Tag Archives: 8-80

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.

Get Assessed: Two FREE Opportunities to Improve the Streets

Often, the “high cost” of bike/ped infrastructure is thrown out as a reason why it doesn’t need to or can’t be included on a project.  This is almost always a patently false assertion and data continues to come to the rescue. Nevertheless, many agencies do not allocate their funds properly, resulting in an imbalance in priorities. As a result, bike/ped funding receives mere pittances, especially here in the Inland Empire. That is particularly glaring when receipts are low. While there are plenty opportunities to combine bike/ped projects into others, that often requires having a vision and plan.

Planning isn’t cheap, but doing stuff without a plan isn’t necessarily a good way to go about things. However, that acts as a barrier to agencies that don’t do a good job of allocating the funds correctly because it would take prohibitively long just to gather the funds for the planning, to say nothing of anything beyond that. Fortunately, there are two opportunities now open to California agencies to help get some stuff done for their communities at no charge to them. Yes, they’re free. Just apply.

The first is for technical assistance available from the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. This opportunity appears to be mainly geared toward policy and programming side. However, with the recent influx of SRTS monies into the region from the ATP, there will be many opportunities to get some stuff going in several of the communities in the area and this grant could be a godsend to those agencies. There is so much to be done around here that the influx of money will probably have the usual players in the arena worn down to the bone. The focus is on fostering cooperation, so it appears that all groups can apply as long as they’re working a SRTS program. Applications are due by September 26th, 2014, so definitely get on your elected officials, staff, non-profits, etc. to get in an application ASAP.

The second opportunity is from the State of California’s Office of Traffic Safety. Administered by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies., they send out two experts who conduct a Bike/Ped Safety Assessment. It can be either targeted to specific problems (i.e. lots of kids or elderly pedestrians get hit, resident complaints about unsafe crosswalk,) or just have them paint a broad brush. The City of Murrieta was one local agency that was the beneficiary earlier this year of a visit from them. This opportunity has no hard deadline. However, the assessments are conducted on a first come, first served basis, though it appears that they also take the standings in the Office of Traffic Safety rankings into account and give priority to places that aren’t doing well. The opportunity is open to any agency too, so it’s important to ask as soon as possible.

Many of the cities in the region unfortunately do not score well at all, so let’s make sure that they are putting forth an effort to right that. Several scored big in the ATP funding cycle, so many of them are slightly ahead of the pack. However, there are still many more opportunities for local agencies to put forth an effort toward bettering their streets, regardless of if they won. A better tomorrow can’t come soon enough, with this being a potentially important first step. Don’t let it slip away.

All users vs. all access

Recently, I chanced upon this post by John Allen. In it, he laments the current movement to develop bike facilities that are suitable for anyone aged ‘8 to 80’ (or an even more inclusive ‘8 to 88’) as being the cause of bottlenecks and generally unpleasant bike experiences. These concerns are also shared by others such as the California Association of Bicycling Organizations. One of the consequences of all this fervor has been that AB 1193 being watered-down amended to effectively make all cycletracks/side paths optional for bicyclists.

At face value, that may seem like a reasonable standard. As it stands, CVC §21208(a) requires bicycle riders to ride a Class II bike lane (note that one of the amendments to AB 1193 also finally abolishes the Class I/II/III nomenclature) except under the provisions set forth therein, but not in an adjacent Class I bike path. While the specific designs vary, most cycletracks that get people out are basically on-street Class I facilities. Design features used to separate the bikeway from the regular traffic (parked cars, planters, bioswales,  etc.) would inherently make it difficult or impossible for someone riding in the cycletrack to leave it at will to in response to any of the exceptions provided by §21208. Additionally, they would be “locked in” both physically and legally without the amendment.

Critical to that line of thought is the worry that cycletracks will be stuffed with schoolchildren and grandmas, ‘preventing’ fast riders from getting through. However, that is a remarkably flimsy excuse. While children certainly might be allowed freer reign on good infrastructure and the number of grandmas pedaling is up too, the claim that they’ll prevent meaningful movement on the paths seems rather outrageous. Certainly, there may very well be an elevated number schoolchildren and elderly using bikeways that have been designed to appeal to them as compared to the status quo. But it seems unlikely that they’ll completely ‘overwhelm’ cycletracks outside of a few specific times and places.

Schools and nursing homes don’t magically appear overnight. Shopping centers don’t mushroom out of nowhere. The general hours of operation and when one should expect to find the average user of those and similar facilities is common knowledge. It should be simple: if someone is concerned that kids might “hold them back”, then they need to stay away from where they’re likely to be found in any significant number when they’re likely to be there. As it is, the same exact thing already happens to cars too, sometimes with dire consequences for those who do not comply. No one can reasonably expect to legally hit top speeds (or even the regular speed limit) in a school zone during school hours. There are also sometimes warnings and reduced speed limits in the area around nursing homes, schools for the blind, and other areas where people are more vulnerable than average might inadvertently end up in close proximity to the street.

All of this brings up a deeper issue: why do bicyclists feel they deserve to be able to go at top speed anywhere they feel at any given time at all costs? As it is, society doesn’t allow it for car drivers. Someone wanting to test the top speed of even their Prius can’t even do it legally on public roads, and wouldn’t dare think of choosing I-405 as the optimal place to attempt such a feat because it’s perpetually crowded. People also don’t take too kindly to idiots who do it in the neighborhood–or even empty industrial districts. Yet riders expect to be given free reign of the streets without restriction, and often get mad (road rage?)  when anyone challenges that expectation.

At the same time, there’s another fact that needs to be acknowledged: in the grand scheme of things, bikes are slow. Despite the argument that bikes “belong” in traffic and the resulting lament that bikes are “losing ground” because some places restricted their place in traffic, the basic fact still remains that even someone pushing themselves to the limits of puking is most likelystill at least 10 MPH (but easily 20-30) slower than the speed limit of the road where a cycletrack would likely be most appreciated and necessary. As it is, all vehicles, but especially those going slower than normal traffic, are required to keep right. Does society need to accommodate what amounts to intentional impediment of traffic even when a facility specifically for traveling at the comparatively low speeds of a bicycle is already provided?

This issue will become even more pertinent as more self-driving cars join the roadways. They will likely be able to travel at higher speeds that are in excess of current speed limits far safer than humans, probably leading to an eventual raising of speed limits once a critical mass of them has been achieved. While they should certainly greatly reduce the accident rate (after all, physics does have its limits), forcing them to slow down to keep pace with bikes on all but neighborhood streets and dedicated bike routes seems unnecessary and cuts into some of their advantages. Also, they will likely free up a lot of traffic congestion due to communicating with other vehicles on the roads (and the roads themselves). That means that many roads that are built for peak traffic flows of today (or worse, in 30 years from now) are extremely overbuilt for the future. The extra right-of-way can be used for quality bike infrastructure instead.

Of course, that brings up the issue of what exactly constitutes a quality bike facility. If what ultimately ends up on the ground is truly inadequate to handle the needs of the kids, grandmas, and ‘fast’ riders within reason, there is a problem. Restrictions limiting bicycles to such facilities cannot precede the facilities themselves. As such, municipalities need to provide infrastructure that is of pristine quality, especially on new construction. Advocates need to hold them to that and ensure that only the best stuff ends up on the ground. There’s no reason to build roads to their ultimate width then not stripe the outside lanes because the capacity isn’t there yet. Meanwhile, these same thoroughfares often only include a 5′ BIK LAN at the edge of a nearly 30′ expanse. Situations like that could just as easily include a cycletrack instead of the unstriped outside lanes from the very beginning, which will likely reduce the need for them to begin with*. Widening projects that don’t include cycletracks also should be pressed to include them.

In summary, care should definitely be taken to ensure that bicycles are not marginalized nor maligned on substandard infrastructure. At the same time, the bicycle is but one tool in the transportation and recreation toolbox. If time and due diligence have been put into designing and building a bicycle facility of exceptional quality, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect all bicycle riders to use it. It may not necessarily provide for every single potential rider at any given time, but it should allow the vast majority of riders to be served almost all times. There are undoubtedly times when those minority riders will be served as well and there should also be alternates available to lessen the detriment to them. However, just like cars, it seems reasonable for society to have certain expectations of riders’ conduct including not impeding traffic and for them to not ride recklessly. Bicycles can provide lots of benefits, but they won’t provide the ultimate solution for everyone. Bicycle riders need to understand that and cooperate with reasonable requests put on by society.

*This concept has made its way into a project proposed right here in the Inland Empire. Harmony in Highland include what would amount to cycletracks in practice, but are called Class I paths adjacent to the road but within the right-of-way due to the complications of Caltrans.