What is the role of bike paths?

There is a lot of discussion about segregated cycle paths, with most on the one hand suggesting they are a critical and necessary element of creating bike friendly cities but then a few more radical John Forrester anti-bike lane advocates who suggest that we should all ride together with car traffic. I’d like to suggest that bike lanes are an important component of what makes a bikeable city, but may not always be the most critical factor. Bike lanes may also increase cycling in cities that are starting to see the cracks in a car-based life style (e.g., Europe), but may have minimal if any impact on cities where people are just getting their first car (e.g., India). Finally, if you create compact cities with severe restrictions on car usage and easy integration with a strong transit system, you may still be able to get good cycling rates even without any lanes (e.g., Japan).

See this video of the history of Dutch bike lanes, which is similar to Denmark (thanks to worldstreets for the tip).

First, while there is a lot of evidence to suggest that places with high cycling rates (mainly Holland, Germany, and Denmark) also have a lot of segregated bikeways, I haven’t read any reports yet that prove demonstrably that this correlation is causative. I found the video above interesting but found it to be lacking in serious discussion about why bike lanes were built at different times or the effect they had on ridership during different eras.

An alternative reading of the history of the bike lane could be that the initial cycle tracks were designed for cyclist comfort (let’s say roughly 1890-1950).  There already where a ton of cyclist on the road (somewhere around 70-80% mode share in many Dutch cities around the 1930s, 50% in Copenhagen), so this was mainly just for their benefit not to attract more riders.

When the car entered the scene around the middle of the 20th century, there was a push by modern planners to clear the roads to make way for them to increase the flow of traffic. At this point, most European cities had their cycling rates drop by 50% or more- including cities in Holland and Denmark- despite having bicycle lanes. In Copenhagen at this point, some lanes were even reduced.

Around the mid to late 1970s, after the oil crisis, the more progressive European cities began advocating to get lanes and infrastructure back and most experienced increased rates of cycling, particularly in cities where they also employed a cocktail of other pro-cycling measures (not just bike paths) combined with restrictions on car ownership and use. It wasn’t really until the 1990s, I would argue, that bike lane construction really started being advocated as a way to increase bike ridership. Rates in Dutch and Danish cities have since gone back up but only to half or less of their original rates from the early part of the 20th century (about 40-50% modal split in Amsterdam and 25-40% in Copenhagen, depending which data and who you ask).

Quite possibly, it is not until people have become sufficiently tired of cars and traffic and they start looking for alternatives that bicycle infrastructure can truly have an impact. There are several stories I have heard and seen of bicycle paths being constructed in Delhi and Pune in India and Cape Town in South Africa where there are probably twice as many bicyclists as in Denmark or Holland but the bike paths are not being used or being misused. This is a question worth exploring. Are they not designed properly? Do motorists, law enforcement agents and cyclists just need time to learn about them?

My hypothesis would be that these places are more comparable to where Holland and Denmark were in the 1950s and 60s, with their first intoxicating taste of cars. Here, most people are “captive users” biking because they have no choice. The second they get money, they buy a scooter or car. Even if you build bike lanes in this context, you will likely still see declines in cycling rates. However, it may lay the groundwork for subsequent increases when they come down from their “car high” in a generation or so.

Finally, cities in Japan have pulled off cycling rates that most would dream of without hardly any bicycle paths of any sort. Tokyo has rates of 20% and Osaka has rates of 25%. Compare this to US cities that typically have 1% or less aside from a few places like Portland, Oregon that get 8% share on the nicest day in July. Japan’s secret is probably its huge density, a solid train system with good bike parking and making car driving almost impossibly difficult and expensive in the city. Therefore, people live far from their jobs but ride their bike to the nearest train station which they take into work. No bike lanes. At least, not yet. Cyclists do cause conflict with pedestrians on sidewalks, so there has been some discussion about putting them in but it’s unclear where it is all heading.

Bike lanes are an important element of a mix of strategies, but we should not become overly convinced of their silver bullet power. Building a cycling city takes a lot of time and patience and requires a large variety of supportive bicycle infrastructure and policy combined with restrictive policies toward cars and integrative strategies with transit. Furthermore, different strategies are required for cities with different relationships with car ownership.

More research should be done trying to demonstrate that bike lanes are a cause of ridership (rather than as an effect of it). More research is also needed to show to what extent it is possible to transplant infrastructure designed for northern European cities which have a very particular socio-cultural, historical and urban context. Where does it work? Where does it fail and why? We also need to better understand and advocate on reducing car usage if we want to improve cycling rates. We can’t get there just with pro-bike advocacy alone.

Don’t get me wrong. I love riding on Copenhagen bike paths and now I have been spoiled into not being able to ride on the road together with cars. But I also want an explanation as to why there are also examples (even in Denmark!) of segregated bike paths not being used. Anyone have a good explanation?

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