Friday, September 09, 2011

cities and cycling

those of you who've followed this blog know that i've been a fairly strong supporter of increasing cycling in the general population. i'm among the contingent of people who believe that bicycles, particularly in urban environments, offer benefits addressing a number of issues that plague so many cities:
  • traffic congestion--encouraging cycling, specifically among commuters, will reduce automobile traffic on streets
  • air pollution--reducing automobile traffic brings an attendant reduction in automobile exhaust, improving air quality
  • productivity--the time wasted in automobile traffic, especially during the times of peak congestion (i.e., rush hour), represent an opportunity cost both individually and societally in terms of time wasted sitting in a car that could have been devoted to other, more productive activities (and as much as this might be debatable considering how slow bicycles are, i think that bicycles are still better than the insanity of gridlock when drivers often don't even move)
  • cost--cycling is cheap. much cheaper than public transportation tickets and tolls, at least over time. and much cheaper than a car. a car involves the cost of the vehicle, the cost of the driver's license, the cost of insurance, the cost of fuel, and the cost of parking. a bicycle involves the cost of the bicycle and the helmet. and maybe the food and drink to fuel the rider. and that's about it.
  • general health--cycling, even for simply commuting, operates as a form of physical activity, and hence fulfills the calls among the medical community for greater exercise to mitigate the issues associated with excessive weight and sedentary lifestyles in modern societies (e.g., heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.)
lately, however, i've started to become more critical regarding the nature of bicycling within urban areas--although, make no mistake, i still support it, and still advocate it. but i have become more aware of some of the issues that surround it, and the consequences that can arise in adopting as a part of city planning.

i'll put it this way: i'm not a unilateral ideologue championing bicycles as total dogma, and i believe that cycling needs to be utilized with recognition of the issues and challenges posed by its integration into a society and a city.  and not all societies and cities are the same.

as an example, for Los Angeles i see bicycles as useful. hugely so. i consider it insanity that it sometimes takes 1 hour to go 1 mile during rush hour. i see cyclists who routinely beat car traffic in work commutes (e.g., a friend of mine regularly gets to work every morning from Santa Monica to UCLA in 15-20 minutes, whereas in a car he found it took 45 minutes...go figure). which is why i support the efforts to encourage cycling in Los Angeles, whether by increasing bike lines or advancing traffic safety. you can reference:
however, i can see that traffic brings its own issues. you can reference these links, which highlight what's been happening in Denmark and England:
apparently, cities in these countries have found that cycling is not a simple, straightforward solution. just as much as there can be automobile congestion, there can still be bicycle congestion, with traffic still being traffic. the issue also extends to parking, with bicycles usage increasing the demand for bike storage. and there is the challenge of acculturating motorists and cyclists to share roads in a safe and useful manner. essentially, what these cities are finding out is that cycling has to be introduced and encouraged with a measure of thought and planning--at least, if it's going to serve as a constructive component of urban life.

again, i don't want this to be construed as a back-track away from my support for cycling. i'm just saying that i think we need to be mindful of the challenges that face efforts to advance bicycling in modern societies, and not operate under idealistic romanticized illusions of it being an easy fix to all of humanity's problems. it's not as easy as a prayer for salvation; it's going to take a little more in terms of diligence and effort appropriate to the conditions in which we hope to have it exist (or co-exist). and each society and city is different.

i want cycling to be popular, i want cycling to be accepted, and i want cycling to work, and for these things to happen i think cycling needs to be appropriate to societal context.


Rocketscienist said...

Jonathan, you make a very good summary of issues related to bike usage. As energy costs go up alternatives must be implemented. A large portion of people are amazed when I suggest walking somewhere over a mile (I typically we walk most places as far as 3 miles- given the time/weather). This seems to me a cultural artifact.

Thanks for the post.

jonathan starlight said...

thanks for the comment. i hear you--i think most people (especially in urban America) are taken aback by the thought of having to walk more than 1/2 mile at any time, when people in rural areas or almost every place i've visited outside the U.S. regularly think nothing of walking 1+ miles at a time to do errands, shop, etc. (even w bags). makes one wonder about our perception of distance.