Making Cycling Convenient (and Better!)

Making Cycling Convenient (and Better!)

“Half of Copenhagen residents use bicycles to get to work or school. Not because these individuals are eco-friendly, young or sporty – but because bicycles are convenient and the fastest way to get around in the city.”
I was thinking about this statement from a mayor of Copenhagen as I rode along one of the new “protected” bike lanes in Seattle (above). In the U.S., less than 5% of trips are by bike, because cars remain the most convenient and fastest means of transportation. Our streets are wide with sufficient capacity, stores have ample parking, and usually the car is parked very close to our homes. For many North Americans, it’s hard to imagine just how inconvenient it is to drive (and how nearly impossible it is to park) in many European cities. For example, our photographer in Paris counts himself lucky to rent a garage space for his car which is only a 15 minute walk from his apartment.
We want to think that Copenhagen-style bicycle facilities will increase the bike-mode-share, but we are missing the point that people cycle in Copenhagen because it is too cumbersome and expensive to drive and park a car for everyday tasks.
In the U.S., cycling faces a much stiffer competition for mode share. We have two choices: either make cars slower and less convenient (like in Copenhagen), or make bikes faster and more convenient. I don’t think there is the political will to make driving less convenient in the U.S. yet. So we have to work on making cycling more convenient, faster and more pleasant.
Right now, the advocates of “Copenhagen-style” infrastructure call on cyclists to slow down, and to move off the street into separate lanes that purport to provide “safe” space, but where in reality they have to dodge parked cars and pedestrians. On some of Seattle’s new “protected” bike lanes, they even write “SLOW” on the pavement at regular intervals. Come on, we are cyclists – few of us can exceed the 20 mph speed limit anywhere, except perhaps on steep downhills. If I cannot even ride at 10-15 mph across town, then even I may choose to drive my car, or even walk instead. There must be a better way than designing facilities that have SLOW written all over them!
Fortunately, here in Seattle, popular bike routes are being converted into Neighborhood Greenways. It doesn’t take much – stop signs on cross-streets so that the cyclists have the right-of-way, and perhaps a few speed bumps to discourage cars from taking the “greenway” as a shortcut. The low cost means that these projects actually can be built quickly.
The result is amazing! One of these “greenways” is a route I take frequently. Because I now have the right-of-way, it’s much faster and more relaxing than before. I suspect that by providing a faster and pleasant, safe cycling environment, these “greenways” will get more people on bikes. It’s a brilliant idea, and I look forward to more of these.
In European cities like Copenhagen, many streets already have been closed for cars to create pedestrian zones, and there are no additional streets that can be turned over to cyclists, so they put the cyclists on the sidewalk. Here in North America, we can turn our weakness (low density, hence long distances and ample parking) into an asset (plenty of room for “Neighborhood Greenways”).
Even if cycling won’t be the most convenient or fastest way around Seattle, it’ll be the most pleasant, it’ll be safe, and it’ll fast enough to be viable.
Click here to read more posts about cycling safety, cyclepaths and bike lanes.

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Comments (37)

  • JdeP

    In your first photo the word “Slow” only seems to be painted at junctions from which cars might emerge unexpectedly. Of course it would be preferable to require the cars to yield and allow bikes to ride on unimpeded, but in the circumstances it seems sensible to warn cyclists to be prepared to stop at these junctions.

    October 30, 2013 at 1:45 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The words SLOW are painted after the intersections, not before. (There are STOP signs at the intersections, so there is no need to write SLOW on the pavement there.) It just happens that there is a driveway right after the intersection… and cyclists are asked to go slow all along this path for their safety.
      Most cyclists ignore the cyclepath and ride on the street to the right. However, since the cyclepath took up a lot of space, the traffic lanes on the street are too narrow to share with cars. It’s unfortunate, because a simple bike lane on each side of the street would have been a better solution for all involved.
      Fortunately, the city also is building the “Neighborhood Greenways,” which are safer, more comfortable and faster than these misguided dual-direction cyclepaths.

      October 30, 2013 at 7:14 am
  • Gary Lindberg

    One important difference between the USA and Denmark in how bicycles are used is taxes. My understanding is that in Denmark cars are taxed excessively to encourage bicycle travel. I am not sure of the exact amount but I have heard numbers like 1 1/2 times the purchase price of the car.

    October 30, 2013 at 4:25 am
  • Gert

    Having ridden my bike to and from work for years in Copenhagen, and dropping off and picking my children up with a bike trailer at/from day-care I have two comments.
    Although gas is at around 7.30 dollars a gallon, it is not particularly expensive to drive. But because of taxes cars are very expensive to buy and own. In Denmark, the cheapest, very small cars are around 18.000 dollars and a Dodge Grand Caravan minivan is around 170.000 dollars, so many families in the city, which is also hit by the housing bubble, choose not to have a car, this also has influence on the use of bicycles.
    In regards to speed, it is almost impossible to get through the city at a speed of more than 10-12 mph, because the bicycle paths are packed with bicycles, and you always end up behind two women ridding side by side chatting, so if you want to get anywhere fast you have to choose the few roads without bicycle paths

    October 30, 2013 at 4:48 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      if you want to get anywhere fast you have to choose the few roads without bicycle paths

      I remember that from living in Germany, where I had a mental map of the city that allowed me to avoid streets with cyclepaths (which were mandatory)…

      October 30, 2013 at 7:09 am
    • Matthew J

      I do not think it is so much a matter of cars being expensive in Denmark as that country making its car riders pay a greater share of the cost of automobile infrastructure.
      The United States underwrites the cost of automobile infrastructure, spends trillions defending the oil industry abroad while accepting an increasingly unsustainable level of environmental degradation.
      If U.S. auto drivers had to pay actual costs of driving, there would certainly be a lot more people riding bikes here.

      October 30, 2013 at 7:34 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        Denmark doesn’t have a car industry. All cars sold in the country are imported. So there is less of a lobby in favor of cars. The same applies to Switzerland. It’s much harder to view cars in a rational way in major car producing countries like the U.S., Germany, France or Britain.
        However, most people choose the most convenient and fastest mode of transportation with little regard to cost. Even in the U.S., many people, especially the less affluent, spend a very significant portion of their income on their cars.

        October 30, 2013 at 7:59 am
      • Erik

        In the courses of “traffic science” I took at university, the transport-choice-model of humans was examined. One of the interesting things is that in the whole world people tend to spend 16 % of their income on transportation. (Only the japanese spend significantly less). So clearly shifting the actual cost of driving from general taxes to specific tax per mile will have a huge effect.
        (A study in Belgium once compared the actual cost of driving (infrastructure, casualties, timeloss… with all the taxes payed by car owners. The total “income” was only 1/3th of the actual cost. )

        October 30, 2013 at 9:05 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          In the U.S., owning a car is actually quite expensive, but driving it is cheap. If more of the costs were assessed per mile driven (for example, by charging the insurance on top of the gas price, rather than as a flat fee), I suspect people wouldn’t drive quite as much.
          Right now, if you own a car and take the bus, you pay twice.

          October 30, 2013 at 9:15 am
  • bradci

    It often feels like the good people at the DOT err on the side of caution, and prevention of lawsuits, and don’t take into consideration the alternate needs of users of paths like this. They are doing their best, but it winds up seeming misguided. Slow pedestrians, people lingering outside of businesses, and bicycle riders who are trying to go work just don’t mix well.
    If built properly, bicycle infrastructure will increase bicycle use because it will be safer and more convenient than driving, even in wet, hilly Seattle. Neighborhood greenways are a fantastic idea. Use the public space for all modes of transportation, rather than just one! If only we could speed up installing them and there wasn’t so much hand-wringing about making these changes in Seattle. Once implemented, and we all get used to a few new rules, we’ll wonder why we didn’t do it sooner.

    October 30, 2013 at 8:24 am
  • marmotte27

    Your article sums the situation up in a very precise way, not only for the US, but also for Europe here. It’s exactly the way I feel as a cyclist concerning cycling infrastructure. I feel inconvenienced, slowed down, even bullied the way this infrastructure is foisted on us. Especially as these ‘facilities’ get more and more elaborate and expensive and take up more and more road space (but in a completely wrong way), which makes it more and more difficult to ignore those cycling ‘facilities’ and cycle on the road. When there’s only the space for one vehicle in a lane with high kerbs on both sides designated for motor traffic, motorists will resent our presence on the road more and more strongly when there’s a bike path somewhere on the side. What’s more, a path that looks a lot better than what used to be built only a few years ago, but which still suffers (it’s inherent in relegating cyclist away from the main road space!) from the same ills, loss of priority, loss of speed, loss of directness.
    And I’m saying this for all areas I cycle in, in the city, going maybe 2 or 3 kilometres, or commuting over more rural areas for something like 15 to 20 kms (not so far from US distances).

    October 30, 2013 at 9:13 am
  • bgobie

    Time is money even for poor people. It can easily take two or three times as long to travel across town by bus instead of car. Many low-wage jobs are physically taxing; after working all day (perhaps two jobs) riding a bike home in our hilly city is just not something people are going to do.
    Our dilemma is how to transition from a car-dependent society to one where cars are optional. We have a car-centric transportation system right now, where car ownership is virtually obligatory. Ideally we should move to a much more elaborate public transportation system, which requires more taxes. But most families already spend a lot of money on their obligatory cars and are not inclined to pay more transportation taxes. Perhaps most would be willing to pay higher taxes if they did not also have to maintain one or several cars. But how do we get through the transition period of higher taxes and obligatory car ownership?

    October 30, 2013 at 9:24 am
  • Brendon Potts

    I agree with the other comments here, but mainly wanted to second the opinion the the post about the greenways, bike boulevards, or whatever they happen to be called in a given city. I’ve lived in and visited a number of cities that have had some form of these, and have been impressed by how well they can work. I also think they’re better in the long run than separate bike paths because they get cars, and even the people that live in the houses past which the route goes, more used to bicycles being around. That said, they’re not perfect and still rely heavily on drivers’ willingness to work with bikes….

    October 30, 2013 at 9:34 am
  • theoelliot

    There is a good and growing network of Neighborhood Greenways in Portland, OR. I rely on my bicycle for transportation and appreciate them as a low-stress alternative to higher-traffic routes, while still being fairly direct. The reduced number of stop signs allows cyclists to maintain momentum and thus ride more efficiently. I also ride with kids for work and the Neighborhood Greenways are a great and safe way for kids to get around their communities. The City of Portland puts out maps for getting around the city by bike and on foot – once kids are introduced to these maps, they are quickly able to identify safe and easy ways to get to school, parks, and the homes of friends and family.

    October 30, 2013 at 9:48 am
  • Jeff Loomis

    I agree that neighborhood greenways are great and two-way cycle tracks are misguided. I think your commentary on the pictured cycle track is a bit unfair because it is in a construction zone and an area that will be rebuilt. Wider lanes or bike paths on each side would have been better, but I don’t think the pictured path is intended as a permanent installation.
    Great point that cycle facilities often seem to ignore the needs of cyclists who are actually attempting to go somewhere.

    October 30, 2013 at 9:51 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think your commentary on the pictured cycle track is a bit unfair because it is in a construction zone

      I thought about that when I took the photo. I think it would be unfair if the “ideal” facility required more effort on money spent. However, in this case, extra money and effort were spent to make it worse! The “ideal” facility for an area with high intersection density and moderate traffic speed is an on-street bike lane in each direction, which would have been easier to accomplish than the cyclepath.
      The good thing about this being temporary (if you call 5+ years of construction temporary) is that the city can try out this design, and if it doesn’t work, they’ll hopefully come up with something better in the final version. This post is intended to help with that decision process…

      October 30, 2013 at 11:27 am
  • adruve

    Cities, towns and infrastructure need to be designed around people. When we design roads and transports systems that make it easy for walking, cycling and public transport we will get back more green space, and enjoy the outdoors more. Build it and then will come. If we build car friendly roads cars will come. If we build people friendly roads people will come.

    October 30, 2013 at 12:29 pm
  • David

    Great discussion here. One comment I can’t agree with is that people working physically demanding jobs won’t be willing to ride a bike home in hilly terrain. This seems counter to what I’ve observed in countries where cycling is the most convenient and economical method of transportation available – all commuters seem to be influenced equally. Something I think is hard to measure is culture and education. Why do so few Americans commute by scooter in dense urban areas while it is common in many other countries? Maybe the same resistance cycling encounters; perception of safety, weather, safe parking etc.? I am surprised to see people waiting for buses on the weekend (here in the Puget Sound) where waits between buses are very long, and bicycles are practically free (when bought second hand). Culture?

    October 30, 2013 at 12:34 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Why do so few Americans commute by scooter in dense urban areas while it is common in many other countries?

      Scooters are used extensively in places where it is acceptable to weave through traffic, like Paris. There, a scooter will be much faster than a car that is stuck in a traffic jam. In places where it’s not acceptable to do that – like Germany – scooter are rare.
      I think this shows that people make mostly rational decisions about their choice of transportation. If a bike or scooter is faster, they’ll put up with the inconvenience of being exposed to the weather. If there is no speed advantage, most people prefer the warmth, dryness and convenience of a car.

      October 30, 2013 at 1:05 pm
  • Larry T.

    Cycling as transportation is a odd idea in the USA. Who do you see using a bicycle as transportation outside of oddball places like Portland and Seattle? And many of those folks actually own cars (therefore have plenty of income) but choose cycling for other reasons. In the vast majority of the US, the only folks using bicycles for transportation are doing it a)because they’re too poor to own and maintain a car or b)they’ve lost their driving license for DUI, etc. Those are the folks you see slogging along on whatever Sprawl-Mart had for $99 instead of any sort of proper transportation bicycle. Some serious tax on motor fuels as in Europe might help, but there’s also a stigma issue that’s pretty great. People walking or riding a bike (not counting people riding bicycles as recreation) are very often looked down upon as too poor to own and drive a car. Why else would they be walking or cycling? Even in Siracusa, Sicily, where we’ve spent the past two winters, overcoming this stigma is tough…anyone who can scrape up the dough to get a car and the $10 a gallon for fuel, wants to make damn sure they’re driving it! We witnessed this first-hand on the tiny island we lived on – folks driving around and around to find parking, then having to walk wherever they were actually going, despite it being far easier and quicker to have ridden a bike. It’s a sign of having “made it” out of poverty according to our friend there, who tries like hell to get folks out of their cars and onto bicycles in a city that rarely has weather not suitable for cycling and is pretty flat as well. It’s a struggle.

    October 30, 2013 at 12:43 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think in the U.S., there is a huge population who, to borrow words of the Copenhagen mayor, “are eco-minded, feel young, and care about fitness.” Getting these people on bikes is do-able. Whether we’ll get 75-year-old ladies out of their Buicks is a different question.

      October 30, 2013 at 1:08 pm
      • Steve Palincsar

        How “oddball” is Washington DC? There weren’t all that many people using bicycles for transportation there when I started commuting to work by bicycle in 1980, but there certainly are plenty now.

        October 31, 2013 at 5:30 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Trends start in “oddball” places and then migrate through layers of cities, until they almost blanket the country. Think health-food stores… farmers’ markets… or imported cars.
          When I first came to El Paso, TX to visit my in-laws in the 1990s, there were hardly any cyclists. I’d see three in a week of riding. About 10 years ago, there were enough that the talking blowheads in the local paper were complaining about “those annoying cyclists.” That was the “difficult stage” when cyclists had gone from an odd-ball novelty to a challenge of the established ways. The next stage, of universal acceptance, probably isn’t too far off. El Paso already has health food stores, farmers’ markets and even a Subaru dealer!
          Those stages are the first 5% of mode share. That is relatively easy to get, since there are enough people who just love cycling. The problem is going beyond that. Even Portland is stuck at 10%, and has been for years. The “stubborn” problem in Portland appears to be that driving still is the most convenient and fastest way around.

          October 31, 2013 at 5:43 am
  • Andrew Squirrel

    I definitely agree with you that I love the Seattle greenways bar none compared to any other form of cycling infrastructure here.
    However, I noticed on a recent trip to Portland how disappointing greenways are when you are an out of town visitor to a cycling town that is heavily invested in these. While I loved browsing the quirky Portland homes and enjoyed the quiet tree-lined streets I found it a bit boring after a while. I had set aside the entire day to discover welcoming cafes, delicious food trucks, fun vintage stores but instead I got mostly boring city backroads. While these might be great for Portland residents to get from point A to B (where A & B are known destinations) it just doesn’t jive well for window shopping tourists.
    It really made me rethink my opposition to bike lanes on arteries because I really don’t like traveling on busy traffic lined arteries in Seattle.
    Just some food for thought.

    October 30, 2013 at 1:50 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think that is a good point. It’s a legacy of our cities orienting themselves around car arterials. However, that will change as more people cycle. In Seattle, there are many “forgotten” hubs where there used to be shops, and the buildings still stand, but today, these hubs aren’t on car arterials any longer. If significant bike traffic goes by these places, businesses will locate there.
      In the interim, signing could take care of that. For example, there could be a sign on the Greenway indicating that 3 blocks away is the x cafe, the y health food store or the z bike shop.

      October 30, 2013 at 2:37 pm
      • Matthew J

        Good point on signing.
        The Cape Cod bike trails, which I imagine are mainly used by tourists and cottage owners, have many signs alerting trail cyclists of nearby off trail attractions. My first time riding the trail I had no need to reference a map.

        October 31, 2013 at 5:42 am
  • David Feldman

    As an occasional visitor to the city, Seattle strikes me as the perfect storm–pleasant to ride a bike in, wretchedly frustrating and inconvenient to drive and park a car in. Like numerous other American cities, it’s geography constrains road building–there is no way that the city could ever, like Portland or San Francisco, road-pave it’s way to convenient driving.

    October 31, 2013 at 9:27 am
  • Bryan Willman

    My counter comment is that statements about “moving away from car dependency” are kind of naive.
    The population of the US is very spread out, and in large parts of the US (that you dear Seattle dweller depend on for things like heat and food) motorized transport is the only practical mode. Sadly, the US could function just fine without bicycles (:(, but cannot function at all without motorized transport.
    The population is also aging, and while traveling by bicycle is probably a great idea so long as your are “firm”, when age and infirmity fall upon you (as they do all of us) a motorized vehicle is a great win.
    Cars may be less important in some dense places, but those dense places are a surprizingly small part of the population and a very small part of the geographic space of the US.
    There’s still a very large pool of people who view cars as a feature rather than a problem – signs of freedom of movement (in general they are), signs of status, signs of membership in important groups.
    And finally, in a society where a huge fraction manages to avoid getting any exercise whatsoever on any given week, in spite of decades of warning about this, expecting the life enhancing general goodness of cycling to suddenly become a travel mode to rival cars is unrealistic. (I’m not being sarcastic, I view cycling as life enhancing and a source of general goodness in my life.)
    All that said, the greenways do sure seem to be less screwed up than some other schemes…..

    October 31, 2013 at 9:33 am
    • Matthew J

      In fact, the United States is the third most populous nation in the world and more than 80% of its people live in urban areas – a level of urbanization that well exceeds much of the rest of the world, including European nations with far less dependence on car usage. Population trends in the United States over the past 20 years have seen people increasingly moving from less dense to more densely populated areas.
      The difference is that here in the United States many live in poorly planned suburbs where they spend increasing amounts of their lives driving rather than living.
      People without much effort can stay in more than adequate shape well into their old age. On the other hand, almost all of us will experience decreasing ability to see long distance, in the dark, hear well, and react to stimuli quick enough. Combined these effects of aging make the elderly among the more dangerous group we allow to control a multi-ton vehicle capable of reaching 60 miles per hour in less than a minute.

      October 31, 2013 at 11:00 am
  • DanaPointer

    Transect based planning, different approaches to different topologies of urban areas is necessary, slow speed older areas of city could use greenways, while exurban arterials surely need completely separate bike tracks. In soCal the confusion of transects and highs speed unprotected bike infra keeps murdering:

    October 31, 2013 at 11:33 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I agree that separate cycletracks are great for exurban and suburban areas where riders have to cover long distances, and where intersections are spaced far apart.
      Unfortunately, right now, they are installed in cities where intersection conflicts abound. Even writing “SLOW” on the pavement doesn’t make these facilities safe, to say nothing about their lack of speed and convenience.

      November 1, 2013 at 5:34 am
  • GuitarSlinger

    But …. you’ll still be banging heads with Big Oil and Automotive Business money … and so the end result will be pretty much the same . Maybe if we’re lucky a slight increase in bicycling across the US ….. with the main [ and most likely only ] gain being for us cyclists already on the road with better trails / paths and access . But to expect any real change here is unreasonable . Unless of course some catastrophic event comes down the pike .. forcing such an extreme cultural [ and that what the automobile is … part and parcel of the American mindset/cultures ] shift to occur .
    No … I think we’d ( US cyclists ) be better served working for the small changes rather than a massive shift in the American transportation ethos

    November 1, 2013 at 7:10 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The growth in cycling for transportation has been pretty formidable. I agree that we won’t get 50% of Americans use bicycles as their primary mode of transportation, but there is a lot of potential and a lot of reason for optimism.

      November 1, 2013 at 7:45 pm
  • Herr Karl

    I would prefer a “car-unfriendly” infrastructure/legislation over a necessarily flawed “bike-friendly” one. Cars are by far the biggest annoyance when riding a bike in the city. Nobody needs bikepaths in the countryside, simply because there is so little traffic in the small towns.

    November 1, 2013 at 8:34 am
  • Peter Simmons

    For cities this needs to be part of a bigger people moving infrastructure. Here in Vancouver BC we have a combination of bike designated side streets, and dedicated bike lanes. However, the rapid transit needs to be improved for multimodal transportation – bike, train, bike etc. More incremental cost to driving – congestion tolling, insurance based on usage etc would help make the true cost of driving more visible and get people into other forms of transportation instead of the single occupant vehicle.

    November 2, 2013 at 2:04 pm
  • John Duval

    All theories aside, it is clear that a serious shift in thinking has occurred in this country. The decline of influence from “Detroit” has to be part of it. 10 years ago we looked to to the auto industry for solutions and blame for all our woes, seeking safer, cleaner, more efficient cars.
    Today we look for more urbanized places to live, local amenities, telecommuting, on-line shopping, and less material goods. Riding a bike is not, and will never be THE solution, but as the population increases while the sprawl of our cities slows, it will be an increasing part.
    E-bikes may solve some of the hurdles mentioned here. I worry about electric motor vehicles acting like bikes, just as bike riders try to act like pedestrians now. The push needs to go the other way.

    November 3, 2013 at 11:51 am
  • David Pearce

    I wonder if you have posted about the “integrated” style of some old Japanese bikes to even include electric TURN SIGNALS. Through the blog, and the photo, I came upon the strange world of old Japanese bikes and the real old-school website titled “Bicycles in old age of Japan”.
    I will just say, some of those bikes are far out. While some resemble the European randonneurs we are familiar with, some of them are just very unusual, perhaps it’s fair to say “very Japanese”, with double headlights, full turn signals, reminding me of nothing so much as a fully optioned and mirrored Vespa scooter from the Mod era. I wonder if it was the law that city bikes must be equipped this way.
    What’s your opinion of turn signals on bicycles, or other methods of lighted or reflective signaling? Little blinkies worn on cuffs? Sometimes I roll my extended left arm back and forth after dark so that the car headlights behind me will reflect off my watch crystal.

    November 6, 2013 at 3:47 am

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