Lack of appropriate biking infrastructureSorry to the vehicular cycling fans, but vehicular cycling, as in making bikes share roads with cars, is just not for the masses. It may work individually, but not only are most people understandably not keen on it, but I don't think it could support a massive amount of cycling. Vehicular cycling work best when it's rare. Also, to be able to keep up with cars, it is important to be able to go at high speed, which doesn't work well with urban and utilitarian cycling.
Bikes can share the street with cars as long as traffic is low and vehicle speeds are slow, however, if vehicle speeds are high or traffic is heavy, in order to protect cyclists and to incite more people to bike, we need to protect cyclists from traffic so that people may feel safe biking at their own speed.
So all in all, it's important to build a strong biking network with bike lanes and bike paths. But just building them is not sufficient, we must build a smart network that works well for cycling as a valid transport choice, not just as a sport or as a recreational activity.
Here are some examples of bike paths that I think are inappropriate to support mass cycling.
The scenic route
|One of Québec's Route Verte cycling ways, this one a 9-km biking path that goes from nowhere to nowhere in the middle of fields|
The back route
The back route is a cycling path or lane built on a back road or residential street, it sometimes parallels major arterial streets without ever meeting it. Often built as it is the path of least resistance, there is little traffic on the street and it is already a relatively safe place to bike. So building a bike lane there meets little opposition from motorists or residents. In fact, many times the route will have been proposed as an alternative to a more serious proposal of a bike path on a major arterial street, based on the argument that the bike path would have less "impact" there. Well, credit where credit is due, they're right, those paths have few impacts... either on traffic or on bike use. They can be useful for longer distance trips, but at the end of the trip, you have a "last mile" problem, just like transit: how will you travel the last mile if there is no bike facility near to your destination, which is located on a main arterial street with heavy traffic?
The grotesquely inappropriate biking facility
|Riverside Drive in Ottawa, 3 lanes of traffic, speed limit of 60 km/h (37 mph)... painted bike lanes on the shoulders|
Basic principles of proper bike pathsHere is my understanding of what makes for a proper cycling network. First, it is important to understand how trips are made. Trips have an origin and a destination, the origin is mostly residential, people live in their homes, then have to leave to do certain activities (work, shopping, etc...). Meanwhile, destinations are commerces, offices, factories, restaurants, etc... Most trips are thus residential to commercial or offices, with rarer trips being commercial to commercial or residential to residential. So to be really useful, you need to have bike paths that can take people to "destinations", with varied uses along the way. In most cities, these destinations tend to be grouped around main arterial streets that tend to have a lot of lanes and to favor through traffic.
So bike networks absolutely need to be built on these major commercial thoroughfares, because that is where most trips end up (ignore return trips). Avoiding these major arterials because it's considered too "hard" to find space for bike paths without affecting car traffic is the most common mistake made in building biking networks.
What type of bike facility to build is dependent on what kind of traffic you expect on the street. On narrow local streets with little traffic, no bike facility is actually required. People can easily bike safely at their own pace as they will cross few cars along the way, and the few they do cross will tend to be slow.
Bike lanes are useful on larger streets with little traffic, the bike lanes here serve to narrow the travel lanes and keep the speed of vehicles down. In other words, their main purpose is just traffic-calming, and not actually to protect cyclists. Lane markings tend to be very respected by car drivers, used as they are to follow them on highways and other roads with heavy traffic.
But when you have a lot of traffic, physically separated bike paths are almost required. Having bikes travel between lines of cars and parked cars is extremely stressful and not comfortable at all. Bike paths should ideally (just like sidewalks) have a physical barrier between the curb and themselves. This is not only about protecting people from cars but about creating the impression of an hallway with walls on either side rather than giving the impression to bikes and pedestrians that they are on a ledge on the side of a cliff. Oh, and a green "buffer" in the form of a strip of lawn is almost completely useless for this purpose.
|Sidewalk in Sapporo with trees serving as barrier (remember that Japanese sidewalks also double as multi-purpose paths)|
So, if I may sum up:
- The biking network MUST include biking facilities on major commercial arterial streets
- It must be easy to understand and ideally be in a grid
- Bike facilities on wide streets with heavy traffic must be protected bike paths with barriers between cars and bikes
- Bike lanes must be built on wide streets with little traffic mainly as traffic-calming
- There is no point in building bike facilities on residential streets with little traffic
|Amsterdam arterial road, with segregated bike paths|
|A commercial street in a smaller Dutch city, again bike paths located on the outer side of parked cars and trees|
|But merely bike lanes on collector streets with low traffic...|
|...and no particular marking on traffic-calmed local residential streets|
Unsafe/insufficient bike parkingAs I pointed out in the beginning, bikes do share a downside with cars, namely the need for parking. They're nowhere near as bad as cars, you can fit maybe 8-10 bikes in one parking stall for a car, but bikes still require parking at destination.
|Bike parking garage near Chigasaki station|
Still, you need to have enough space for bikes, it's not like the space for them is lacking with all the parking lots we have, but we need to provide for more space for them and indicate to people they can use it.
One of the big problems we have in order to get people to use bikes is the insecurity issue. Every day, bikes are stolen, for thieves, it's a low-risk, low-reward job as quite frankly, cops mostly don't give a damn about it and even if they're caught, the sentences are likely to be light as bikes are not very expensive goods. However, it's still enraging to come back to see a broken lock on the ground and your bike gone, and this discourages the use of bikes for many, especially in urban areas that otherwise would be perfect for biking.
If biking is to become really popular, I think some steps need to be taken to reduce bike thefts, whether it is through offering more secure bike racks or bike garages/parking lots...
|Self-locking bike racks in Gotanda, Tokyo|
Again, in Japan, every bike is registered at the point of sale and every bike comes with a wheel lock that, if it doesn't prevent people from picking up and carrying locked bikes, can identify stolen bikes by the absence of wheel lock or the presence of a broken one.
|Wheel lock on Japanese bike|
|Small bike parking lot, note that none of them are locked to racks with U-locks or chains|
Lack of affordable city bikesThe North American bike market sucks. There, I said it. There is a distinct lack of the kind of city bike that is all the rage in the Netherlands, Denmark, China and Japan (amongst other places). Affordable bikes tend to be mountain bikes with plenty of speeds but devoid of almost any equipment necessary for utilitarian bikes, requiring much time and money to equip a bike for utilitarian use.
What does a city bike require?
|Typical Japanese city bike (Dutch and Danish city bikes are similar)|
- Mudguards, to be able to bike in the rain while limiting stains
- Chainguard, to protect the chain from the weather and to be able to use the bike in whatever clothing you want without the risk of chain grease on legs
- Comfortable seating position, not hunched over forward (an uncomfortable position nonetheless useful for high speeds)
- Basket in front to be able to carry small bags and the like
- Baggage rack at the rear, when the basket doesn't suffice
- Bike stand
- Step-through frames
- Wheel lock
- Transmissions with plenty of speeds, 1 to 3 is quite sufficient as bikes shouldn't be used to go very quickly and simpler transmissions are tougher and need less maintenance
- Sophisticated alloy frames
- A high price tag (so that if it gets damaged or stolen, it is no big loss and is easily replaced)
|BIXIs (same model as CitiBikes) are city bikes in terms of design|