For my birthday a few months ago my wife gave me a pannier – a bag that attaches to my bike. It was a simple gift that unexpectedly opened up my world. I had always liked the idea of biking to work but it just wasn’t very enjoyable with a heavy backpack weighing me down in intense Texas heat. Now, I’m riding to the office at least three days a week and looking forward to my commute, what used to be the worst part of my day. I’m using less gas, avoiding the stress of rush hour, and getting in some regular exercise without cutting into the precious hours I have with my son between work and bedtime. It has been a great thing for me and I think in general more bikers and fewer drivers is a great thing for any place. So how do we get more citizens on two wheels instead of four? Well here are a few things I’ve noticed in the past few months that I think greatly improve a place’s bike-ability:
- Physical separation from traffic – No one wants to bike if it feels dangerous and proximity to speeding cars is about as dangerous for a biker as it gets. Whether the route is on-street with a curb to separate it from the rest of the road or a totally separate pathway, cities should invest in car-free paths.
- Short connected blocks – At one point in our city-building history places were laid out on a gridded street system (just take a look at the map of any historic downtown). We have recently departed from this method in favor of cul-de-sacs but the old-fashioned grid is still the easiest to bike. The short block lengths and connectivity of a gridded system allows the cars to take the main arterials while I can meander safely through residential side streets. It is also harder to get lost on a grid and if one street is blocked for any reason I can just move up a block and keep on going.
- Shaded streets – Large trees overhanging the road are as beautiful as they are practical for a biker. On an especially hot day here in Austin I will specifically plan my route to take advantage of well-shaded streets. Planting trees with bikers in mind would be an easy way for cities to encourage more biking.
- Places to park – A lack of bike racks is one of those annoying little inconveniences that matter more than it seems to deserve. Installing them in strategic places throughout the city not only helps the biker out but is a smart way to provide transportation access with minimal investment in space.
Biking is not only good for the environment and good for the body, but I’ve also been finding it’s good for the soul. Biking takes me out of the bubble of my car and puts me into a more intimate relationship with the surrounding environment and other people. This week on my way to work, I saw a former co-worker walking back from the library and we stopped and chatted about family and books. I also take more notice of the homeless and disabled sitting at bus stops or street corners and I am reminded of how often Christ made his encounters on the road, along the way between places. Similarly, I wonder how much of the beauty of life is missed because we are no longer open to others in the public space while traveling between destinations.
The bicycle and the car both arrived on the scene at approximately the same time in history – the late 19th century. Why did the car explode while the bike remains largely recreational? One of the main reasons for the primacy of the car is the level of investment in its infrastructure. From paved roads and highways to the re-working of our street network, billions have been poured into this transportation mode with little investment paid to bicycle infrastructure. But as people become increasingly frustrated dealing with traffic, perhaps we need to rethink the use of our transportation dollars and give the bicycle an opportunity to emerge in this, our chapter of history.