Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Great Bicycle Challenge

Is it possible to shift America’s car-centered culture toward alternate means of transportation? A June panel discussion at the Commonwealth Club in Silicon Valley explored the many facets of improving the use of bicycling and public transportation and highlighted recent achievements.

“[T]…there exists considerable room for the bicycle to realize its environmental, its health and congestion benefits when it’s increasingly integrated with transit services,” said panelist Kevin Krizek, associate professor of planning and design at of the University of Colorado.

Last year’s passage of the California Complete Streets Act reiterated the notion that streets aren’t just for cars anymore. Cities and counties are now required to include policies establishing that roadways are designed to safely accommodate all users, including bicyclists and transit riders. In the Bay Area, Bike to Work Day has seen a 36-percent increase in participation in the last year, and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition have both enjoyed steadily increasing membership. Even the Department of Motor Vehicles is in the process of updating its handbook to include more information about bicyclists and pedestrians.

As bicycling continues to appeal to a growing population that is concerned with climate change, soaring gas prices and other car-related expenses, figuring out how it can be improved upon in conjunction with public transit has become a major point of discussion and research among transportation agencies, engineers, and bicycle-advocacy groups.

As European cities like such as Holland and Paris have inspired U.S. cities to bike, the hope is for national standouts like the Bay Area and Boulder, Colorado, to set the tone for the rest of the country.

“One question I have for us in this room is: Can we make a difference?” the Federal Transit Administration’s Alex Smith asked the Commonwealth Club crowd. “Is this just a bunch of bureaucratic-speak or does this actually translate into results?”

So far, it does. In San Francisco, nearly six percent of daily trips are made by bicycle, according to a 2008 Municipal Transit Agency (MTA) report. And the SFBC celebrated a long-awaited victory last month when the SF Board of Supervisors agreed to support the resolution urging city departments to prioritize completion of the City Bike Plan, which has been stalled by a court injunction for the past three years. The resolution identifies bicycling as a “key component” of San Francisco’s Transit First policy, as well as the City’s Climate Change Action Plan.

Accordingly, mass transit agencies such as Caltrain, BART, and the MTA are experiencing an increase in ridership. Caltrain even reported that bicyclists are their fastest-growing rider segment, and 80 percent of them bring their bikes on board. Limited budgets make finding funds to accommodate the need for bike-friendly buses and trains difficult, but Caltrain has made major improvements since adopting SFBC’s Bikes on Board policy in 2007, which added bikes-only cars to most of its trains and removing seats in others. According to a presentation by Bikes on Board founder and former Bicycle Commuter of the Year Shirley Johnson, a 48-percent increase in bicycle boardings was seen following the change.

The city of San Jose has done considerable work in getting people to bike and take transit, by adding bike lanes, offering subsidies to employees who take public transit, and providing bicycle storage facilities at many work places. Even smog-filled, car-dependent Los Angeles was able to get more people to turn to public transportation when the city implemented a major overhaul of its rapid transit system in 2005.

But biking advocates say that there is still a long way to go. Beyond all the red tape and funding shortfalls, many people are still reluctant to get on a bike for simple reasons: Time, space, and safety.

Storage security and capacity constraints compound the issue of transporting bikes onboard transit all of the time, making people hesitant to rely on the existing system. Poorly marked bike lanes, unaware drivers and quick-moving traffic also top the list of reasons not to get on the bike. Moreover, latent demand and perception come into play: Many people simply don’t know what’s available and how they can use it.

While it’s clear that an increasing number of city and state agencies and advocacy groups are making cleaner, more efficient means of transportation a priority, the methods that should be used are up for debate. Options being discussed include taxing gasoline to allocate funds specifically for bicycle and pedestrian improvements, more comprehensive research, increased education, and creating new – albeit more expensive – infrastructure are all options.

Advocates say that for the small, vocal, roughly two-percent of people already bicycling and taking transit, things can only get better. For those still relying on cars, things must get better or they will never change. The Federal Transit Administration reports that more than half of U.S. residents live within two miles of a transit station; maybe getting these people out of their cars, on to a bike and to a station shouldn’t be so difficult, but it comes slowly to a nation that has relied on the increased mobility allowed by motor vehicles for the past century.

Though America may never mirror the bicycle haven of Amsterdam, one day it could certainly look a little more like the Bay Area.

Listen to streaming audio of the Commonwealth Club's bicycle summit.

--Heather Mack


Post a Comment

Thank you for visiting us. Please post your message. We ask that all comments be considerate of the many viewpoints and backgrounds of our other readers.