My headline over-promises. I am not particularly interested in increasing participation as an end in itself.
But it is clear that many bicycle advocates believe that providing such infrastructure as bicycle lanes, tracks, and separated paths does increase participation. According to recent studies, it’s not entirely clear what the cause-and-effect relationship actually is between infrastructure and participation.
I think it is especially difficult to measure participation across purposes. Bicycle commuting is a particular purpose. Recreation is a particular purpose. Exercise is a particular purpose. Basic transportation ( or utility bicycling) is a particular purpose. It seems to me that each of these purposes has particular constituencies. And some bicyclists — your author, for example — is a member of more than one.
In order to increase participation through infrastructure, transportation planners must first understand infrastructure in the context of particular purposes. That seems like a truism and an interesting technical/engineering puzzle. But, again, I’m not all that interested because I think this may be true: Participation across purposes (but especially the transportation purposes) requires proximity and population density first and traffic education before infrastructure.
I’ve told this story before: When I moved to Springfield from Kansas City I was aware that I was moving to a flat town with a grid street system. I made the conscious decision to live within 2 miles of my job (actually .75 to work and 2.25 to downtown) so that it would be easier to walk and ride a bicycle. If I had chosen instead to live in the southern suburbs, I doubt very seriously that I would be typing these words to you now. I’d be a regular automobile commuter just as I was in Kansas City. Further, when I arrived here I was a novice rider. I had plenty of experience as a kid, so I rode as a child often rides (thankfully I new which side of the street to ride on!). It took a couple of years of before I “grew up” fully and took my proper place in traffic. I had to learn it by doing it, by experiencing it. What allowed that process to occur? Proximity. Living close to my destinations made bicycling an easy choice.
If, instead, I had chosen to live in the suburbs, would bicycle lanes have lured me onto the road? That’s difficult to say. But I doubt it due to the question of proximity.
A better plan for Springfield:
1. Forget bicycle lanes.
2. Keep building greenways (primarily for recreation).
Obviously, this does nothing to encourage suburban residents to ride bicycles for transportation, and — Gadzooks! — it’s decidedly long-term thinking. Methinks $5 gas might encourage suburbanites first to move closer to their primary destinations. From there they may venture onto bicycles.