Since its inception in the 1800s, the bicycle has stood as a powerful form of transit and recreation. Even with the emergence and dominance of the automobile throughout the 20th century, the bicycle endured as a mode of transportation, becoming more efficient and affordable in the process. Now, as the once-invincible automobile begins to reveal its tragic flaws in the form of high gas costs, pollution, congestion, and rising obesity rates, it seems more and more people are taking to bicycles as a means of getting around. To many, the bicycle promises an active, fun, and relaxing journey, with the satisfaction of getting around on purely human power.
The current state of cycling, however, is far from ideal. Only a small percentage of people have given up their cars in favor of bikes, and even very short-distance trips are still mostly made by car. People do want to bike more though – a 2010 study in Calgary found that while 19% of people already ride a bike once a week, 59% said they would like to cycle more often. Bike-friendly cities have shown that with a properly planed and executed bike system, ridership numbers can be improved exponentially. So what makes for a successful bike network?
The most important attribute of an effective bike network is that it be safe. In the same 2010 survey, 80% of Calgarians reported that they do not feel safe cycling in traffic. This is no surprise, as much of the time cyclists are forced to share the road with aggressive motorists driving 2-4x faster. Consider that on a typical 60km/h urban arterial road, a fully loaded transport truck carries on the order of 1000x more momentum than a cyclist. It’s no wonder that in Hamilton, ON for example, 38% of traffic incident fatalities from the last ten years have been pedestrians or cyclists.
Safety can be achieved by realizing that a bicycle is very different from a car, and should therefore be treated that way. Bike lanes are a good start as they separate bikes and automobiles, but the most effective measures will protect bicycles as well. This can be done with simple barriers, elevated bikeways, or even by placing on-street car parking between the cyclists and moving traffic. On non-arterial roads, complex, expensive infrastructure can be avoided by implementing traffic calming measures, which lower the speed and frequency of cars on those roads. Traffic-calming approaches include speed humps, traffic circles, and diagonal diverters, all of which detract automobiles while having a minimal impact on cyclists.
Second to safety, a bike network must also be efficient. This is the essence of how road systems are designed; yet bike routes often get pushed to parks and other more recreational destinations. When asked why they do not cycle, 52% of Calgarians reported that bike routes are too out of the way. Inefficient bike routes can cause cyclists to take more direct, busy roads (thus compromising safety) or to leave their bikes at home altogether. If riding a bike to work is competitive with driving in terms of travel time, it is much easier to justify leaving a car at home. This means creating direct, well-planned routes that take into consideration commonly traveled destinations. Other approaches include creating convenient, high-volume parking for bikes at the front of buildings, bike lanes that separate bikes from gridlocked cars, and even traffic lights that are synchronized for a cycling pace rather than a driving pace (it is worth noting that the average speed of a bicycle and city bus are very similar in many cases, so this measure would cater to buses as well).
It is simply not enough for a cyclist to know that he or she is on a bike route – they must also know where it will take them. Therefore bike networks must also be communicative. The best bicycle routes have signs at every intersection indicating the distance, direction, and travel time to other major intersections and destinations. Again, this is frequently done on highways and roads, but often overlooked for cyclists. Some cities such as San Francisco have even taken to numbering their bike routes, with even-numbered routes representing east-west corridors and odd-numbered routes representing north-south corridors, similar to the interstate highway system. Carefully planned routes combined with effective signage makes for efficient, easy travel for even the newest cyclist on the roads (it also is great for tourists, which might help explain why bike rentals are so popular in San Francisco).
Whether inexperienced or well-seasoned, a cyclist in a city that is bike-friendly will be able to get to any popular destination safety, quickly, and easily. Only when these are achieved can mass-acceptance of cycling as a form of transit be a reality.