5 reasons cities need better cycling infrastructure

"We need complete streets with protected bike lanes, and not just on select streets, but on all."

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By Ash Blankenship | @ashblankenship

Study after study has shown that bikeable cities create healthier, safer, and more resilient neighborhoods. Yet too many cities in the U.S. fail when it comes to transforming city streets into places that welcome cyclists. While we’ve seen the advent of bikeshare programs spread across the country from New York to Los Angeles, and many places in between, most cyclists still encounter inadequate cycling infrastructure. 

When we limit cycling infrastructure, we limit our cities, and as a result, we miss out of the many benefits urban cycling offers. Among these benefits includes the obvious, like health and environmental benefits, but there are other, less noticeable benefits too. Here are just five reasons why we need better cycling infrastructure in our cities. 

Improved urban mobility

Moving through the urban centers of our cities is more efficient with cycling—if the infrastructure is there. Biking to your destination along protected bike lanes in cities such as Washington, DC or Portland is easier and more convenient that making that journey by car. It’s not only easier to find bike parking, navigating city streets is less stressful that by car. Again, this all depends on the cycling infrastructure within each city. But with the right plans in place and designs that make cycling safe, convenient and easy, urban mobility improves when we get out of our cars and bike to our destinations instead. 

Social connections

When we drive, we’re boxed in, or “in a shell” as some people say. People on the sidewalk or crossing the street rarely notice the drivers inside. This creates a disconnect from those around us (which is why it’s easy for us to blow our cars horns, but not so easy to tell a fellow pedestrian to move). Cars shield us from the outside environment, and vise versa. 

Bikes, on the other hand, open us up to our surroundings. Cycling allows more visibility and connections with the streets, shops we pass and restaurants, and most importantly, pedestrians and other cyclists (though not cars, because again, they’re in a shell). 

When we bike, we also often have opportunities to chat with fellow cyclists. Even a simple “Hello, how’s it going?” is enough to help brighten our days and encourage social connections. When I used to commute by bike in Washington, DC, briefly chatting with other cyclists was nearly a daily occurrence.

Overall, saying “Hello” to fellow cyclists is a vast improvement over blowing our car horns. 

Economic benefits

A 2009 study of Bloor Street in Toronto showed that cycling improved local businesses. In discussing the study, the League of American Bicyclists notes that (pdf) “people who had biked and walked to the area reported that they spent more money in the area per month than those who drove there. The study concluded that the addition of bike lanes would be unlikely to harm local business and predicted that commercial activity on the street would likely increase. Three-quarters of merchants surveyed on the street believed that business activity would improve or stay the same if a bike lane replaced half of the on-street parking.”

Similar projects have also shown positive results. When parking spots were removed to make way for protected bike lanes in New York City, local businesses began to rant out of fear of a decrease in sells. Alas, once the bike lanes were complete and cyclists began strolling along the storefronts, business actually improved, to the dismay of local merchants. 

There are numerous reasons for this, some of which include the ease of bike parking when compared to car parking and the ability to more easily see storefronts while on a bike (or on foot). This improves the chances passersby will decide to visit a store or restaurant. 

Cycling infrastructure is good for all

Cycling infrastructure benefits everyone, not just cyclists. When streets are designed to incorporate bikes, it reduces the speed of car traffic, decreases the number of accidents, and make the street safer overall. So adding protected by lanes along streets makes them safer for drivers and pedestrians as well. 

A report from AARP quotes Dan Burden, the founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute as saying, “I've always said the reason for bikeways is not what they do for bicyclists, but what they do for the whole community. They're great for drivers because they make it safer to get in and out of parked cars. They're great for walkers because it creates more distance between the sidewalk and speeding vehicles."

Health benefits

"A study of 30,604 people in Copenhagen showed that people who commuted to work by bike had 40 percent lower risk of dying over the course of the study period than those who didn’t and bike commuters average a day fewer absences due to illness each year than non-bike commuters,” notes the League of American Bicyclists. Here in the U.S., similar results show that cycling is good for our health and vitality. It’s also relates to opportunity, because cycling gives us the option to exercise and improve our bodies, even while commuting to work. Many who take up cycling as a means of transportation also become more fit. 

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that biking is not a sport or form of exercise for most urban cyclists. It’s a means for getting around. But even as a form of transportation, cycling around the city has numerous health benefits. 

Cycling is one of the greatest methods for moving around our cities and its benefits are vast. I even sometimes go as far to say that bikes are the greatest invention ever and that cars are the best worst invention ever. Isn’t it time we made the switch? With better cycling infrastructure, we can. But until we can commute and make our way to where we need to go safely and with a feeling of ease, many of us will make the choice to drive instead of biking. We need complete streets with protected bike lanes, and not just on select streets, but on all. Considering just these five reasons and their benefits, imagine the impacts this change would have on our communities.