Part Two of a Response to How Cycling Can Save the World by Peter Walker
Peter Walker advocates that cities develop facilities for “mass cycling, the sort where, say 20 percent or even 30 percent of all trips . . . are made by bike [which] only happens when cycling becomes mainstream” (xi-xii). He writes with specific places as examples, including London where he lives, works, and rides his bike.
Lower Thames Street in downtown London is an ancient thoroughfare which in the 1960s was widened and made into “the sort of double-lane urban freeway so popular in that era, when the dominance of the car appeared absolute and forever” (viii). After the rebuild, only the most daring bike riders dared use it. Even Walker who had been a bike messenger in earlier years and continued to be “a reasonably confident rider” avoided Lower Thames Road after the rebuild.
Then came the decision to build two Dutch-style “Cycle Superhighways,” one of them on Lower Thames Road. Many Londoners scoffed at the idea, but when these two routes were opened in May 2015, they were deluged with cyclists. Now on these separated lanes, Walker writes, “I regularly wait at traffic lights amid a massed pack of two dozen or more cyclists.” Most of them are ordinary people, “older, younger, slower” than “the speedy young men riding rapid bikes” who used to be the main group of cyclists on the streets.
Although I have never seen a bicycle superhighway, I have no reason to doubt that they work the way that Walker reports. I see a little evidence while looking down from my apartment window and watching people riding the Cultural Trail in downtown Indianapolis. Not a superhighway, it is more like a super-sidewalk running alongside ordinary city streets, yet ordinary people on all kinds of bicycles use it for all kinds of trips—commuting to the office, buying groceries, shopping along Mass Ave, easy-going recreational rides, some with small children on trikes and bikes with training wheels.
Walker has persuaded me that creating networks of good cycle ways like the one on Lower Thames Road (and those in other cities he describes) would bring large numbers of people out on their bikes. I would probably use them, too—when they go to the places I want to go. I fantasize on how much better downtown Indianapolis would be if the Mile Square, with its geometrical grid, diagonal streets, and rich array of business and eating opportunities, would be redesigned in favor of ordinary people walking, riding bikes, and taking the bus.
For cycling to go mainstream, however, major challenges have to be met.
Designing bicycle-friendly streets: Walker writes that the foundational ideal is sustainable safety, which is definitively discussed in a 388-page guidebook written by Dutch traffic engineers. It has five principles. (1) Roads come in three types, high volume through routes, local streets, and connector routes. (2) Street systems should be homogenous, with big differences in size and speed eliminated as much as possible.” (3) Roads should be designed “so that people instantly know what sort they’re traveling on.” (4) “People are fallible. . .and the road environment should be as forgiving as possible.” (5) People should be educated on “how to remain safe” (119).
Even in bike-friendly cities like Portland and Seattle, streets currently fall short of meeting these criteria.
Educating the public: Cyclists certainly need to be educated. One way is with bike safety classes in schools where children and young people learn good cycling skills and traffic-wise patterns. Similar training can be offered in programs (I think of one in Portland) that help low-income adults get bikes for transportation. And most adults would benefit from training in attitude adjustment and learning better skills for cycling.
Of course, drivers need serious re-education to help them overcome what seems to be an instinctive determination to bully their way wherever they drive: jack-rabbit starts and stops, lane crowding, sudden and reckless twists and turns, cell phone and coffee cup distractions, and the unwillingness to give pedestrians common courtesy and rights to cross streets, especially at crosswalks.
Revising public policy: All of this requires significant shifts in public policy: city government, law enforcement, taxing authorities, business organizations, retail merchants. It sounds impossible, but Walker gives examples from places all over the world where it is happening. So maybe it can happen right here—wherever that is—and Walker believes that we’ll all be the better for it.
And so do I.
Even so, we have to save room for the “Velcro-clad street warriors” of whatever age, whom Walker dismisses disdainfully. More on that next time.