The Holy Grail of bicycle advocacy is numbers of kiesters in saddles on two wheels on the road.
Some advocates are willing to do almost anything to increase participation — including putting novices in danger.
There’s a “but”: It appears rather clear that the more people who ride bicycles in a given area the safer it is to ride a bicycle on the road (convincing novices that the riding in traffic is already safe requires education). A new study recently published in Environmental Practice reinforces the safety-in-numbers thinking and adds a bonus: More people on bicycles makes the traffic system safer for all road users.
There’s another “but”: It appears that bicycle lanes play a minor role in encouraging people to ride bicycles (hoo-ray for that). This new study suggests that narrow streets, a dense grid pattern, and traffic calming are the real keys in the American context (or, in the case of this study, the California context).
Today I want to discuss one of the findings: intersections per square mile. The study shows that safer, high-cycling cities have more intersections per square mile than do less-safe, low-cycling cities. Safe, high-cycling cities in the study averaged 114.2 intersections per square mile suggesting a dense grid pattern. The following graphic illustrates common street patterns. It’s easy to see why grids have more intersections and why grids would tend to calm traffic.
That’s a rough estimation using Google Maps. By my (very rough) count using this map, downtown Springfield has 127 intersections in this square mile. Further, the speed limit is 20 mph on most of the roads you see there (exceptions include Grant, Jefferson, Kimbrough, Benton, and Chestnut Expressway).
The four safest cities in the study share something else with Springfield, but the study does not mention it — and I think it is important: The safest cities are all home to universities — Berkeley, Chico, Davis, and Palo Alto. On this Springfield map, MSU is just off the southeast corner, and OTC and Drury intersect the map to the north and northeast.
I’m only discussing grid density now. But this begs the question: Why, then, has Springfield not achieved the kind of bicycling numbers as, say, Davis, California? We have active advocacy (STAR Team) and a cooperative (even enlightened) public works department and police force. We have encouragement and education programming. While facilities such as bicycle lanes play a minor role according to the study, we have some of those, too. That square mile area has several bicycle lanes plus a growing greenway.
I think one important reason we’re not seeing the kinds of bicycling numbers as those California cities is because there are damned few employers of the kind that attract the creative class (notice the income data in the study). Yes, we have entertainment — mostly at night. Yes, we have a growing number of lofts. Yes, MSU is moving into more and more downtown buildings (e.g. Park Central Square Office Building, Jordan Valley Innovation Center, Brick City). Yes, there are banks and churches and stores and restaurants and other small businesses. But there are precious few large employers who employ highly-skilled, creative people of a kind that MSU, Drury, and OTC attempt to produce.
In short, the reasons to bicycle downtown right now are largely confined to after business hours (re: my first post today).
Our urban challenge (one of many): Encourage more employers of the creative class to move downtown. MSU’s movement into downtown is a great start. Now others must follow. Tax breaks help bring employers. Can we, however, save these breaks for employers that bring high-wage creative jobs to town instead of employers who bring low-wage, low-benefit jobs to town.
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