The Public Acceptance Problem Facing Cycling

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the fate of Federal funding sources for biking and walking, specifically the potential elimination of the Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to Schools programs. National advocacy organizations like the League of American Bicyclists or People for Bikes are continually asking us to contact our elected officials to encourage them to vote to preserve bike/ped funding.

At the state level, the Statewide Health Improvement Program (which funded a modest amount of local bike/ped planning efforts) was recently cut to a fraction of its former size.

We’ve also been the beneficiaries for the past few years of the national experiment called the  Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP) – a $25 million grant given to a local non-profit organization (TLC) to invest in bike/walk infrastructure. This program is now primarily complete. We have dozens of projects on the ground to show for it, but the prospects of receiving additional lump sum funding of this sort are slim.

Kevin Krizek touched on this idea recently – asking the question of when there will be enough local support for cycling that outside funding sources won’t matter anymore. Indeed, an unintended consequence of dedicated bike/ped funding is that many communities interpret this to mean that other funding sources shouldn’t be used for bike/ped projects. Julie Kosbab offered some thoughts about what the future might hold for cycling without some of our favorite funding sources.

Still, funding is not our biggest problem. We have a public acceptance problem. People just aren’t that into bike infrastructure – at least not when it has a direct impact on them.

We fully reconstruct miles of roadway every year. Why isn’t bike infrastructure routinely implemented at this time? When the implementation of bike infrastructure gets rolled into a larger corridor reconstruction or maintenance project, the additional costs are pretty negligible. In full-corridor reconstruction scenarios, this is not an issue of cost. So why don’t we do it?

The answer, I suppose, is that we want other things more than we want bike infrastructure. Our streets are full of competing objectives – bikes, peds, trees, cars, parking, utilities, streetlights, signs, lighting, etc. The biggest challenge to implementing bike infrastructure is that many (most?) people consider it to be the lowest priority.

Most people I know are supportive of the idea of bike infrastructure. However, most of us aren’t willing to give up the other things we like to make room for bike infrastructure. Like a headline you might see in The Onion: “98% of Americans support Bike Infrastructure Somewhere Else.” Perhaps this doesn’t describe most of us, but it’s accurate for at least enough of us that bike accommodations are often stripped out of projects.

There are countless case studies of communities who decide not to implement bike accommodations because it would require removing traffic lanes, removing parking, removing street trees, or have some other undesirable impact (the most recent Twin Cities examples being Penn Avenue or Central Avenue).

The bottom line: we all like bike lanes, but not as much as we like everything else.

I’m not trying to suggest that funding isn’t an important issue, but increasing bike/ped funding levels on its own won’t change this dynamic.

3 thoughts on “The Public Acceptance Problem Facing Cycling

  1. Froggie

    Coincidentally, the National Bike Summit is going on right now in DC, advocating for bike funding at the Federal Level but also discussing options if that doesn't happen.

  2. Julie Kosbab

    There are a lot of places you see the failure to broaden acceptance for non-vehicular transport. I keep writing about them, in fact — in Blaine, where there's pushback on using the Safe Routes grant to build some sidewalks, because it would "ruin people's yards," for instance. I've also ranted quite a bit about widening the advocacy circle. The reason the LAB can be promoting the NBS as "SAVE CYCLING!" is because the "movement" remains niche, and niche movements are easy pickings in budget cutbacks. The perception of Minneapolis bikeways as benefitting mostly young males in spandex (who are less likely to vote) makes funding assaultable.

    The "movement" needs to do a better job at addressing economic benefits and diverse audiences, and not pissing off the people who are diverse and trying to bust that open further.

  3. Ethan Fawley

    In some ways I see them as two different issues. Federal funding primarily goes to new trail projects or large-scale ped or bike improvements. They very very rarely go to a bike lane because those are very cheap. And trails are almost always supported at the local level. Everyone supports the midtown greenway (funded partly with fed $) or the root river trail. So, Feds is more dispute over whether we should be funding these trails with federal $ and not about whether they have local support.

    That said, clearly we need to build support for prioritizing more bike lanes on constrained streets. The only way to do that is have more riders!

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