The Importance of Bicycling Infrastructure in American Cities

Tuesday February 2, 2016, the Winter Cycling Congress began in Minneapolis, with 275 people from all over the world coming to the Congress. The Winter Cycling Congress adopted its name due to the issue at hand. There are both real and perceived barriers to biking in the wintertime, but as one panelist wittily noted, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” The Congress’ main focus, however, was to find ways to improve the equity of bicycling. The overarching vision is “winter cycling for everyone,” a world where cycling is understood as commonplace, where cities take the initiative to become more bike friendly and increase bike riding. Cycling should be an available opportunity for everyone, regardless of the season, but it will continue to be inhibited if America remains auto-centric. Full equity would allow for everyone to have the opportunity to bike year-round and safely, but this interested me because I wanted to connect it to my everyday life and understand how I can encourage year-round bicycling. It is not just winter cycling urban planners need to focus on, but year-round bicycling.

City planners from the Netherlands, Seattle, Denver, and the Twin Cities area came to speak about bike infrastructure in urban areas and why cities need to go from being car spaces to being bike-friendly places. Although bicycling is still a recreational activity, it has evolved into much more. Bicycling is becoming a way of commuting to and from places, especially in highly concentrated urban areas. It offers healthy benefits, saves money, and helps the environment. These urban areas have to consider making the move toward being bicycle friendly because cars will take up too much of the space within the city.

Cars take up too much space?

So, while America needs to consider moving away from being a car country, we continue to manufacture cars and import them. Climate change is a problem, cars are expensive, and they’re taking up unnecessary space. Cars produce carbon emissions into the air, polluting the air and contributing to climate change. And, while gasoline prices may be at an all-time low, this joy ride will not last forever. As less gasoline is dug out of the Earth, car companies will need to depend on new innovative ways to manufacture cars.

A popular theory is that Americans have a love affair with their cars, that cars are deeply embedded historically. This is plausible. Cars provide a convenience that bicycles do not, at first. As a bicycle commuter and a driver, I understand both sides of the love affair. I came from a town where bicycling was not an option and I had to drive to get most places. I came from a town that was surrounded by rural communities where streets were lined with large farm trucks, not a friendly environment for someone on a bike. I fell in love with driving because riding a bike was not a safe option. Then I moved to the Twin Cities, one of the most bike-friendly places in America, and I learned how to commute by bike. I became comfortable signaling and being on the road with drivers. When I went home for winter break I was less than excited to drive. I had the same freedom and mobility, but it was not the same as biking. Bicycling has health benefits, providing daily exercise, and it makes commuting almost easier because you are not stuck in traffic nearly as long as you are in a car.

As I learned from the congress, most places are providing more public transportation and bicycle infrastructure to promote less car usage. For example, with the implementation of the Green Line, Minneapolis and Saint Paul are making the shift towards more public transportation and more bicycle infrastructure, similarly to major European cities. Speakers from Europe were especially keen to point how their cities were consistently listed as the most bike friendly places. However, Europe cities were designed and built long before the invention of the automobile. European cities are older and it was harder to provide for a car landscape. European cities were perfectly capable of building highways and they are perfectly capable of tearing them down. In 2011 Madrid, Spain tore down one of its major highways and rebuilt it as a park. The park, named Madrid Río, expands six miles and focuses on Manzanares River. All across the world, highways and car-focused landscapes are being reclaimed by waterfronts and new public spaces. Protected bike lanes are in the toolbox for city planners to protect bikers.

It is not reasonable to say we can completely get rid of cars; however, it is an option to bike, walk, or use multi-modal means of transportation (bus or light rail, and in combination with walking) in urban areas. That is something I have learned how to do while living in the Twin Cities: if you are biking longer distances it can be more feasible to use a multi-modal system of transportation. Automobile and oil companies are the third strongest lobbying efforts in the country and influence decisions by those in charge. In 2013, German Chancellor Angela Merkel accepted a donation from Bavarian car-maker BMW, just days before European environment ministers were to give in to German demands to scrap an agreement to cap car emissions after Berlin argued that the measure would adversely affect its car industry and create job losses. Her decision to accept the donation shows how political leadership decisions can be driven by where the money is. Car companies and oil companies lobby to gain support of politicians and they win out over the greater common good.

However, if leaders attempted to implement bicycling incentives for businesses, companies, and the public then the world would have less carbon emissions released into the world on a daily basis. For me, biking everywhere is a challenge, but I feel good about myself after I bike to a place. Biking allows me to see neighborhoods and know the area better. As a biker I see myself as one less person contributing to carbon emissions and I want others to see themselves that way too. If we change our view on public transportation and bicycling–as I have–then we may all have the opportunity to become a part of our daily commute and ultimately change our world.

Written by Samantha Manz. Sam is a student at Macalester College, class of 2019, planning to study history and economics. She became interested in urban cycling when she moved to the Twin Cities for college, but she is originally from Lubbock, Texas, where there is little bicycling infrastructure. Her favorite sandwich is banana, honey, and peanut butter.


Macalester Student Perspectives

About Macalester Student Perspectives

Contributing writers to this column were college students enrolled at Macalester College in Saint Paul. These posts were part of classes in the Environmental Studies, Geography, and Urban Studies Programs.