Shortcomings of Bicycle Infrastructure

Here are three things to keep in mind about bicycle infrastructure as it relates to advocacy efforts. I am not complaining about bike lanes and bridge crossings. I am not complaining even about shared lanes and onstreet bike lanes. However I believe that blogs and bicycle news sources, like Streetsblog, are biased toward infrastructure and away from ordinary people. Partly this is because infrastructure is generally publicly funded and has a set of news hooks (meetings, installation, openings) associated with it; partly this is because it is seen as universally applicable and therefore interesting to people who live far away and won’t use it. I fear that news organizations’ natural emphasis on paint and concrete leads people to believe that infrastructure is what will get people on bicycles.

The first thing to remember about infrastructure is that the only group who can install bike infrastructure is the authorities. Ordinary people and advocates for people on bicycles can’t install bike infrastructure. When advocates set infrastructure as their number one priority, that means that their number one priority is to petition the authorities, not to get more people on bicycles. I believe that the most effective way to get people on bicycles is to show them people like themselves on bicycles (this is the reason why Cycle Chic was an effective form of bicycle advocacy; it made bicycling an aspirational activity for a certain group of stylish people).

For someone like me who enjoys bicycling, Adonia Lugo’s report on diversity in bicycle advocacy is so welcome because it shows what individual people are doing to spread the word about bicycling. I appreciate reading about how other enthusiastic people create real opportunities to support people who bike and share their enthusiasm. I confess that my own personal path of bicycle advocacy has wound through many boring community meetings, and that I doubt my effectiveness as an advocate.

Second, infrastructure is expensive to authorities, and therefore its placement is not value-free. Infrastructure–whether bus lines, subways, highways and interchanges, or protected bicycle lanes–comes at a cost. Paid workers have to drive the thermoplast truck or pour the concrete. This means that infrastructure will go where authorities want it, not necessarily where local residents want it. Authorities must comply with larger-scale regulations and goals and can’t just replace automobile parking with a bike lane, or widen an intersection to place a roundabout.

In addition, the fact that bicycle infrastructure costs money means that it is subject to a “rollout” model; each block of protected lane or thermoplast stripe costs additional money. Cash-constrained authorities will put the infrastructure where they think it is best placed, or where there is dedicated funding to pay for it.

Third, what makes the bicycle a remarkable machine is how little infrastructure it needs. People on bicycles don’t need rails on the streets, they don’t need elaborate traffic control systems, they don’t need merge ramps, they don’t need parking structures. They don’t even need elevated ways. What we call bicycle infrastructure is not there to encourage bicycling, it’s there to keep motorists from discouraging bicycling. This insight contradicts the idea that bicycle infrastructure should measure up to some form of “cost-benefit” analysis. The costs of bicycle infrastructure are the costs of allowing motor vehicles to travel without hindrance from bicycles; the benefits go to the same motor vehicles.

Points two and three together remind us that as authorities embrace the concept of requiring bicycles to have their own infrastructure, they will install that infrastructure to reinforce the biases of planners and other shadowy, unaccountable officials. My neighbors and I, though we inhabit a gridded paradise at the northern end of Manhattan, are unable to effect a comprehensive bicycle infrastructure plan that would allow people on bikes to travel easily and conveniently in all cardinal directions and access the bridges to the Bronx and New Jersey without difficulty. Instead, we have a half-hearted implementation of a Bicycle Master Plan that dates back to the 20th century. We get the infrastructure that we are told we should have, an infrastructure which takes for granted the primacy of motor vehicle traffic and is therefore inefficient for bicycles.

I confess that what I hear about the Dutch system of bicycle infrastructure doesn’t make me feel much better. They have a book of standards there that is better suited for bicycling, yes. But in everything I read about how the Dutch authorities implement those standards, there is no discussion of public participation. I enjoy bicycling, yes, and I value the chance to ride my bicycle safely, but I also value the opportunity to discuss my neighborhood and potential improvements to it with my neighbors.

There is no venue for discussion of the relative values of bicycling and motoring for getting around in our dense neighborhood, or of the justice of our neighborhood being the de facto doorstep for people driving to midtown Manhattan or New Jersey. I don’t think there can be such a venue unless groups like the ones Ms. Lugo profiles take root among my neighbors.

One thought on “Shortcomings of Bicycle Infrastructure

  1. Pingback: Wasting bicycle advocacy efforts on people who bike | Jonathan's Secret City

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