Someone asked me “So, Betsey…why bikes?” as in “Why are you focusing on bike advocacy in particular?”
It’s a good question since reading back in time on my blog suggests that “just bikes” is a significant contraction of my interests from city government, urban planning and economic development. Also a good question since my goal is to change the conversation (and the world) by fostering development which links land use, transportation, and economic development. The goal is to make cities more equitable, more economically and more environmentally sustainable. It’s not obvious why bikes are so important to this larger plan.
It gets even more complicated because, in my experience, presuming most people in and around local government can distinguish between placemaking, Strong Towns, smart growth, human-scaled development, urbanism, new urbanism, tactical urbanism, land use, land consumption, built environment, carrying capacity, compact development, green development, conservation development, low impact development, density, walkability, Safe Routes to School, and Complete Streets is usually a mistake. Assuming that anyone believes that the principles underlying these buzzwords are desirable or doable does not, again in my experience, lead to much progress. World-changing requires thinking smaller.
Bikes are Small
The nice thing is that most people know something about bikes. Maybe they rode a bike to school, have one rusting in their garage, or think they might like to ride for fun or exercise. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps they are committed bike commuters, ride many miles for sport (from fat to skinny tires; pavement, gravel or trail) or enjoy taking the family to ride on bike trails. Even if someone thinks riding a bike is unpleasant, unsafe or unworkable, they still know what bikes are.
So, bikes are accessible and talking about riding bikes brings urban design and transportation planning down to earth. By thinking about bikes, particular experiences, specific intersections, individual streets, and different kinds of riders or improvements can generate discussion, debate and disagreement.
Finally, on a project by project basis, building bike infrastructure or planning improvements is small, focused, relatively low cost and doable. And every year Northfield does a couple of street projects and each one of them is an opportunity for improvement. Indeed, changing the street landscape can be very cheap, quick and reversible. Fixing sprawling subdivisions and changing commercial development are not so easy.
Rather than starting at the policy level, getting people riding bikes is the bottom-up approach to fixing infrastructurally coerced car ownership.
Bikes are Big
If people can get around town easily and safely on bikes, other larger things are probably happening, too. This means that bikes can be a lever for larger change. For example, think about some of the ways bikes matter to bigger questions:
Places are connected (at a human scale) — In a city the size of Northfield, distances are not great (under 5 miles) so kids could get to school without buses or parental chauffeuring if a few obstacles were removed.Retrofitting Northfield’s schools for better bike access might also encourage building the next school in a place where it was easy to reach by bike.
My daughter probably got tired of hearing me say “You have legs and you know how to use them,” but she did enjoy getting to and from school independently and I certainly enjoyed not sitting in lines like this:
Aging and mobility — If bikes can get around easily, the city has probably calmed traffic and improved transportation options for pedestrians, too. As a temporarily middle-aged person, I’m working for a Northfield where, as I slow down, I can keep riding my bike and be able to ride or walk on and cross streets at a slower pace. Northfield has been hailed as a great place to retire, so presumably we should be continuing to work to help older residents get around.
Public conversation has been taking place to reconsider public space — A really bikeable place has been rebuilding streets where space is allocated to maximize public benefit, transportation choice, public health, and the environment rather than just moving (or storing) cars. Successful bike advocacy takes networking and community support.
Equity — Finally, my take on bikes is a privileged one, but it shouldn’t have to be. So, when someone says “Oh, you ride because you’re affluent, white, liberal, etc.” they’re right. I have the money to buy a house in Northfield near work and shopping (on the “right” side of Highway 3). Strangely, because I have money, I don’t have to spend it on transportation. I have been privileged enough to live in England and Finland as well as visit the Netherlands and Europe and see how cities can enable transit, walking and bicycles so driving is neither as necessary nor as convenient.
Working for better biking is also working for building more transportation choices into the place, connecting neighborhoods, and linking people and services. In a town the size and density of Northfield, transit is mostly inefficient, but bike connections make more sense.
The question “Why bikes?” got asked not long after I had attended my last meeting as a Strong Towns board member where Chuck Marohn, after talking about wanting to build a Strong Towns movement, started enumerating all the groups he didn’t like because of the narrowness of their vision. “I hate the bike lanes people,” he said, “and I hate the Complete Streets people.”
Sure “bike lane people” might focus too narrowly (as any advocate can see the landscape only through their particular lens) and miss the larger picture for the bike lane, but bikes are small enough to get some traction on much larger issues.
A version of this post appears on the author’s blog Small Town, Big Picture