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Posted
July 27, 2014

One Surprising Reason America Lags Behind the World on Bikes

Plus: How America's biking capital rose to number one

Davis, California, leads the nation in biking with its network of bike lanes, off-road bike trails and an increasing number of protected bike lanes. Twenty-two percent of all trips around town are by bike. (Photo by Thanh Ha Dang under a Creative Commons license.) 

America lags behind most of the rest of the world when it comes to biking.  Even Canadians were found to bike three times more than Americans in a 2006 study

The dominance of the automobile in American life--especially the influence of auto interests in American business and politics--is no doubt the overwhelming reason. But a surprising contributing factor has been the resistance to special facilities to make biking safer by a small but dedicated band of bicyclists themselves.

Although dedicated lanes for bicyclists in the US date back to 1874, when New York City’s Eastern Parkway was built, the first modern bike lanes appeared in 1967 on the streets of Davis, California, which was influenced by Dutch infrastructure.  A college town near Sacramento, Davis still leads the nation for the highest percentage of local trips made by bike--22 percent.

This city of 65,000 currently boasts 50 miles of on-street bike lanes and 50 miles of off-road trails, with another 20 miles of bikeways on the University of California-Davis campus. The community recently opened its first protected lane--where bike riders are shielded from moving traffic by curbs, posts or other physical separation --as part of an effort to boost bike trips to 30 percent in time for the 50th anniversary of America’s original bike lane.

(Protected bike lanes, a 21st evolution of Davis’s original bike lane, have been proven to encourage more people-- including more women, children and seniors-- to ride for transportation, recreation and fun. More than 30 US cities from New York to Indianapolis to Bend, Oregaon have already installed them.)   

Following Davis’s lead, bike lanes began appearing in other college towns like Boulder, Eugene, Madison, Palo Alto and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, as well as bigger cities like Milwaukee, which sported 64 miles by 1970.

These early bike lanes ignited controversy--not just from motorists who thought streets were strictly for cars but also from a few bicyclists who viewed bike-only lanes as a form of transportation segregation. The fiercest critic was John Forester, an industrial engineer in Palo Alto who resented a local law banning bicyclists from traffic lanes on streets with bike lanes, which he felt were poorly designed and too slow. In 1975--a year when more than 1000 bicyclists were killed on America’s roads--he published Effective Cycling, which became the bible to a small but vocal movement calling themselves “vehicular cyclists.”

Embracing the motto of “Same Roads. Same Rules. Same Rights,” they believed bicyclists were better off being treated the same as motor vehicles on the streets. Instead of bike lanes, they emphasized special training for bicyclists as the best way to make cycling safer. 

That approach made little sense to most people--then or now. “A car weighs five tons.  You can’t be equal to that no matter how well you know how to ride,” responds Gil Penalosa, president of 8-80 Cities, which works to make streets more walkable and bikable for everyone.

Yet vehicular cyclists (VC) proved very effective in spreading their message against bike lanes by claiming to speak for bicyclists as a whole. “A legion of persistent, uncompromising critics…held sway throughout much of the late 1970s and 1980s because city officials found in VC advocates the cheapest and easiest course to pursue”--that is, doing nothing for bicycles, writes Zack Furness in his book One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility

Their influence can still be felt in the national guidelines traffic engineers follow most closely, the AASHTO Guide (produced by the American Society of Highway and Transportation Officials), which ignored protected bike lanes in the updated 2012 edition of its Bicycle Guide. AASHTO’s snubbing of protected bike lanes has slowed their growth because state officials frequently veto plans to create them on urban streets that receive state funding, says Craig Williams, former Illinois Bicycle-Pedestrian Coordinator now with Alta Planning.

Fortunately, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) stepped in to create its own Urban Bikeway Design Guide in 2011, which outlines best practices for protected bike lanes and other innovative bicycle facilities.  

“Vehicular cyclists argue that anyone can ride in traffic, if only they are trained appropriately. That ignores the reality that most people aren’t comfortable riding a bike in the midst of cars,” notes People For Bikes’ vice-president Martha Roskowski. “Biking should not be a badge of courage. It’s should be a way for anyone to get groceries or go to work.”

“The vehicular cycling philosophy set bicycling backwards,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, which once was a stronghold of vehicular cyclists. Back in the 1970s, he notes, vehicular bicyclists had a point about the poor quality of bike facilities and the threat of bikes being banished from the streets. But today the League works with other bike advocates in supporting more bike lanes, protected lanes and other innovations that allow more people to enjoy biking.