For me, a good bike ride is both relaxing and stimulating—a chance to revel in the passing scenery as I feel the wind blow across my face. But I never expected to experience this in New York City. Navigating Brooklyn and a bit of Manhattan on two wheels for the first time was a sublime surprise. Instead of constantly peering over my shoulder fearful of cars speeding toward me (as I expected), I actually savored the street life all around while pedaling through town.
What made this ride so pleasurable and surprising is a well-connected grid of safe and comfortable bike routes featuring protected bike lanes on busy avenues and painted lanes on quieter streets. Built over the last decade as part of a methodical plan to improve biking in New York, this network explains Brooklyn’s doubling of bike commuters in just five years, 2009-2014.
This is next big idea for biking— complete, connected networks of comfortable places to ride. “Most communities have bits and pieces of good bike routes. Maybe a nice pathway along the river, some quiet side streets, perhaps a few good bike lanes. But they’re pretty disconnected in most places, so people still don’t feel safe on bikes,” says Martha Roskowski, until recently vice president of local innovation for the national bicycling advocacy coalition PeopleForBikes.
“When cities link bikeways together, it’s transformative,” she says. “You see a lot more people on bikes, and more women and kids, not just those who are brave or who have special biking skills.”
For New York City, the payoff has been huge: new bike commuters in Brooklyn over five years are enough to jam 50 subway cars or pack the Brooklyn Bridge with autos for an hour straight.
Taking the Stress Out of Biking
“It’s really exciting for us to be knitting a bicycle network together to create more options for people of all ages and abilities to get to work, school or stores,” explains Laura Dierenfield, active transportation program manager in Austin, Texas. “Our planning strategy is less about what we can do for bicycling, but what bicycling can do for a safer, more affordable and more sustainable Austin.”
PeopleForBikes recently launched what it calls the Big Jump Project to help ten neighborhoods (from Providence to Memphis to Tucson) show what’s possible when people on bikes experience the same level of comfort and ease that drivers have long enjoyed on American streets. After a century of building cities around cars, people need to be exposed to the idea that bikes can also be a practical, pleasant transportation way to get around.
Prospects for better biking across America look promising to Gil Peñalosa—a globe-trotting advocate for creating communities that work for people of all ages—based on what he saw happen in Seville, Spain. “Like in the US, people there said ‘we will never bike because we love our cars too much’. But they went from 0.6 percent of trips by bike to almost seven percent in three years by building a connected grid of 100 miles of protected bike lanes.”
Turns out it was not love of cars that prevented people from biking, Peñalosa says. It was “poor connectivity in the street grid for cyclists. If people have safe, easy access from their house to where they want go safely, they will ride.”
Peñalosa also points to Bogotá, Colombia—where he was parks commissioner in the 1990s and his brother Enrique is now mayor—which boasts one of the world’s most extensive bike networks with 250 miles of protected bikeways and another 250 miles under construction over the next three years. Around 400,000 bike trips are made around the city each day, significantly increasing traffic capacity on the city's streets.
Closer to home, Calgary, Canada, offers a shining example of how connected bike networks can bring change fast—even in a sprawling city in the province of Alberta, whose oil and gas industry sometimes earns it the title “Texas of the North.” In 2014, the city council narrowly approved plans to create a 4-mile network of protected bike lanes on four downtown streets all at once.
Within three months, bicycling on those streets doubled. Within a year, overall bicycle trips downtown soared 40 percent. City data found that the ratio of women biking downtown rose eight percentage points, while the number of people biking illegally on the sidewalks fell 16 percent. Delays for people driving was no more than 90 seconds, even during rush hour. A year after the network was built, two-thirds of all city residents supported it, and the city council voted 10-4 in December 2016 to make the changes permanent.
“We’ve lowered the percentage of injury collisions throughout the core, and we’ve had pretty minimal impact on automobile traffic, so I’m quite pleased,” announced Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who noted he himself does not ride a bike.
The Building Blocks of Great Biking
Key elements for creating low-stress bicycle networks are:
• Protected Bike Lanes—The number of bike lanes where riders are physically separated from motor vehicles has skyrocketed in the US since 2009. There are more than 400 today in 82 cities across 34 states, with more being built all the time. Chicago alone has built 32 projects, while Springdale, Arkansas put in two.
Numerous studies document that protected bike lanes increase the rate of bicycling by an average of 75 percent, reduce bicycle and pedestrian injuries, relieve stress on the streets for drivers and spur economic growth in the neighborhoods where they are constructed. They generally are built along busy arterial streets, giving people safer access to businesses and other popular destinations.
• Neighborhood Bikeways—Also known as "neighborhood greenways" or “bicycle boulevards,” these are low-speed side streets where biking and walking are given priority over driving through a series of design, engineering and landscaping measures that calm motor vehicles and discourage non-local auto traffic on these streets.
Vancouver, British Columbia now sports more than 20 neighborhood bikeways, part of a 100-mile network that will eventually reach within a ten-minute bike ride of every resident. Portland, Oregon has built more than 70 miles so far, and Austin and Tucson are working on extensive networks of their own.
• Shared-use Paths—These are off-road paths, such as rail trails and waterfront parkways, that are increasingly common for recreational riding across the country. Dayton, Ohio, for instance, boasts more than 330 miles of paved bike paths.
•Safer Intersections—Most bike/car crashes happen where streets meet. Intersections can be made safer for biking, walking and driving with innovations such as special bike signals (which often give bikers a few seconds' head start so turning drivers notice them) and green painted bike lanes (which remind everyone that the intersection is shared space).
New York on Two Wheels
America’s biggest, most boisterous and densely settled city shows the important role bikes can play in 21st century life. On a typical day, close to a half-million bike rides are taken around the city, and more than 775,000 New Yorkers cycle regularly. The number of people riding bikes daily rose 80 percent from 2010 to 2015—the period when major bike improvements began appearing on the streets.
“The key to a good network is to put the lanes where people want to go, not just where it’s easy to build them,” says Jon Orcutt, former policy director of the New York City Department of Transportation and now advocacy director at TransitCenter. “The real beneficiaries of all this are the kids, who now have a place to ride, and the older people, who feel safer now that most bicyclists are off the sidewalks.”