Doing bikes wrong the US way

May 29, 2017

Been meaning to write something, always too distracted to “do a good job”, as if getting nothing written was a good job. So….

Just now read a Copenhagenize article on bikes and trains saying something I had believed, but had no data to support. They have data. They also point out by example yet another way we do bikes wrong here in the US.

The number one way we do bikes wrong in the US is by treating them as sport. This leads to wrong-headed prescriptions for safety, an expectation that of course biking gets you all sweaty, and a failure to view bikes as legitimate transportation and in particular a failure to view bikes as legitimate public transportation.

Bike-as-sport leads to a bicycle industry that either recommends lightweight racing bikes, with anorexic high pressure tires that constantly need reinflation, can scarcely withstand a pothole, and are absurdly vulnerable to getting caught in or deflected by cracks and slots and tracks in the road, or “mountain” bikes with slow, noisy knobby tires and heavy shocks that make it more difficult to attach loads and provide yet another thing that needs maintenance. Both bikes are designed with little thought towards daily utility use; no fenders, so your clothes will get filthy, sport-adapted handlebars that either have you curled over like a pretzel or too wide for narrow city spaces (a hazard for pedestrians, impediment to parking, and a risk in traffic of any kind), and of course never sold with lights already installed, because who would train in the dark, who would offroad in the dark? (I know people who do, but they’re even more fringe than kooks like me who bike to work every day.) And of course, for sports, you need sports clothing, so you can’t just hop on the bike and ride, no, first you have to get dressed to ride your bike. Bike-as-sport sets would-be-utility cyclists up for failure; they get sold the wrong bike, it doesn’t work well for not-sport, and they give up.

Bikes-not-legitimate-transportation means that the first priority for Citibike in New York City was how to be sure it didn’t cost the city government any money. Governments build roads, run ferries, control air traffic (and crucially, regulate its safety in a variety of ways), dredge canals, and of course run city bus and commuter rails systems. But fund bike share? No way! NYC is proud that no government money is spent on those bikes. Here near Boston Hubway started with an infusion of government money — $4.5 million in Federal Transit Association grants, or about 1/3200 the cost of the Big Dig (before interest), rather out of proportion to the relative modal shares of biking (2%) and driving (45%) in Boston. Similarly, 4.7 miles of Green Line Extension is projected to cost (before overruns and interest) $2.3 billion. Transit has a higher modal share in Boston (45%), but the GLX runs through Somerville, with the 5th highest bike mode share in the nation (7.8%).

In contrast, in the Netherlands, transportation and transit include bikes. That means that renting a bike is not a separate membership card to keep track of and top up; instead it is just another thing your transit card activates. And because bikes are part of the transit network run by a single agency, someone realized that they could be used to make it easier to reach commuter rail in the suburbs (so provide good bike parking) and to finish the trip in the city (so provide rental bikes). The rental bikes use the same chip-card as the trains, trams, and buses. Doing this also removes one significant barrier-to-entry for rental bike use; the need to sign up for membership in some way or another (I’ve done this in Denver and in NYC; it’s not hard, but it’s not as easy as done-already. Every impediment counts.)

What they get for this ought to matter to us. After installing parking around suburban rail stations, Dutch commuter rail observed a 20% increase in passengers, with almost half of all passengers biking to their station today. 20% of the shared-bike users in the Netherlands are former drivers. Many of them are also former tram users — where bike share and transit are separate and “compete” for users, this is “bad” for transit (though reduced crowding ought to count for something) but in a city where it’s all transit, all that matters is reducing congestion, noise, pollution, and risk by getting people out of cars.

Near Boston, the MBTA did figure out that protected bicycle parking would draw more bicycle commuters to subway lines, and it did, but commuter rail access is still car-oriented; new commuter rail stations are located outside towns to ensure that they can “build enough parking”.

Or if the embed above fails, this link, showing how the new Cohasset station on the Greenbush Commuter Rail Line is located well outside Cohasset itself.

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