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Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007 08:48 am

Pedal Power

Why aren't more of us commuting on two wheels?

More than one-fourth of all trips taken in the Netherlands are by bicycle.
Untitled Document A number of videos on YouTube and a recent article in the Wall Street Journal have featured a subject that obviously captivates everyone, from the hip to the staid. What’s so intriguing? People riding bicycles in Amsterdam. And, oh yeah, they carry stuff — kids, friends, pets, groceries — while riding their bikes. This broad coverage of a seemingly mundane feat perhaps points to the underlying cultural differences that have led to our amazement. Depending on where you are in the world and whom you talk to, biking can mean elevated status or a lower-class form of travel, a high-tech titanium joy ride or a commonsense transportation alternative, a societal amenity or an economic hindrance. Bicycle commuting may be rarely contemplated by most, yet it is considered by many to hold the key to greater independence, health, sense of community, and quality of life. It’s quite a heavy load to be carried on
two wheels.

While in the Netherlands, I, too, became fascinated by the agility of the Amsterdammers, many of whom were riding bikes that looked as if they had been moldering away in basements for the past 20 years at least. The city’s residents went about their daily business, occasionally toting such improbable cargo as cellos and typically hauling various numbers and sizes of passengers. There were adults with other adults on the back; parents with children, sometimes on front and back; dog owners with their pets, ears flying, in baskets attached to the handlebars. As they approached pedestrians they would ring their bells, a childish ching-ching that sent me back in time to training wheels and streamer-adorned handlebars, but the ringers of these bells were often men in suits with briefcases and women in dresses conducting business by cell phone. As awe-inspiring as this show of dexterity was, what was more inspirational to me, and most likely to the viewers of YouTube and readers of The Wall Street Journal, is the fact that these people use their bicycles as a true form of transportation, as if they were cars . . . SUVs even, judging from the heavy loads they often carried. In the United States, we mostly think of bicycling as a form of recreation for the spandex set or a fond childhood memory. Cyclists are often relegated to recreational trails and cursed when found on city streets. A quick scan of recent articles related to bicycling reveals the sharpest of contrasts in attitudes. The Chicago Tribune, for example, reported with much admiration on the architectural award a bicycle-parking ramp received in Amsterdam. The Wall Street Journal likewise touted the “cachet” lent by biking to the prime minister of the Netherlands and the “on-bike persona” of the Danish chief executive of a powerful pharmaceutical company. Springfield’s State Journal-Register, on the other hand, reported on a teenager who, while admirably attempting to travel the city without a car, was told at one busy intersection, “Get off the road! You’re on a bike!”
American officials have made pilgrimages to Amsterdam in an effort to study their cycling success, but there remains the feeling in the United States, as was also reported in the Wall Street Journal, that “bike commuters face more challenges, including strong opposition from some small businesses, car owners, and parking-garage owners to any proposals to remove parking, shrink driving lanes or reduce speed limits.”
Why is there cachet in the Netherlands and opposition here? Why are the percentages for bicycle use, for all trips taken, at 26 percent in the Netherlands, 20 percent in Denmark, and 10 percent in Germany, whereas in Springfield and much of the U.S. there is, well, more than there used to be?
And why should we care? Citizens of the United States have often found status in what we can — or at least could — afford to waste. We have been blessed with an abundance of land and natural resources, and bigger is always better. We are starting to discover, however, that we are now also wasting our health, our children’s health, and our sense of community. We sequester ourselves within the cocoons of our cars, racing from place to place on an ever-tightening schedule at an ever-faster pace. Some people have started to say “Enough!” They have decided that they want quality rather than quantity of life. Biking can be a part of a larger package of efforts that redefine our notion of progress. The U.S. Department of Transportation claims that facilities that aid pedestrians and bicyclists “contribute to our national transportation goals of safety, mobility, economic growth and trade, enhancement of communities and the natural environment, and national security.” In support, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991, and legislation has subsequently been passed to provide the tools necessary “to create more walkable and bicycle-friendly communities.” In addition, it appears that, like many of us, our federal government yearns for a time when children could walk or ride bikes to school — as about half of all students did in 1969 — and laments the health issues associated with the sedentary lifestyles of our children. The federal Safe Routes to School Program was established in August 2005 “to make walking and bicycling to school a safe and routine activity once again” by providing funding for programs and projects. So where are all the bike paths and bike lanes, the safe routes to school?

One hears that bicycle commuting cannot be forced on people and that, so far, demand is not great (and that’s not to mention the outright opposition). Yet one also hears that commuting by bike will never be a real consideration if the accommodating facilities are not first put in place. If there is not discussion and promotion of an idea that is very nearly antithetical to our culture and the perception of progress most of us have grown up with, if we are not introduced to new ideas and the opportunities to act on these ideas, will the demand ever appear? Can wholesale attitude changes occur without a nudge? What comes first, the infrastructure or the attitude? The will of the people or the commitment of the government?
A European study conducted to determine how the top bicycling cities in Europe became the trendsetters of cycling — and why others did not — appears to have answered this question. The resulting report, “Continuous and Integral: The Cycling Policies of Groningen and Other European Cycling Cities,” provides answers that are not exactly astounding. They found one common factor: “Prolonged, consistent cycling policy; policy embedded in a wider policy context of local, ‘deeply-felt’ objectives.” It wasn’t easy. Despite what we may believe about the ingrained nature of biking in some European countries, the implementation of policies that translated into facilities was often a struggle. As is the case in the U.S., European city officials found that they had to work to counteract what was, for a time, a growing car culture. The cities that immediately countered with innovative measures saw a reversal of this trend. These cities “accepted the cyclists as ‘normal’ traffic participants with equal rights” and decided that “a motor car infrastructure did not come at the expense of the cyclist.”
Although the conclusions of the study may not be astounding, the steps taken in the examples cited surely were. The report talked about how Denmark’s city of Odense (population 185,000), whose inhabitants used a bicycle in 25 percent of all trips, aimed to increase bicycle use through a four-year program started in 1999. Along with innovative infrastructural measures came such equally innovative promotional activities as “the continuous flow of information” by way of the Internet, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and lectures. The local media featured a total of 806 articles on Odense, the designated “National Cycling City” of Denmark, and two editions of a special bicycle magazine were created for city residents. In this way, the report states, not only the general public but also journalists and traffic experts “were constantly fed with new stories.” Forty-three percent of the children in Odense now bike to school. Other examples, such as the Dutch city of Groningen, with a population of 177,000 and a bicycle used in 37 percent of all trips, promoted cycling by giving heavy bicycle flow precedence over car traffic, installing separate traffic lights for cyclists, giving cyclists “the green light twice per cycle wherever possible,” and developing short-circuit bicycle connections that made traveling times competitive with those of other vehicles. Copenhagen? More of the same: cycle lanes and paths, bicycle-public transport combinations, bicycle parking, advance green lights for cyclists, better cleaning of cycle paths, campaigns, and information. Basically, the cities whose leaders that determined early on that an improved quality of life could be found with increased bicycle commuting made outstanding commitments and stuck to them and, as a result, saw bicycle use soar. The cities with “a more manifest pro-car policy” did not. Question answered. There are, of course, cities in this country, particularly some of the larger, high-density cities, that have implemented progressive bicycling policies and infrastructure, but there are always sticky issues to confront: anxiety over forcing people to do things they do not want to do, fear of spending money on something that people will not use, the perception that America and Americans are too different from other countries to realize the benefits of alternative transportation. How do Illinois cities, how does Springfield, stack up with regard to commitment to biking policy and infrastructure?
According to Ed Barsotti, executive director of the League of Illinois Bicyclists, the number of bicycle commuters in Illinois is indeed growing, and one message he is anxious to convey to local officials and the public is that bicycling is “indeed more than just recreation.” He claims that whereas 52 percent of bike travel is for recreation/exercise, 43 percent is for travel to destinations (2001 National Household Travel Survey), but he also believes that a lack of infrastructure and education are slowing this trend. “In recent decades, the road grid pattern has been replaced with cul-de-sacs, lack of connectivity, and development on the outer edges of town,” Barsotti says. “This makes it tougher to bike, especially when road agencies do not accommodate bikes along the arterial roads which provide the only way between points A and B.” In addition, he claims that there is “an almost complete lack of education” about bicycling, which in turn results in lack of skills and confidence to use bikes on streets. He suggests that it would be logical for physical-education and health curricula to include skills training in bicycling. Further, Barsotti believes, a seeming lack of demand may be deceiving. “People are waiting and eager for their town to improve bicycling conditions — even when very few take the initiative to push their towns to start.” In this statement he includes Springfield: “It is my impression that Springfield is ripe and ready for a comprehensive bike plan, with not only trails but on-road bikeways as well.”

For the first time this year, in fact, Springfield participated in an initiative that has also been used in the Netherlands and in Denmark — the National Bike to Work Day. It may be a slim tie to the striking measures implemented in these countries, but, along with the bike lanes I have seen popping up around town, it indicates a raised consciousness about bicycle commuting. Does the future hold even more accommodations? While talking with Greg Claxton and Susan Poludniak of the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, I feel the same old tug-of-war between citizen attitudes and infrastructure, between providing facilities to promote citizen demand and the citizen demand necessary to promote additional facilities. I learn that most future city roads will include bike lanes or off-road bike paths, but they are not, Poludniak adds, trying to make people bike or tell them they have to change. They are merely “trying to make opportunities available for people who are really interested.” Claxton, who bikes to work, is a wholehearted promoter of bicycle commuting. It was at his instigation that Springfield became part of the National Bike to Work Day. He, too, concedes that biking is partly a matter of community choice, but with enthusiasm animating his face he adds, “On the other hand, I think there is actually a lot of room for people to choose. Springfield may not have the density, but I think our size actually makes it pretty accessible — not for big trips but for quick trips.”
In addition, I learn that Illinois cities now face a unique challenge that has led to more caution in the consideration of the installation of bike lanes. Poludniak explains that a 1998 Illinois Supreme Court decision in the case Boub v. Township of Wayne, a suit claiming that the poor condition of a bridge surface in Wayne Township led to a biking injury, determined that local governments are liable for bicyclists’ safety due to road conditions if, and only if, streets are marked or signed as bike routes. Why offer bike routes if it means greater responsibility and a greater chance of lawsuits? “Bike liability is a tremendous issue in Illinois and a tremendous impediment to encouraging bicycling. It has created another layer of difficulty,” Poludniak says. And there are other “layers of difficulty”: Midsize cities are land-rich, making it easy to expand out and more difficult to step back and change; our zoning separates land uses, making distances between homes and businesses more intimidating.
Could we consider integrating biking with the city’s bus system? Can bike racks be installed on buses here as they have been in other cities so that suburban sprawl becomes less of an issue? According to Linda Tisdale of the Springfield Mass Transit District, this idea was considered last year, but the initial purchase costs and maintenance of buses with bike racks is high, and when Bloomington offered the bike-to-bus alternative, ridership did not increase. “There would have to be perceived demand,” Tisdale says.
Discouraged somewhat by what appears to be a tenuous future for bicycle commuting in Springfield, I have found it even more disheartening to continue reading about biking trends in other countries as reported, with apparent admiration, in U.S. publications. The bicyclists of Berlin now have access to bike paths, bike lanes in the streets, bus lanes that are also open to bicyclists, combined pedestrian/bike paths, and marked bike lanes on the sidewalks, which the Berlin Senate Bicycle Traffic Strategy plans to pull together “into a network with primary routes running from the city center out to the suburbs and two traffic rings by 2016.” I read that Denmark is about to unveil a plan to increase spending on bike lanes on 2,000 kilometers, or 1,243 miles, of roads. According to the Chicago Tribune, there are three times as many bicycles as cars, and “virtually every road has a bicycle lane.” I think of, on arriving at the train station in Amsterdam, my astonishment at finding thousands of bicycles parked out front. Perceived demand, community choice. Can mindset possibly precede the bike path? Perhaps. I think back to the excitement of Greg Claxton as he showed me his survey of bike racks in Springfield (there are 22 businesses with bike racks). I remember his telling me, “I have two grocery stores I can bike to. I can get to a video store and, thanks to the Wabash Trail, I can get out to the bigger shopping centers. But it’s something you sort of have to want, and you have to choose that.” Bike accessibility to other areas of the city was a priority when he and his wife purchased their home. This was not Greg Claxton the public employee speaking; it was Claxton the citizen of Springfield. He and his wife had made a choice and, increasingly, they are not alone. The 2002 National Survey of Pedestrian and Bicyclists Attitudes, a national random-sample survey of 9,616 adults, jointly sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics and administered by the Gallup Organization, reported that almost half of the respondents believed that there is a need for changes, including “providing bicycle facilities, e.g., bicycle trails, paths, lanes, racks, traffic signals, lighting, or crosswalks.” Now, in Illinois, there is the “bike ambassador” for outreach and training in Oak Park, a “bicycle task force” in Northbrook, the bicycle advisory commissions of Arlington Heights and Schaumburg. And there is the progressive small community of Grayslake, with its Web site flaunting a community-wide trail system that “encourages a healthy lifestyle; boosts property values and reduces the reliance on the automobile.”
And, really, which American attitudes need to change? Those regarding economics? Apparently not. A 2002 National Association of Realtors study reveals that bicycle and pedestrian facilities now rank second in importance as neighborhood amenities for homebuyers. In Illinois, Ed Barsotti likewise notes: “Towns across the state are creating bike plans and making both trails and on-road improvements. It’s getting to the point where it’s a disadvantage for a town not to do so, as its attractiveness to modern businesses and quality-of-life perception suffers.” Even in Springfield, as I learn from Greg Claxton, the efforts by a developer to close a bike trail were met with outrage. He told me that another trail in Springfield is now being viewed as an amenity to nearby homeowners. “It made me smile,” he says. A comparison of the list of reasons why people do bike presented by Ed Barsotti and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s list of reasons why people should bike reveals striking commonalties suggesting that, despite America’s much-touted love affair with the car, bicycle commuting does not call for wholesale change in American values. The reasons people bike, as cited by Barsotti, include health (making short trips by bike as a time-efficient way to fit moderate exercise into a busy schedule), environmental (reducing greenhouse-gas emissions), saving money (fighting high gas prices and car maintenance), and, for some, patriotic (reducing dependence on foreign oil). And what does the Department of Transportation say? That bicyclists contribute to economic growth and trade, enhancement of communities and the natural environment, and national security. There is a desire for our children to be able to bike safely to school . . . a desire for our children to be healthy. We want less obesity, less noise, less air pollution. If, in the process of striving to fulfill these goals we manage to do something to thumb our noses at energy companies who are raking in record profits — not to mention the oil-rich countries that support terrorists — all the better.
What is more American, really, than a fondness for independence?  

Jeanne Townsend Handy is a local environmental writer and regular contributor. She wrote about Lake Depue, “Battered but beautiful,” in the May 18, 2006, edition.


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