Pedal Power: What Academe Knows About Bikes

By Paul Tolmé

Susan Handy is the type of bicyclist that environmentalists and policymakers would like to see more of on American roadways. She commutes to work by bike, rides to the store for groceries and pedals her children to soccer practice. “Bicycling is my favorite mode of transportation,” says Handy, director of the Sustainable Transportation Center at the University of California at Davis. “I can’t imagine living without it.” And it’s worthwhile for more quantitative reasons: according to the EPA, bicycling instead of driving for five miles a day reduces individual CO2 emissions by 1,287 pounds annually, 6% of the average U.S. individual’s total emissions.Handy is one of the leading university researchers on the subject of American attitudes toward bicycling for transportation, and she has a simple goal: “We want to understand why people do or do not bicycle.” Bicycling is an affordable, healthy and climate-friendly transportation solution, and increasing the number of bike trips is a public policy goal of federal, state and local governments, but getting more Americans to hop on bikes instead of into cars has proven difficult. Just one percent of vehicle trips in the United States are by bike. In some European countries, by contrast, nearly 30 percent of trips are on bicycles.

Progress is being made, however. Census data show a 43 percent increase in bicycle commuting between 2000 and 2008. Growing that number will require both better infrastructure (bike paths, bike lanes and friendlier roadways) and changes in Americans’ attitudes about bicycling, according to Handy and other researchers. Handy and cohorts have surveyed residents in some of the nation’s most bike-friendly communities–Davis, Boulder, Colo., Eugene, Ore., and others–to determine the factors associated with bicycle commuting. Surprisingly, access to a bike path is not the key determinant of whether people bike. Concerns about safety, workplace acceptance of bike commuting and other social factors are just as important.

Kevin Krizek, a professor of urban planning at the University of Colorado, has studied the impact of bike lanes, paths, racks and workplace showers on rates of bicycling and says such infrastructure makes it more likely that people will get on bikes. However, these facilities must be convenient and easy to reach. People are willing to go 16 minutes out of their way on an average commute to access a bike lane, according to Krizek’s research, and they are willing to ride 67 percent further, roughly 2.6 miles, to access dedicated bike lanes or paths.

Safety is another concern, even though American roads appear to be getting safer. According to federal statistics, the 716 bicyclist deaths in 2008 represented a six percent decline from 1998, and a paltry percentage of the 37,261 auto accident deaths in the same year. But many riders are unwilling to get into the flow of traffic if bike lanes are absent. Whether bike lanes improve safety is an open question: a study by England’s University of Leeds Institute for Transport Studies found that motorists gave bicycles more space when passing them on roads without bike lanes.

Determining just what types of cycling infrastructure to build is the focus of research by Portland State University professor Jennifer Dill and Rutgers professor John Pucher. American urban planners and road engineers still have a knowledge gap when it comes to building infrastructure for bikes. In Europe, bicyclists enjoy cycling lanes separated from traffic by boundaries. Traffic calming devices and bicycle-specific traffic lights also add to the perception of safety, and European bicyclists can travel long distances without ever coming into close contact with a car. The advocacy group Bikes Belong is now undertaking a project to identify European best-practices and import them. “We are looking at what European nations do to make bicycling safe and convenient,” says project leader Zach Vanderkooy, who graduated in the spring from Harvard’s master’s program in urban planning. “We want to figure out what bicycle-friendly means in terms of infrastructure.”

The opportunity to boost American bicycling has never been greater. A record amount of federal funding-nearly $1.5 billion, double the amount of 2008–was allocated in 2009 to build infrastructure and promote riding. Whether that money is being allocated most effectively is the focus of a recent study by Handy. Published in August, the study examines federal funding mechanisms for bicycle projects. The study shows that big-spending metro areas allocated an average of $1.54 annually per resident for bike and pedestrian infrastructure, while low-spending metro areas spent 21 cents per resident.

Handy says federal policymakers should consider sending more funding directly to regional planning organizations rather than routing money through state transportation departments, which can be highway-focused. The federal government should also look at California’s method of allocating cash for bicycle infrastructure, potentially making it a model for the nation. When possible, money should be directed to specific programs such as the popular Safe Routes to Schools initiative, Handy says. “Federal funding has clearly led to increased bike facilities. The degree to which different regions took advantage of this money varies greatly.”

Even so, interest in promoting bicycling has never been greater. “We’re seeing a real transformation of political will in the past few years,” Vanderkooy says. In Congress, legislation has been introduced to expand the federal Safe Routes to Schools program to $600 million annually. At the state level, five states approved new Complete Streets policies in 2009 to make streets more bike-friendly. Colorado passed a Bicycle Safety Act that requires cars to give bicyclists three feet of space when passing. Bicycling advocates in West Virginia, once considered the least bike-friendly state, have formed a lobbying effort, and Bikes Belong cites advances in Indiana, Arizona, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Louisiana that could lead to better bicycling policies.

To improve local advocacy, the nonprofit Alliance for Biking and Walking has initiated a grant program to launch and support bike-friendly campaigns. Interest in bicycling is booming locally: this year, 43 new communities applied for the Bicycle Friendly Community designation awarded by the League of American Bicyclists. Los Angeles is taking public comments on its draft bicycle plan, which lays out the city’s strategy for promoting cycling through infrastructure and policies. Portland, widely recognized as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the United States, has built a floating multi-use path for bikes and pedestrians along the Willamette River. New York City has made changes to its street design manual and built so-called cycle tracks that separate cars from bikes with a barrier. Other low-cost measures gaining acceptance in the United States include “sharrows,” bicycling arrows painted on roads to signify that the roads are for sharing. Sharrows also indicate where cyclists should ride to stay out of the door zone of parked cars.

Handy says U.S. policies and strategies must improve bicycling infrastructure and land-use patterns, but must also work on Americans’ perceptions and attitudes about riding. “We will never be the Netherlands, but more places in the U.S. can be like Davis,” Handy says. “That’s what we’re striving for.”