Separated bike lanes may be the single most important factor in getting more people on bikes. You can run as many healthy-biking campaigns as you like, but if you want to get regular people to start cycling then you need to give them a safe place to do it. A new report from the National Association of City Transportation Officials explains why.
The report explores the "positive feedback loop" created by bike-share programs, better cycling infrastructure, and overall safety.
NACTO’s new analysis of seven major cities across the U.S. shows that, as cities build more bike lanes, the number of cyclists on the street increases, and the individual risk of a cyclist being killed or severely injured drops, often dramatically. The investment in bike lanes spurs additional cycling, increasing visibility and further reducing risk for all cyclists.
For years cycling advocacy groups have urged cyclists to "take the lane," and to claim their right to be on the road. But while that’s fine for enthusiastic cyclists with a taste for both danger and justice, it is a terrible policy if you want to get the average Joe out of the car. Bikes are a safe and healthy form of transport, but not if you ride them next to idiot commuters intent on finishing their breakfast while they drive.
As the Netherlands has shown, building wide, physically protected bike lanes encourages people to ride. Not only does it send a clear message that bikes are the equal of cars, but it encourages regular folks to get on their bikes and try it out. According to NACTO, "60% of the [U.S.] population are ‘interested but concerned’ about biking," and 80% of those would ride on a separated or protected bike lane.
Bike-share programs also improve the lot of all cyclists, even those who use their own bikes. Good bike shares flood the street with regular folks on bikes, which raises awareness amongst drivers. "The risk of a bicyclist being struck by a motorist declines as the number of people biking increases. Appropriately scaled bike-share systems can dramatically increase the total number of people on bikes in a city," says the report.
By matching protected lanes with bike shares, a city can motivate thousands of people to get on their bikes. That’s great for everyone, because it reduces car use, and makes people fitter. But for some demographics, this change is almost essential. People on a low income often ride to work because they have to, despite the terrible state of infrastructure in their city. NACTO says that 49% of people who cycle to work earn under $25,000 per year. Also, "black and hispanic bicyclists have a fatality rate 30% and 23% higher than white bicyclists, respectively." These are the people who would benefit the most from increased safety.
More and more cities are starting to look at encouraging bike use because it solves a several related problems, but the most motivating seems to be the need to clean up city air. Getting people out of cars and onto bikes is a great, and cheap, way to meet emissions targets.
The one thing that won't help cyclists be more safe, according to the report? Mandatory helmet laws—they reduce bike ridership while not increasing safety.
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