responsibility. Playing by the rules. Making nice. Whatever you want to call it, it may mean that you're going to have to give up your identity as a special person who does some special activity known as cycling.
The argument rests on two premises: that cycling infrastructure has evolved to the point that it meets the needs of cyclists and that cycling itself has increased to the point that it has become normalized.
First of all, it must be said that Chicago has been doing some impressive things to promote cycling. Its Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 [PDF] is big, ambitious and fast in its implementation: 1,040 km (645 miles) of on-street bikeways, up from the current 320 km (200 miles); 160 km (100 miles) of physically protected bike lanes by 2015; safe, accommodating neighbourhood bike routes on residential streets like Portland's Greenways; a new bike share this summer with 4,000 bikes at 400 stations; and dedicated bike infrastructure within 800 m (0.5 miles) of every resident.
Kinzie Street Protected Bike Lane, installed in 2011 (Image Credit: Chicago Cycling Program)
Chicago has been slowly developing its bike network since the early 1990s. In 2001, Chicago was considered one of the best cycling cities in the United States, which isn't saying much, but at the time any commitment to cycling was pretty progressive.
Those early plans produced measurable results: from 2000 to 2010, Cycling more than doubled as a percentage of commuting trips in Chicago, from 0.5% to 1.3%. This compares with 0.8% in New York, 0.9% in Los Angeles, 3.5% in San Francisco and 6% in Portland.
(It is clear that higher rates of cycling have led to lower rates of cycling injuries, and this pattern has held true in Chicago as well, as the number of injuries has increased much more slowly than the number of cyclists. For comparison, in New York the number of injuries fell by three quarters during the time the number of cyclists quadrupled.)
Today, Chicago has 320 km of bike lanes, about 30% of the network it hopes to have completed by 2020. That compares to approximately 15,000 lane-km in its automobile street network. So even at buildout, Chicago's bike lane network will be only 6% of the size of its vehicle lane network. Today, Chicago's bike lane network is a piddling 2% of its vehicle lane network.
If the cycling modal share of commuting continues to grow at roughly the same rate as the network share, cycling will reach approximately 6% of total commuting trips by 2020, similar to the share Portland enjoys today.
Compare the City of Amsterdam, which increased its cycling modal share from 33% in 1990 to 47% in 2008 (and from 39% to 62% in the downtown core). Amsterdam's 800,000 residents now cycle an amazing 2 million km a day.
The City of Copenhagen has also made impressive gains in cycling share, rising to 37% city-wide and 55% in the downtown core - and also through continuous improvement rather than merely a legacy of past decisions.
In fact, a large number of European cities boast cycling shares of more than 10%, from Avignon and Bordeaux in France through Dresden, Tubingen, Munich and Munster in Germany to Basel and Bern in Switzerland and, of course, the legendary cities of the Netherlands and Denmark.
Now those are cities where cycling has been entirely normalized, yet policy continues to drive cycling rates upward through more and better infrastructure.
Chicago may be among the most bicycle-friendly cities in the United States, but it doesn't come anywhere close.
Research from Portland into why people do or don't ride bicycles suggests that there are four broad categories of cyclist:
Four Types of Transportation Cyclists in Portland (Image Credit: City of Portland)
By this measure, Chicago has made modest inroads into attracting the second category of potential cyclist: enthusiasts who will ride on bike lanes. However, it still has a long way to go before it even begins to attract the third category.
In other words, the cyclists on Chicago streets today are still made up of the hard core of "road warrior" cyclists and a small fraction of those people who are enthusiastic about cycling but want dedicated bike lanes before they try it.
Cycling cannot be reasonably considered to be normalized when its two principal constituencies are not broadly represented, let alone the more fearful majority.
So we know infrastructure and mode share are way behind more progressive cycling cities, but naysayers continue to drift into moralism over whether cyclists "deserve" bicycle infrastructure when they don't obey the law.
The most obvious response, of course, it to point out the double standard that motorists also routinely break the law, but no one's saying we should stop building roads until drivers begin stopping at stop signs, signalling turns and obeying the speed limit.
It seems clear that most of the people pointing out cyclists flouting the law are doing so because they consider cycling a nuisance and an obstacle to obstruction-free driving.
There are still several tangible reasons why the best approach to cycling does not entail a false middle ground of tit-for-tat punitive enforcement in North American cities (this applies even more to Hamilton than it does to Chicago):
We're still nowhere near having a network of cycling infrastructure that is adequate to encourage lawful cycling. With a better, more continuous bike lane network, a) it will be much easier and safer to cycle lawfully, b) many more people will ride bikes, and c) the presence of more cyclists on the road will itself help to normalize lawful cycling for everyone.
Today, the laws governing cyclist activity are slightly different than for drivers, but there should be additional changes to more accurately reflect the balance of risks and benefits of riding a bike, e.g. the Idaho stop. Rules for cyclists should take into account both the physics of getting a human-powered vehicle moving from a full stop and the actual measured risk of a cyclist rolling through a stop sign.
The risk of harm from cyclists violating laws is orders of magnitude lower than the risk from drivers violating laws. Allocating police budgets to targeting cyclists for enforcement is not an effective use of scarce policing resources.
Overall, the balance of regulatory subsidies and disincentives still overwhelmingly favours driving over cycling. Any measure that further disincentivizes cycling should be avoided without very good reason.
For now, and for the foreseeable future, there are no good reasons for us to focus our limited energy on enforcement rather than the more pressing job of filling in the gaping holes in our cycling infrastructure, which will actually do a better job of improving cyclist conformance.
Think of it this way: as long as cycling remains the purview of a tiny segment of risk-seeking outliers, risky behaviour will continue to predominate. The most effective way to make cycling more norm-based is to dramatically increase the size and breadth of the cycling population.
So let's stop moralizing and commit to doing what is actually proven to work instead of what feels good and plays well with drivers.
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