Cities for Cycling: Creating Bike-Friendly Streets

The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) organized an event, “Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around,” at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. David Byrne, former lead singer of the Talking Heads and author of the “Bicycle Diaries,” Congressman Earl Blumenauer, the leading bike and sustainable transportation advocate on Capitol Hill, and Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner, New York City Department of Transportation, discussed how to best integrate bike infrastructure into cities and build demand for biking. Sadik-Khan also announced the launch of Cities for Cycling, a NACTO project focused on breaking down “barriers to bike-friendly street design in municipalities around the United States.”

According to Bruce Katz, Vice President and Director, Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, bicycling improves the urban quality of life, public health, and reduces CO2 emissions. Cities are good for cycling because of their inherent complexity and density. “Density is a proxy for innovation, and cities contribute heavily to economic growth.”

David Byrne, former lead singer of the Talking Heads and author of the “Bicycle Diaries”: Byrne said as Americans age in communities without public transportation, more and more older Americans will be “stranded.” Byrne said mixed-use communities are really important and lauded Jane Jacobs’ work, arguing that Jacobs realized that “neighborhoods need to do different things at different times during the day.”

Byrne gave the audience of some 200 people a powerpoint tour through bad urban planning ideas of the past, and picked out Le Corbusier’s Radiant City as particularly egregious. “Those were just housing projects. They were viewed as visionary because they had green patches. Corbusier’s idea was to kill the streets. Thank God he failed.” Byrne said Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre city plans “showed why it was good he never succeeded as a city planner.”

In citing a model of successful skyscrapers, he pointed to the hills Australian termites build– “These are high-rises for termites, sustainably designed and include even, moderate temperatures within. Why haven’t people figured out how to do this?”

In too many downtowns Byrne thought “half of cities have given over to parking lots, which are dead acreage. If you go to downtown Houston at 11:00 AM, there are no people on the streets.” Much of downtown Cleveland is boarded up. “This is not accidental, but the result of bad policy. It feels like policymakers are against people.”

He added that cities need better bike infrastructure. Bike spaces and lanes need to be added to streets, and bike parking lots should be added to building and transportation center storage facilities. In Portland, bike racks, which were previously fought by local business groups, are now “in demand,” because they enable a clear view of storefronts from the streets (no more big vans parked in front of shops). In Paris, the Velib bike share program is accessible across the city. In Berlin, bike lanes are allied to the sidewalk.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer (Democrat – Oregon): Smart bicycling public policy relates to how you undo this: “People are stuck in traffic on their way to a stationary bike in a health gym.” Blumenauer said this “used to be funny,” but now just needs to change. Blumenauer thinks a cyclist is an “indicator species of a type of community where children can walk to school and there is less obesity.”

His goal was to make Portland “America’s best European city.” Bicycling has played a large part in improving the city’s streetscape. “People were cranky about adding bike infrastructure, and are now demanding it.” Bicycling has also created jobs in the city: “1,000 people in Portland work in the bicycling community and add some $100 million to the economy.” Furthermore, the $2,500 that people saved when they got rid of their can be spent in the local economy.

A new bike policy is about giving people “choices about how they move. We haven’t declared war against the car, but won’t surrender to it either.”

Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner, New York City Department of Transportation: “Cities need a new urban biking agenda. Innovations are happening despite federal policy.” There are “mountains of red tape” and the “checklists are insane” if you want to add in bike lanes in New York City. “We had to go through air quality tests to add bike lanes.”

The regulatory obstacles are difficult to overcome, but, once cleared, adding bike infrastructure is “cheap and easy to put in.” “Colored lanes are hard to get done, but so simple.” Bike signage, bike traffic lights and other infrastructure should also be put into place.

Sadik-Khan noted that the NYC government (through PlaNYC 2030) is planning to start a bike share program modeled on Paris’ Velib, and there are already 200 miles of bike lanes. Chicago has its 2015 Bike Plan, which aims for 5 percent of short trips to be made by bike by 2015. San Francisco’s bike lane program recently came out of “legal purgatory,” and is growing rapidly.

To further remove financing and regulatory obstacles, Sadk-Khan called for national urban street guidelines that include bike lanes. To promote the urban biking agenda, Sadik-Khan, who is now the president of NACTO, used the meeting to announce the launch of Cities for Cycling. Sadik-Khan argues: “If you make it safe to bike in the city, they will come.”

Learn more at

Q & A: What are the key obstacles to creating new bike infrastructure in U.S. cities?

Blumenauer: Federal investment in bike infrastructure is up, and a majority of members have joined one of the Congressional bike caucuses. “This is the single most popular area in the Surface Transportation Act. We’ve fought off all amendments, but people are still afraid of major change.” Blumenauer blamed the dysfunction in the political process for the slow movement on ramping up bicycle infrastructure.

The Congressman added that the number-one reason people aren’t commuting to work using a bike is the lack of indoor bike parking. “Parking is key.”

Sadik-Khan: Retrofitting street networks means changing the way we think about our street networks. “For the past 50 years, we’ve prioritized the car.”

Sadik-Khan said parking and other interest groups were opposed to expanding bike lanes. Some people in NYC were calling the Department of Transportation under Sadik-Khan, the “department of parking space removal.” She responded: “We can’t triple deck transportation networks. We need to go one street at a time.”

Sadik-Khan added that the Bloomberg administration has recently mandated that buildings with freight elevators must include indoor bike parking if tenants request the space.

Byrne: Trying to retrofit downtown Houston all at once isn’t going to work. “We should build nodes in areas that get heavy foot traffic and then hope demand will spread. These nodes can then become inter-connected.”

How can policymakers create demand for bikes?

Blumenauer: “We should look at paying people to bike to work, or some sort of employee benefits. I envision a bike pass / parking / bike subsidy that is uniform and gives people options.”

Sadik-Khan: “We need to encourage people to change their behavior. In Denmark, they encourage people to open their car doors with their right hand, which forces people to turn and look for bikers.”

Image credit: Jonathan Maus/

10 thoughts on “Cities for Cycling: Creating Bike-Friendly Streets

  1. Don Arambula 12/11/2009 / 12:53 pm

    I must say that I am pleased to see The Dirt piece on bicycling.

    Leaders such as Congressman Blumenauer and Janette Sadik- Khan should be congratulated for all the good work that they have done to elevate cycling as a a viable transportation mode rather than simply a recreation and fitness activity. I applaud their efforts to remove financing and regulatory barriers.

    However, Congressman Blumenauer is wrong when he says that the number-one reason people aren’t commuting to work using a bike is the lack of indoor bike parking. While parking is key it far less important than improvements to streets that will increase not only work trips but also trips to the grocery store, school and even the fitness club.

    Portland’s highly regarded Director of Bicycling Roger Geller says, “Survey after survey and poll after poll has found again and again that the number one reason people do not ride bicycles is because they are afraid to be in the roadway on a bicycle. When they say they are “afraid” it is the fear of people driving automobiles.”

    To replicate the success of bicycle dominated cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam we must first and foremost address safety. We must build fully integrated bicycle network that safely connects all cyclists of all ages and abilities to all destinations. The European systems are successful in attracting 35-50% of household trips largely because they have effectively addressed these concerns by 1) Developing a network that is integrated with their land use plans thereby fostering short sweat- free commutes, 2) Building a network based upon protected bikeways (cycle tracks).

    For more info see-

  2. Marlies Simonis 12/14/2009 / 2:57 am

    I am from the Netherlands and I take my bike everywhere.
    I agree with Mr. Arambula, safety is the number one priority. However, it is also important to have your possible destinations within reasonable (bikeing) distance from your house. If, for example, you have to bike 30 minutes to get to a grocery store and you can only get a few things, people will think it is not worth the trouble.

  3. trnslationlost 12/18/2009 / 1:58 pm

    While Minneapolis is right behind Portland in making a bicycle-friendly community, the US may be going about this all wrong. Being friends with quite a few daily bicyclists, the integrated about bike lanes with vehicle traffic is still dangerous. My friends claim to be hit by a car at least once a month. Although they are following bike traffic laws, vehicle drivers do not think to watch out for bicycles at this point.

    Living in Copenhagen for four months a couple years ago opened my eyes to real, functional bike traffic. Many of their bike lanes, like Berlin’s, are stepped-down from the sidewalk, and a curb separates the road from the bike lane ( The bike lane is about 5-8′ wide, making it impossible to miss while driving.

  4. chris 12/22/2009 / 2:06 pm

    I don’t believe that the Amsterdam or Copenhagen style cycletracks concept can be transferred to most arterial streets in North American cities. Our main thoroughfares have numerous driveways and parking lot entrances — cyclists would be subject to drivers turning across their path multiple times a block. It would be just as dangerous as riding on the sidewalk. On streets where such cycletracks are installed in Amsterdam, these hazards don’t exist, and there are special signals for cyclists at intersections (as well as a ban upon right turns on red) to prevent motorists from turning across your path. Implementing such a concept here would have to involve completely reengineering the street.

    The reason for high ridership in various Dutch and Danish cities is that the governments there have purposefully made driving difficult and costly. Denmark has a 200 percent tax upon the sale of cars. Most highways are tolled. The gas tax is higher. The central city of Amsterdam is notoriously hard to drive in. Most streets are extremely narrow and even the main streets only have two lanes. Parking is scarce. Obtaining a license is far more difficult, and punishments for hitting cyclists and pedestrians are far more dire. Any attempt to implement most of these measures here would constitute political suicide for most elected officials.

    I do not believe that busy streets in North America can be made bike-friendly, at least not unless all parking lots and driveways were to be torn out. I ride everyday, and generally choose low traffic routes, only riding on high-traffic streets for the one or two blocks that are necessary to reach my destination. I consider some forms of infrastructure to be helpful, including bike/pedestrian bridges across freeways and railroad tracks, crossing assists across busy arterials (traffic islands, bike/ped signals), and off-street trails. Bike lanes and cycle tracks, however, are a waste of time and money.

  5. Greg Spencer 01/03/2010 / 5:38 am

    Of course there are challenges to overcome but American streets CAN be made bike friendly. In the 1970s, Copenhagen also had a car-choked downtown and shop owners protested early efforts to make the city more bike- and pedestrian friendly.

    Paris offers a more recent example. Before City Hall started investing in cycling infrastructure in 1995, hardly anyone bicycled in the city. Cycling levels have grown steadily ever since the city started building cycling tracks, and they accelerated markedly when the Velib bike sharing system was launched in 2007.

    Compared to the streets of Paris, most of those in the US look calm. If Paris managed to boost its cycling levels, it can be done anywhere.

  6. Caye Cook 02/02/2010 / 3:27 pm

    Safety is most important. Adding a striped bike lane on existing streets presents several problems besides the proximity of vehicles and trucks. A bike lane on the outside places the bike in the drainage flow with grate inlets, with extreme side slope and with joints between materials. I’m a wreck waiting to happen even without the traffic!

  7. Tony Hauser 02/03/2010 / 11:51 am

    Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles. – John Forester

    Statistics bear out the fact that an increase in the number of cyclists results in greater awareness and fewer car-bike accidents. Refer to these links:

    The League of American Wheelmen (i.e. cyclists) were the first citizens of the United States to advocate for better roads…prior to the widespread use of the automobile. It would be a sad state of affairs to now propose a “separate but equal solution” that undermines a cyclist’s right to the roads. Teach “effective cycling” skills by designing

    As a Nation, we need to confront paying the true cost of personal automobile ownership (i.e. eliminate fuel and other subsidies, pay for infrastructure repair, mitigate environmental damage, pay the full cost of direct and indirect health problems caused by cars, and so forth) in order to wean ourselves from this destructive habit/addiction. Participate in paradigm shifting! Walk or ride your bike!

  8. Jacques Desjardins 02/13/2010 / 10:02 pm


    I’m from Montreal, Quebec. Please put our city under the radar and don’t ignore it because It’s a french Metropolis in North America, so out of all recognized networks.

    In doing so you will find that Montreal has the best bike sharing system in North America named BIXI, completely developed here with the assistance of Lyon and Paris and recently franchised in Boston and London England.

    Regarding Portland Oregon wanting to become the first European North American city. Although we admire veru much Portland green achievements, there’s a long way to go before surpassing Montreal as the first bicyclist city in North America (Bicycling 2000) and of course first European style Metropolis !

    Come to Montreal to enjoy for a few days a real difference in city life style!

    Jacques Desjardins

  9. walkerevans 10/16/2010 / 10:52 pm

    The City of Columbus Ohio has made a huge commitment to adding over 500 miles of bike paths, trails, lanes, sharrows and other infrastructure improvements over the next few years and we’re already seeing the benefits.

    It’s even spilled over into our local small business community as our bike-industry entrepreneurs are thriving thanks to these investments:

    Old Pastime Could Result in New Economic Growth
    By Melanie McIntyre on August 13, 2010

    Central Ohioans, like many people across the country, have rediscovered bicycling in recent years. Predictably, the trend has kept owners of existing bike shops in demand, but it also has created new opportunities for enterprising entrepreneurs and could even impact companies outside the biking industry, resulting in even greater regional economic growth.


  10. mini moto 12/19/2011 / 4:34 pm

    There definitely needs to be more bike lanes out there. When I am not riding my motorcycle I am on my road bike and I love every minute of it minus those pesky cars that hog the bike lane and their lane.

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