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Better Cycling for Maryland
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by David W. Sears | 2008

There’s no reason that here in Maryland we can’t approach the sort of bicycle paradise found in the Netherlands! Improving the bicycle infrastructure in Maryland will, of course, contribute to the positive environmental impacts familiar to all Sierra Club members.

Let’s spend a day in the Netherlands!  You will notice many people going about their daily lives using their bicycles.  You will see children riding their bikes to school.  And you’ll encounter workers riding to their jobs, or to the train station where they will continue the journey to work.  You will see mothers and fathers taking the kids to day care on their bicycles.  And you will see lots of folks with their bicycle baskets brimming with the purchases from shopping trips.

Bicycling is woven into the fabric of life in the Netherlands.  This is especially true in Amsterdam and other high density regions, but also holds in rural districts.  This is all very interesting, you might respond, and certainly spending a day wandering around the Netherlands can be fun; but what does this have to do with Maryland?

The answer: There’s no reason that here in Maryland we can’t approach the sort of bicycle paradise found in the Netherlands!  The arguments for improving the bicycle infrastructure in Maryland will, of course, include the positive environmental impacts familiar to all Sierra Club members.  At the top of that list is this issue: increased bicycling for transportation will lead to decreases in air pollution due to reduced automobile usage.

As the quick sketch of biking in the Netherlands demonstrates, the focus of improved bicycling infrastructure in Maryland should be on enabling and encouraging our friends and neighbors to hop on their bikes for daily trips to work, school, shopping, and so forth (this is what we might term transportation bicycling). While recreational biking is wonderful for its participants (think exercise and stress reduction), its ability to reduce automobile trips is limited.

The rationale for promoting transportation bicycling can be expanded well beyond the environmental arguments to a broader case for improving the quality of life in Maryland. In Maryland, we have been generally foresighted enough to pursue a rush-to-the-top strategy for economic development, which offers a package of highly qualified workers, excellent infrastructure, and first class public services, along with an overall high quality of life for both workers and managers. (This is in contrast to a rush-to-the-bottom strategy, with its emphasis on low taxes and low wages.)

The easier we can make getting around for our daily business and errands, the higher our quality of life. (You know that everyone in Maryland would love to spend fewer hours a week stuck in slow-moving or non-moving traffic!) Increased transportation bicycling is a key part of the equation, fully supporting our dominant rush-to-the-top economic development strategy.

Hey, a great idea, you might say, but could we get our politicians to move forward on strengthening transportation biking here in Maryland? For one hint at an answer, let’s return to Europe for a moment: this time to Paris. In July 2007, with the strong push of the mayor, Paris inaugurated a system of 20,000 rental bikes, located strategically at dozens of locations around the city. The Velib has been such a resounding success that the mayor’s approval ratings have shot up rapidly over the past few months. So at least one politician has reaped the rewards of strong support for transportation bicycling! Maybe it could happen right here in Maryland too!

In the US, the greatest success in transportation bicycling is seen in college towns, such as Davis (CA) and Boulder (CO), but larger more diverse communities, such as Portland (OR), have also used enlightened political power to build a strong bicycling infrastructure. So success in Maryland is plausible!

And what exactly would this bicycling nirvana look like? In the ultimate bicycle-friendly community, the very first thought about almost any trip is to use a bicycle. It is not weird or unusual to use a bicycle for a trip to work or to shop or for other daily business; such trips are so commonplace that they are totally unremarkable. In fact, for many such daily trips, no thinking is needed; the use of the bicycle is simply a part of the rhythm of life (similar to brushing your teeth every morning).

To reach this state of commonplace daily bicycling, the community must have in place a strong physical and social infrastructure to support bicycling.

The ultimate bike-friendly community is one in which bicycling is extremely easy and safe and pleasant. All major daily destinations are located within easy bicycling distance for the vast majority of the population, including schoolchildren and elderly riders, not just athletes. The routes would be well paved, well marked, and well maintained. The route network must be very dense, coming up to the front door of many common destinations (such as jobs and schools), and within a few hundred feet of almost all other such common destinations; and within half a mile of most residences.

In the ultimate bike-friendly community bicycling is extremely safe. All bicycling is well separated from speeding automobiles, trucks, and buses. Any bicycling on the same route as cars and trucks involves only vehicles traveling at 20 miles per hour or slower. This separation of bikes from high speed automobile traffic contributes to safety and, as a fringe benefit, makes the bike riding experience much more pleasant.

Eventually, strict segregation of bicycling from other uses will not necessarily be important or even always desirable. Part of what needs to happen in the ultimate bike-friendly community is that all citizens recognize that bicycling is a critical, and positive, part of the community fabric. Thus, all automobile drivers understand that keeping bike riders safe is a civic duty, not just an option; once bicycling has “caught on,” for almost all drivers, this will be easy because the very same person who is an automobile driver at one point in the day is a bike rider later in the same day.

The ultimate bike-friendly community is a smart growth community. This is because a higher density integrated-multi-use smart growth development is, all else equal, more conducive to bicycling than a lower density segregated-use dumb growth development. The reason for this: when thinking of transportation bicycling, for most riders in most situations, a shorter ride is more appealing than a longer ride. (“Sorry, I’d love to ride my bike to work, but that would take way too much time.”) Thus, the typical bike ride from one place (e.g., home or work) to another place (e.g., school or shopping) is shorter (in both time and distance) — and therefore more attractive — in a smart growth neighborhood or region than in a lower density dumb growth area.

The ultimate bike-friendly community has facilities in place at all common destinations to make the bicycle riding experience as easy, safe, and pleasant as possible. Thus the bicycle parking area at work (or at home or school or shopping) is not a dirty dark basement or alley, but rather is a clean well-lighted covered space near the front door.

In addition, the ultimate bike-friendly community has a system of market incentives and subsidies in place to encourage transportation bicycling and, on the flip side, to discourage automobile usage.

Many bike riders can and will cope with a community that is less bike-friendly than the ultimate.  This means that some level of success in encouraging increases in transportation bicycling can be expected even in communities that are less advanced.  Greater success, however, should be achieved as communities move closer to the ultimate goal, since many potential bike riders will only be coaxed out of their cars when most of the components of the ultimate bike-friendly community are in place.

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