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 Citiesforcycling.org
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/BikePortland.org