The Champ

What comes first: The bicyclists or the bikeway network? That question and a debate continues to plague bike advocacy circles near and far. While some people are convinced that bike infrastructure is only possible in places with existing ridership and bike cultures, much weight is given to the idea that building the bike infrastructure will lead to higher ridership and a broader bike culture.

However, I would argue that neither is correct. What comes first is not the infrastructure or the riders, it’s a champion. Without a champion, nothing happens. Not group rides, not bike lanes, not solitary bike racks in front of a favorite coffee shop. No champion, no progress. That leads to the question of just who is this champion?

On the one hand, we have the answer which is cliché and so easy to say in abstract: The champion is just someone who is willing to stand up for biking and the needs of bicyclists. Thus, we can all be a champion to do and demand more be done for biking. Do you have a bike? Great! Get out and ride it (more). Do you like biking? Excellent! Let your elected officials know. Do you want the bike infrastructure improved? Outstanding! Show up to meetings and demand it. Do you want to find a place to park your bike when you go places? Let the shopkeepers and store managers know. Concerned that there aren’t enough group rides? Start some!

At the same time, some people can certainly have the ability to really make big changes based on their position in society. Those who are leaders in the jobs, in the community, in their organizations can really make the real changes that helps support the individual efforts that we all are putting in. Are you an HR manager? Help make it easier for employees to bike to work. Do you lead a planning department at a city? Put emphasis on putting existing bike policies and plans into place. Are you an elected official? Put forward those policies for the departments to be able to implement.

However, as has become evident in case after case, to be a champ also requires the ability to have a vision of what the improvements would provide, to be able to sell that vision, and most importantly of all, be able to deliver on the vision in a timely manner. This applies to more than just getting infrastructure built but really to all aspects and areas. With someone out there leading the charge and getting stuff done, it becomes easier to gather additional supporters.

So as pointed out above, we are all potential champs, but some of us have an even greater champion ability than others. Let’s take those opportunities, no matter how big or small they might be, and move forward with them to make real changes. Together, we can create a better community for not just bicyclists, but everyone.

Vehicular cycling is dying and the internet killed it

In theory, biking sounds like it should be relatively simple (and it certainly is in principle), but in reality, there is a lot of minute details and technical considerations to keep up with. The average person is likely oblivious to the fact that these competing views are so well organized, but they certainly have a real impact on ridership.

Over the last few years, there has been an ongoing battle in regards to what the proper method of planning and designing for bikes should be. Eulogies (which is a charitable description in some cases) have been written to vehicular cycling, the less-prominent of the two philosophies in modern advocacy. Most of them focus on acknowledging that its techniques do have relevance as a coping strategy in car-centric environments, but using it as an entire advocacy platform is ridiculous.

This then is not another eulogy but more of a look at the why of how we are finally being freed from the scourge of that deadly policy position. There should be little need to go over the extensive history of vehicular cycling both here in America as well as elsewhere. The focus now is why it is finally dying and what that means moving forward.

Vehicular cycling really gained a foothold in the 1970s, long before the internet was available in a device in the hands of the majority of people around this country and the world. And while perhaps there might have been some photographs and film clips of Amsterdam shown from time to time, it was even prior to much of the academic research that has since been conducted regarding bike infrastructure.

Thus, when John Forester started his “experiments” in Palo Alto and later sounded the alarm to [primarily sporting-focused] bicyclists around California about proposals of various types of bike facilities, he was able to have an outsize influence on the creation of the eventual standards. Despite the limited communication tools of the day, he was able to marshal sufficient opposition to the “worst” of the bike facility proposals to get them nixed from budding design manuals.

But in the modern era, things are vastly different. The proliferation of the internet, online services, and smartphones has fundamentally change the world in general and no stone, including bicycle design philosophy, has remained untouched in that regard. Researchers now have access to a vast supply of bike-related studies done by the Belgians, Dutch, Danish, Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, and others. Meanwhile, practitioners have access to the design standards and guidelines developed based on the results of those studies, many times for free. (For those that require payment, the internet still makes the process much easier, with people being able to search for, shop, and pay all from the comfort of their own homes.)

Additionally, people outside of the fields of academia or the transportation planning have started to tell their own bike stories using various tools of the internet over the last two decades or so. A number established blogs and photo journals, all showing that biking can be better. These have resulted in a number of contributions including fine details and descriptions of different bike treatments, the writers’ experiences while out riding, and international trips and what they saw while on them. Put together, they really make an effort to provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of how much better biking could be than it was where they lived.

But while scores of studies exist which all generally disprove to some degree or another the central premise offered by vehicular cycling and people can write about their own experiences both in their towns as well as what they experienced on visits to places with better biking, there is nothing quite like videos to directly contradict various claims made against various types of bikeways to really put the theory to rest. Thus, perhaps the most influential change to come onto the scene has been YouTube. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words” and video relies on dozens of them per second. So from the the well-produced videos from the likes of BicycleDutch or Streetfilms to snippets shot on cellphones by kids, there is now no shortage of content which also draw the claims of vehicular cycling seriously into question.

Finally, the growth of the numerous social media sites and platforms has helped supercharge the above, providing the ability to connect people all over the world with the information in the blog posts and videos that they may never have found on their own and broaden the reach of the original creators to every corner of the globe. All of that has had an incalculable impact on bike advocacy.

With all that in mind, it should be no surprise to see  that by the late 2000s, cities were really starting to thumb their nose at the conventional wisdom and standards from organizations like AASHTO that, due to decades of vehicular cycling influence, have been against bike-specific infrastructure that is more common in societies where biking is more popular. Instead, they started to try their hand at those same sorts of facilities. Now, what was once a trickle of “experiments” from places like NYC has now spread to projects all over the country. From big cities to small towns, the desire to build bike networks has been ignited and the agencies are increasingly saying “yes” to the very same separated facilities that for decades have been frowned upon.

Most communities likely are not destined to become the next Amsterdam or Copenhagen, with bike ridership constituting more than 40% of all trips and making up the largest single category of transportation options. Nevertheless, it absolutely is true that biking can be more accessible and safer than it currently is in those places. It probably is realistic for most communities to reach the ~15% mode share for bikes which Rotterdam had prior to their more recent work to upgrade their biking facilities, but that simply will not happen under vehicular cycling. Thanks to the internet, cities no longer have to try.

So while there remains a long road ahead of agencies all over the place to provide access to safe and convenient bike facilities to their communities and vehicular cycling certainly will be necessary in plenty of areas which have yet to be upgraded, vehicular cycling as a position of advocacy to be preferred has been dealt a fatal blow. People no longer will tolerate being gaslit about their experiences when they can pull up countless examples of something better at their fingertips. For everyone interested in seeing more and better biking in their community, help is on the way.

Why Dutch?

Recently over at Bike Lab, a piece entitled “Top Down” was posted wherein the author argues that bike advocacy has been too focused on hierarchy on the roads and getting bikes on the top of the food chain. Particular umbrage was taken to the fact that at least in the Western/Anglophone world, there has been a lot of time and attention paid to Dutch infrastructure in particular as something to look up to, even going so far as to suggest that it’s just a(nother) form of colonialism.

Here’s the relevant passage, quoted in full:

Many of the cities I’ve cycled through in Italy, for example, have virtually no bicycle-dominant infrastructure, and little dedicated infrastructure at all, but have high cycling rates: Ravenna, for example, claims 17% mode share, and it’s common to see nonni riding there and in other Italian cities. I studied in Berlin which claims 15% mode share, and the cycling infrastructure there is…certainly not dominating. (Mostly, bikes ride on the sidewalk). There is sparse data available about cycling rates in the global South, but, for example, Raipur, India claims 28% mode share, and many other Indian cities are above 10%. The Dutch Cycling Embassy, and much of U.S. bike advocacy, seems to willfully ignore the fact that cycling is common in many places outside of Northern Europe, and generally is not done on Dutch-style infrastructure in other places.

Colonialism is not merely the physical domination of lands and people; it is also the cultural subjugation of different ways of thinking and being. A brief review of Dutch colonial history should make one extremely cautious about the top-down imposition of Dutch ideas on other places and cultures.

Jumping right in, it certainly is true that both of the European examples certainly would likely be seen as an improvement to most Americans, though perhaps for different reasons. Italian towns like Ravenna lack anywhere near the networks of bikeways to the quality that the Dutch have, but they do have some cycletracks (which in some cases, is a generous description for bike stencils on sidewalks) here and there. Additionally, the cities definitely predate the car, so they still more ore less have cores that are built on a human scale which also helps make biking quite amenable. (Space is so tight in some places that there are not even sidewalks.)

On the other hand, as mentioned in the quote, Berlin has more bike infrastructure that might seem vaguely similar to the cycletracks that people attribute to being Dutch, though its quality and provision are seriously lacking in comparison. They also have some woonerf-type areas (e.g. Maassenstrasse) and periodically drop announcements for impressive-sounding bike-related things like a network of “bike superhighways” stretching through the city and into the suburbs. So people certainly could get inspired there as well and in fact, it is not uncommon to see various discussions about bike infrastructure to actually invoke Berlin (or the whole of Germany more generally) as an example of what is “realistic” for America to achieve.

We were also asked how come no one pays attention to the global South, with Raipur being specifically called out as an example with a 28% mode share. However, no source is given for that figure and a search of Google turned up nothing remotely close. Attempts to just check things out via Streetview were thwarted since there apparently is no official Streetview imagery of the city. Thus, from what can be seen via a couple of 360 shots at various places in the city as well as some videos, there does not appear to be anywhere near a ~28% mode share for bicycling. What there is a lot of are scooters (e.g. Honda PCX) and motorcycles, so it seems more plausible that all the “biking” being referred to is that which is conducted by those vehicles, not bicycles.

Now to be sure, that is not to say that there is no bicycling at all. A few people on bikes can be seen here and there, but when one considers the fact that The Netherlands as a whole has a mode share of about 26% and just about any random picture most everywhere in the country, but especially in cities, will manage to include at least one bike in it if the photographer is not careful to exclude them, the volume of biking that can be seen in Raipur just does not seem to add up to anywhere near 28% at all.

(It is also possible that “Raipur” is referring to the city of Nava Raipur [now also known as Atal Nagar], a new greenfield “smart city” which is being constructed about a dozen miles east of Raipur itself. Nava Raipur apparently includes one of the first bike share systems in India, but the city appears to largely still be empty, with little evidence of any life at all on the streets. Nevertheless, a promo video of the town shows that they have built…cycletracks! But not to belabor the point, it just cannot be left unsaid that the quality of those bikeways is simply not on par with what would generally be considered best practice.)

Why Dutch?

Now with that backstory and review in mind, let’s gone on to answering the real question: Why Dutch? Why should bike advocates, perhaps especially in minority communities, look to Dutch infrastructure instead of something in say Nairobi, Manila, or Lima? What is so special about Dutch infrastructure in particular that they even have their own “Dutch Cycling Embassy” specifically geared toward exporting their expertise on bike infrastructure to the world? And why do even cities in the global South invite the DCE to their communities to share that expertise on bike infrastructure?

The first answer is that bikeway guidelines and standards should be based on objective criteria developed from the hard sciences with a goal of facilitating convenient, efficient travel by bike that is safe and accessible to all and it just so happens that the Dutch have thus far provided the best overall package in that regard. The Dutch recommend separating bikes from high-speed/volume motor traffic because the latter tends to be dangerous for bicyclists, as confirmed by numerous studies on the subject and which make the same recommendation. There are very real limits of physical space and the fact that only one bike can fit in a given amount at any one time, so being able to pass others and/or facilitating the ability for people to ride side-by-side will require width which Dutch guidelines facilitate well. Even something which might seem a bit minute or nitpicky like the Dutch practice for angled curbs next to bikeways is in fact very clearly directly related to the very real fact that a glance or a pedal strike on the usual flat surface curbs can be quite dangerous for a bicyclist.

Intersection designs should reduce conflicts and encourage speeds in crossing areas that are low enough so that users can see each other and react if necessary and the effectiveness of the specific designs developed by the Dutch for both traffic light-controlled intersections and roundabouts has been verified via research as being safer compared to other options too. (The other common type of Dutch intersection is that which can usually be found in 30 km/h zones. The design is more extensively described by Robert Weetman, but they generally just consists of features such as a raised intersection and operate by the basic “yield-to-the-right” rule. Research evaluating the safety impacts of the entirety of the 30 km/h zone program of which they are a part has found them to be successful at improving safety too.)

So in short, people admire and study the Dutch standards because the Dutch have achieved what can reasonably and pretty objectively be described as the best conditions for bicycling. The provision of low-stress bike accessibility is pretty ubiquitous in The Netherlands, Dutch people have the highest per-capita usage rates in the world while also still boasting some of the safest results for bicyclists in the world. Sure, not everything they do is perfect and it probably is true that not everything that what one might see in The Netherlands could be brought over wholesale without any modification based on local needs and concerns, but Dutch is likely still the best option that most places should emulate.

Additionally, the general backing for Dutch guidelines is in fact based pretty soundly in scientific realities that are not going to be much different around the world at all. Dutch people biking are almost certainly not more or less likely to die if mowed down by a distracted or drunk driver any more than people biking in Chicago are because all human bodies tend to respond to that sort of trauma pretty similarly. Thus, it makes little sense to exclude Dutch standards just because “we are not Dutch,” especially when talking about the expenditure of public funds that it can be quite hard to extract in the first place. Nevertheless, we have seen in recent years a gradual diffusion of various amounts of that Dutch know-how into other design guidelines and standards that are not Dutch for those who are really against stuff just because it is Dutch.

But there is also a second and perhaps more impactful answer to the question: Cars. More precisely, regaining control over them and their reign on society. The Dutch have done something to and about cars that many other communities would like to do: Come back from the precipice of complete domination of their society by cars. Even as car ownership rates and usage in The Netherlands having grown considerably since the 1970s when the bulk of the program to (re)introduce bike infrastructure really got underway, biking still makes up a significant portion of all trips taken by the Dutch, being only second in mode share (~26% nationally, but rising above 50% in the centers of some of the more dedicated cities) after the car, and Dutch society makes active progress to wrest more and more communities from the corrosive impacts of car usage. From removing parking in Amsterdam to closing arterial roads in Utrecht to reducing car access in city centers all over the country, the Dutch “war on cars” is real and bikes are certainly a part of it.

In marked contrast, cities in the global south simply have not had that experience and thus are unable to offer a blueprint that an observer from America is likely to discern as being viable. Many of those communities are either looking to “modernize” by adding cars and building roads or perhaps have already seen a substantial increase in the number of cars on their roads and are now approaching the point of being choked by cars. And while many of them might have had a historically high usage of bikes, it has been slumping as car usage has increased, including in some cases, outright bans ostensibly aimed at “improving congestion.” As such, while it absolutely is true that they certainly might have some lessons on urban and/or transport planning to glean about specific situations from those cities, the reality is that they ultimately do not offer a model of how to reverse car supremacy and improve biking.

(It is also worth noting that bicyclists who do exist in these global south cities, particularly around Africa where the infrastructure is not as well developed in the first place, are looking to see biking conditions improved and that they are asking for the types of investments that are generally associated with being “Dutch.” For example, cyclists in Lagos are asking the government to carve out space for them on the roads of that city. Ditto in Nairobi. And in Kampala, where the Ugandan government has endeavored to build a system of roads for non-motorized modes.)

So in summary, while there is a lot of consternation over the fact that the Dutch are seen as world leaders in biking, particularly by dedicated advocacy groups, the reasons for that are straightforward and it is not meant to be a “colonization” of communities of color. Most importantly, the Dutch have reversed the most acute ill effects of car supremacy in places where people work, live, and play which is something that would be especially welcome in communities that have historically been sliced and diced to make room for cars. Thus, if one is indeed interested in countering the ills of car supremacy in communities in a manner that works best for bikes, Dutch guidelines and standards are currently the most ideal for that job.


Amsterdam vs Copenhagen (part 1)

This is one of the best analyses of how bike infrastructure in The NLs is really designed in layman terms that exists.

Nicer cities, liveable places

Amsterdam vs Copenhagen…
…Netherlands vs Denmark

Part 1 – Basic urban cycle track anatomy

Despite the provocative title this blog post will have a relatively technical focus – comparing some features of infrastructure found in the Netherlands with what’s found in Denmark – and comparing both to the UK. But it’ll not be too technical. What I’m aiming for is to convey my overall impression of the differences in infrastructure design where this is intended to support cycling.

All being well, this will be one part of a two or three part series.

Note that the images in this post are simple sketches, illustrating my overall impression of the differences in relatively standard infrastructure in each place.


These images are not to scale, and almost certainly contain errors when compared to real infrastructure. Inevitably actual infrastructure varies hugely in reality too. What I’m drawing here is simply an idealised image…

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Street Design as CPTED

As part of ongoing efforts to address crime, cities and neighborhood councils across the country and around the world have turned to the principles of an approach known as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED). The CPTED approach puts a fair amount of emphasis into designing and constructing buildings and places in such a way that allows them to directly use the form of the built environment to deter crime and boost social safety. Similar to the urbanism measure of “eyes on the street” (which indeed can be considered a form of CPTED) that looks to provide lots of opportunity for people to observe an area, CPTED expands on it with measures aimed at many other areas of the built environment, from bathroom entrances to walls around houses to public spaces. Many people understand the basic goal of CPTED, as evidenced by its support in many corners.

Is it hard to imagine why people might drive faster than 15 MPH here, even during school hours? Image: Google Streetview.

However, while it’s generally accepted that design can influence crime in society in general, many people continue to insist that when it comes to traffic crimes, people should be able to self-police and if they can’t, that law enforcement should target them. (Though automatic enforcement that would catch all lawbreakers, not just people from certain segments of society, is frequently strongly opposed.) As a result, road design and construction in this country for the better part of a century has resulted in what amounts to the antithesis of CPTED on our streets. While we don’t usually build buildings without locks and just expect people to not pay unauthorized visits, that’s exactly how we design roads. Places that should be quiet streets are often roads are built features like wide lanes, paved shoulders, and clear zones intent on enabling fast travel with minimal damage when things go wrong, even in areas where slow speeds are desired. Then we act surprised when people travel fast through those areas.

The cruel irony is that many of the practices were ostensibly driven by a desire to increase safety, not undermine it. Open road practices and designs made their way down to the local street level, where wide lanes, shoulders, and clear zones have decimated many neighborhoods. But while these features work to keep traffic moving safely on highways through the countryside, they haven’t brought the same safety to communities because unsurprisingly, designs meant to keep traffic moving along at 70 MPH don’t work so well on thoroughfares where people live, work, and play. The resulting environment continues to encourage drivers to tool along at as near to that highway speed as possible. Meanwhile, in communities all over the country, the people who have to deal with the fallout continue to ask for traffic calming measures to slow speeding drivers and deter traffic from cutting through what should be quiet streets.

While many more communities are now talking about the connection between street design and road user behavior, there has not been a lot of movement toward viewing it as a form of CEPTD, which might be helpful in gaining broader community support for more controversial treatments. That could be because too much traffic crime is viewed as inevitable or an individual problem that affects other people and if they would just follow the rules, things would be fine. That argument is frequently mentioned, but viewing the street design as a CEPTD issue helps connect the dots to realize that these aren’t just “accidents”, they are very much related to the design of the environment. This shift in thinking will save thousands of lives, so hastening that transition will mean that it happens not a moment too soon. Let’s all help make it a reality.

Lessons from Amsterdam: How to make cycling easy and fun

Another writer experiences the joy of Dutch biking for the first time.

Beyond the Automobile

At home in Toronto, I ride my bike all the time. I ride for commuting, for leisure, for travel, and for shopping. Most of the time I wouldn’t dare ride without a helmet, and most of the time I ride by myself. I often wear more athletic clothes when I cycle, and many others do the same. I can even hear my mom’s voice ringing in my head when I leave on a ride “make sure you wear a helmet!”.

So, imagine my surprise when I arrived in Amsterdam and saw Dutch cyclists riding without helmets, side-by-side, and in normal clothing.

20170624_150354704_iOS (2) What is this strange world? No helmets, and no Lycra!

My three weeks in the Netherlands has dramatically shaped the way I think about cycling, and in particular, my perspective on the way we talk about cycling. I’ve come to realize that in its current state, public messaging…

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Equitable Bike Advocacy Includes Bike Infrastructure

Even as mounting evidence such as a research report from Governing reminds everyone that bikes aren’t just for white urbanites, biking has continued to gather a reputation as a domain of hipsters. As a result, despite the diverse ridership, the folks actually advocating for bike improvements have continued to not exactly mirror the people majority of people who are doing the pedaling. Unsurprisingly, this has lead to some friction and calls for more diversity in bike advocacy. The advocacy organizations haven’t missed the memo and have begun efforts like LAB’s Equity and Women Bike initiatives. Additionally, more community-based groups like Slow Roll Detroit have taken a more active role in advocating for bikes as not just transportation alternatives, but vehicles for social change in the community.

Nevertheless, many bike advocacy organizations and staff might consistently not look very much like the largest class or group of people biking. But that might not be inherently a bad thing. The changes that they (usually) advocate for do stand to help disadvantaged communities (of color) just as much as they help MAMILs. There’s no denying the safety benefits of dedicated bikeways and few would argue that a comprehensive network of bikeways that connects a community together and to destinations where its residents can find work, school, recreational activities, and more is somehow detrimental to the communities in which it is located. With many disadvantaged communities already ticking off a higher number of people taking trips by bike, making those trips better and easier to undertake will almost certainly provide an improvement in numerous facets of their lives.

A man and woman ride salmon on Route 66 in San Bernardino, CA. Bike infrastructure would immensely improve the bikeability of this location.

But what if the community isn’t asking for bike infrastructure? Certainly, there is a concern that advocating for infrastructure in underserved communities that aren’t asking for them is forcing something on the community that they don’t want. Thanks to both the lingering after effects of the highway building era then decades of disinvestment and neglect and because of a concern that bikeways bring gentrification, some advocates are even going so far as to say that disadvantaged communities should not get bike infrastructure and that focusing on “northern European” designs and solutions is out-of-place in communities that frequently have mostly non-white populations. But there are two major issues with the strategy of advocating for bikes by not advocating for bikes that will ultimately do more harm than good.

First and foremost, there’s the safety aspect. Where good, quality bike infrastructure exists, biking tends to be safer. As such, it really sounds extremely backwards to suggest that in the areas that often already have some of the most dangerous streets of a region, safety improvements shouldn’t be undertaken because the community hasn’t asked for them. At the end of the day, people still will continue to have to ride in those areas, often in conditions that are embarrassingly deplorable on many different measures. Not only do they deserve to have a safe place to ride, but it is they who need it most as they frequently have few travel alternatives and many have already been victims of traffic violence too. This is a heightened issue in regards to projects that involve once-in-a-generation opportunities to change the layout of a thoroughfare. Those should not be passed.

kennedylaan intersection
A bikeway in Utrecht provides connections for all to the city center and train station.

Additionally, the backlash against bike solutions that are primarily Danish and Dutch as being inappropriate in communities of color is misguided. There are some things that are just done better in some places than in others and as it so happens, those two countries do bikes well. Not only do they tick off the highest rates of biking in the world, but the stellar provisioning for bikes provides those at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder a viable affordable option for transportation so the poor aren’t forced to own a car. That’s crucial because while certainly there are plenty of disadvantaged households in America that don’t own a car, many more are practically forced to because it’s the only realistic option in their community, something that’s really becoming a problem in suburbs.

Secondly, bikeways are a commodity and like all commodities, follow the general principles of economics. Students of the discipline know that the availability of something is directly related to its price. In this case, the fact that good, quality bikeways are still relatively scarce in this country means that the few places that they do exist attract a premium in price as people and businesses seek out locations near them. The best way to counter that is not by keeping bikeways out of some neighborhoods, but to instead make sure that they’re everywhere. Ideally, that means that the plan should not be just single lanes here and there, but entire networks that form a comprehensive grid of LTS2 bikeways that are installed as completely and quickly as possible.

However, bike infrastructure is obviously also becoming a victim of its own success. As early advocates undoubtedly had to find a way to justify to their communities why money should be spent on infrastructure that “no one uses“, study after study was undertaken in relation to the economic impact of bikeways. Most of these studies have shown that bike infrastructure can bring positive economic change to a corridor or area. But those improvements do not happen in a vacuum. Increased receipts and especially values lead to higher rents. Once again, the solution isn’t found in not building, but in building everywhere. But, that does mean that going forward, it is perhaps time to lessen the focus on the potential financial benefits of any single project in favor of safety benefits that it would provide (though people also seek to live in places that are “safe”, so that makes it a similar driver of demand).

So with that in mind, organizations interested in engaging in equitable advocacy should do one of two things. When faced with substantial projects, such as placing or moving curbs, the bike aspect absolutely should not be compromised. In many communities, projects like that only happen once a generation or less. It is imperative that whenever they occur, that the very best designs for both safety and efficiency are used because redoing it later would be costly in not just monetary terms, but also lives and political capital. However, for projects that are less involved, it might be better to take some time to further engage the community to develop a concept that truly works for them instead of just ferrying outsiders through.

As more bikeways get built, more communities are asking for them. We need to make sure that they’re able to access those changes and benefit from them. While bikeways do bring change to a community, that change doesn’t have to be bad if the community gets involved to make sure that it works for them, including by broaching other topics that go beyond the bike aspect. Communities need to get in front of change and embrace it instead of waiting for it to arrive and trying to delay it. Doing so will bring many benefits for all.

VMT Isn’t the Problem

For several years, people interested in transportation and urban planning have been discussing the impacts of motor traffic (mainly private cars) on all sorts of things. Over the last several decades, planning in much of the world has trended toward catering to car traffic, often at the expense of other modes of transportation. A popular measure of how much traffic there is is vehicle miles traveled (VMT) which is as it sounds: a tally of how far vehicles are traveling. Here in America, that figure rose for several decades as more people drove more. All that driving has had a real impact on many different aspects of society.

In recent years, advocates are increasingly shining a light on the true effects of that impact, with many cities starting to take notice and advance (largely token) measures to address the imbalance. The advocates often point to VMT as part of the proof of the ills of the current transportation network in America and one state has even gone so far as to transition their traffic impact metrics to VMT instead of LOS that it is virtually everywhere else. But is VMT really the issue? Or perhaps a better way to ask the question is would the effects of cars on society be different if they weren’t going as far, particularly as it relates to the physical environment?

When approached from that point of view, the answer seems more clear: VMT is not the problem but merely a symptom. This will certainly come as a shock to many people who have argued that VMT is bad for several years. Certainly, there are several ills that increase as cars are driven more such as crashes, emissions, time spent away from family and home, and many other less-than-optimal outcomes. However, at the end of the day, VMT is just another metric that can be used to identify and describe the true problem: car-centric planning and design. But without acknowledging that the true problem is one of design priorities, not the metric, we risk taking the wrong approaches to addressing the issue because there are many car-centric solutions to the problem of high VMT which are ultimately detrimental to the goal of using VMT in the first place.

These solutions can take one of several forms. In some instances, new roads can shorten trip distances and there are even entire projects that shorten trip distances (i.e. grocery store in a community). Both of those types of projects can be completely car-centric and unusable by other forms of transportation, yet they can at least nominally, be recognized for reducing VMT because they technically do. However, few would say that such a project is actually beneficial to a community. New roads have the potential to induce driving while a project that brings shops closer but also plops a large parking lot in an otherwise quaint environment can degrade the quality of the neighborhood, including by ultimately injecting many more cars into a part of town that may have previously not been so heavily traveled.

At the other end of the spectrum, a people-centric environment can be detrimental to lower VMT by being designed to completely exclude cars or at least force through traffic to take a detour around the area that adds length to what would otherwise be a straight trip (see video below). Such a location sounds like it would be beneficial and desirable in many a community, but a focus on reducing VMT can lead to a project that would whittle away at the oasis in an attempt to provide a reduction in VMT. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is the same issue that has long been a hallmark and the bane of the LOS metric and led to calls for its removal. Under LOS, car-centric projects were advanced, even at the expense of all other modes, because they were projected to “improve” vehicular flow to maintain certain levels-of-service. Similarly, absent astute guidance and engaged leadership, that status quo threatens to continue under the guise of reducing VMT.

Of course, the future is far from certain. Advances in autonomous and electric vehicle technology may well mitigate the more pressing issues of private car use by reducing crashes and emissions. However, the use of VMT as the metric to measure how car-centered society is may well prove to just be a stepping stone to a broader realization that cars and people just don’t mix and that places where the latter are living, working, and generally going about their lives are not places where cars should be unless they’re just visiting.

San Bernardino Transit Center Celebrates One Year of Service

One artist used Omnitrans’ old logo as part of his drawing. Photo: author/iNLand fIEts.

This past Saturday, visitors to the San Bernardino Transit Center (SBTC) were treated to a tunes, a cold drink, and a place to rest between buses as Omnitrans held a party to celebrate the first year of operations of the SBTC. As local all-girl band Alive in the Lights rocked out under a cloudless sky, members of the community participated in a chalk art contest in the plaza in front of the SBTC. Artists were competing for a $250 grand prize and they brought their A-game with many great designs. As they drew, they were entertained by antics provided by the SANBAG See Tracks, Think Train campaign mascot  out spreading the word of practicing safety around tracks.

A little over year ago, on August 24, 2015, that dignitaries and curious onlookers stopped by the soon-to-be-completed SBTC in the eponymous city to celebrate the grand opening of the new transfer and customer service facility. The anticipation turned to excitement on September 8, when the SBTC officially opened to the public. Envisioned by Omnitrans since the 1980s, the Transit Center replaces the transfer hub that had floated around the 4th St. area of downtown San Bernardino for decades.

It brings together almost all of their East Valley service into one central location, providing connections to the sbX Green Line, MARTA Off the Mountain service, VVTA BV Link, (as of today) Pass Transit Commuter Link 120, Metrolink by the end of next year via the under construction Downtown Passenger Rail Project, and the Redlands Passenger Rail Project which is projected to be open by 2021. However, the coordination to ensure those connections are available and make sense did delay the completion of the TC, which was originally supposed to open before or at least in conjunction with sbX. At some point in the distant future, CA high-speed rail may also arrive at the site, which would truly awaken the city.

The facility has a staffed customer service desk and 24/7 security to maintain peace and order. Omnitrans has thus far received largely positive reviews of the facility from the riders, many of whom really appreciate the fact that there is an indoor waiting area, public bathrooms, and connections all in one place. The lobby isn’t a grand hall, but it’s design is functional and elegant and provides travelers a much-needed respite from the elements, especially those who are waiting for connections to Omni’s services that run at only an hourly frequency.

However, not everyone is completely happy with the TC. In addition to the usual complaints about the use of tax dollars for public transit, several people have expressed concern about the lack of parking provided at the site. This is certainly an interesting argument because, realistically speaking, there are few instances where Omnitrans’ local service provides a travel time that is superior to that of driving and most of them are not really in the areas around downtown San Bernardino. As such, it doesn’t seem very likely that many people would drive to park and take the bus, something which is already borne out by the parking lots that Omnitrans built for the sbX Green Line that are 99% empty 99% of the time. Building another lot at the TC for bus passengers doesn’t seem necessary and Omnitrans was right to not do so.

In the future, Omnitrans hopes to bring a transit-focused development to the empty lot seen behind the canopies.

Not doing so also meant that they have space that is available for development on the site that will be easier to convert to that use from an empty lot than it would be from a designated parking lot. However, since the TC is also going to connect to Metrolink, parking will be provided in conjunction with the completion of that portion of the project. Additionally, 10-minute drop-off parking is available on Rialto Ave. at the front of the TC. Furthermore, there are literally dozens of acres of surface lots available within a two block radius of the site that could be tapped with some sort of agreement to provide parking for the TC if it’s truly necessary, including over 13 acres directly adjacent the TC at the San Manuel Stadium.

While parking for cars at the TC isn’t plentiful, there is a decent amount of bike parking strewn around the site, albeit of mixed utility. The good part about it is that it is of an inverted U shape and square, but unfortunately, the racks themselves were installed far too close together, rending them partially useless. In addition to the bike parking, the TC is also host to the San Bernardino Bike Hubitat co-op shop. Since opening in May, the Hubitat has helped hundreds of Omni patrons continue rolling.

In the next few years, the SBTC should see an increase in use as more transit connections come online. However, most of the ultimate success for the Center rests squarely on the shoulders of the City. As they look to exit bankruptcy, they have the opportunity to really become a regional powerhouse and world-class city with smart investments and leadership. The coming transit connections provide an extremely advantageous starting point, but they still need to really take the reigns and look forward to the future. Hopefully, that realization happens soon and we can look forward to many more anniversary celebrations.

Progress Report: Downtown San Bernardino Passenger Rail Project

Work is humming along on SANBAG’s project to extend Metrolink service from the current terminus at San Bernardino’s Santa Fe Depot to the Transit Center in downtown San Bernardino. This move of a little over a mile will bring new options and connections to transit users from San Bernardino and many surrounding communities. Though it opened last year, the Transit Center currently only has connections with fixed route bus and BRT service. Once open, this project will provide the first passenger rail service to downtown San Bernardino in at least 70 years.

The switch that will be installed just north of Rialto Ave. is under construction. All photos: author.

Over the last year or so, the construction phase of this project has been ongoing, with changes slowly manifesting themselves all through San Bernardino’s Lytle Creek neighborhood. By far, the biggest changes are of the transportation right-of-ways. The DSBDPRP is double-tracking the entire loop from the Short Way Subdivision, through the BNSF San Bernardino yard past the Santa Fe Depot, then onto [what remains of] the Redlands District to just past G St., where it splits to provide a third track at the Transit Center and otherwise rejoins the existing double-track segment. The double-tracking will allow trains to freely flow from the Transit Center to the yard that is located about two route miles away in Colton.

In addition to the double-track, two grade crossings are being closed by the project: 3rd St. at the tracks and I St. south of the tracks (the intersection with Rialto from the north remains as a right in/out). The closures aren’t completely bad as especially with I St., it provides a great opportunity for a modernization project on an otherwise chronically overbuilt street. However, it appears that they closures will also cut the neighborhood access off, so that is a bit of a loss to the community.

One of the cross tracks from the Colton Crossing embedded in front of the Santa Fe Depot.

The Santa Fe Depot itself is also seeing some upgrades. The project is rebuilding the passenger boarding experience to be run-through to allow all trains to be able to continue on to the Transit Center. This includes an overpass of the tracks. But there have been other changes to the outside. Most significantly, the area in front has been altered to more parking away from directly in front of the building to showcase the entrance and really give a more stately look to the building. A nice walkway now leads directly to the front door and a crossover from the Colton Crossing has been embedded in the concrete directly in front of the building. There is also a pad and stop for the Amtrak Thruway bus service that makes daily stops at the station.

The completed switch awaits installation as work on the second track continues.

Finally, farther west, work has begun on the full extent of the double-tracking. Just north of Rialto Ave., workers have been putting together the switch that will provide the start of the double-track segment that goes through to the Transit Center. Additionally, fencing has been installed at the end of King St. to seal the corridor and keep people off the tracks. While the IEOC Line is the only scheduled Metrolink service to use the Shortway Sub, it is also the connection to the yard, so nearly 50 trains per day will pass through the area to reach the yard in Colton.

Ideally, there will be no major snafus as the year winds down and soon after we ring in the new year, we can begin to take advantaged of one of the most important transit connections in the Inland Empire. Already three years behind, it can’t open a moment too soon. In tandem with the coming Redlands Rail, mobility options in the East Valley are really set to be substantially improved. Hopefully, the cities in the region will be willing and able to properly manage the opportunity that they’re being handed.

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