How To Increase Participation

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).

3. Improve the urban core and encourage people and businesses to locate there.

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.

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Comments 10

  1. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Increasing participation means carrots and sticks. Bremen, like other German cities, was amazingly compact. I think the edge of the city, where the airport is located, to the old town center, was about a mile and a half. Or a km and a half. I forget. Its on my blog somewhere.

    The Germans worked to prevent sprawl and they tax the living bejezuz out of gas. So their bike infrastructure is heavily subscribed for many reasons–compact urban design, good bike facility connectivity, and taxes designed to discourage motor vehicle driving. It takes all the elements, both carrots and sticks, in order to get all those butts on bikes, not just one of them. At least if you want to get more than single digits. I think Bremen was in the twenty percent plus mode share.

    It goes back to the comments made by my old buddy in Hawaii, Cliff Slater of the Reason foundation. Cliff said people make rational choices for their commutes: They value their time and they value their convenience. Some, to be sure, place emotional or ecological value on bicycling, but we are a tiny minority. Kinda like ethical vegetarians. I wear that hat, too, by the way, for the same reason I bicycle. Admittedly I’m weird.

    Until biking becomes more convenient than driving (it is pretty convenient for Andy and its a 50:50 toss for me, and I live 5 miles from work), it will struggle to compete with the ease of sitting one’s butt behind the steering wheel for all who can afford the choice. We forget that at our peril.

    Cliff recognizes that we often have a lot of hidden subsidies for driving and as a real free market guy, he wants to end them. He suggested some ideas, such as ending the Honolulu zoning practice of providing X numbers of parking spaces per business–he suggested a free market approach to parking and to road space, i.e. charging what the land would bear. Good guy, that Cliff Slater. He likes good beer, too.

    Posted 28 Feb 2012 at 11:05 am
  2. Andy Cline wrote:

    Khal… All my work should be understood with this general qualification: Everything is more complicated any particular post suggests.

    I think you are 100 percent right about convenience. That plays a huge role for me. I live close enough to work that driving a car would be a hassle. I would have to pay a lot of money for a parking pass, and I would be able to park no closer to my building than about .25 miles. I park my bicycle about 20 yards from the door :-)

    Posted 28 Feb 2012 at 11:25 am
  3. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Thanks for the link to the Atlantic article, Andy! I posted it on my own blog with a tip of the tinfoil helmet to you.

    Posted 28 Feb 2012 at 11:52 am
  4. Ian Cooper wrote:

    Many bicycle advocates do indeed believe that providing infrastructure increases participation. The real question is this: does the belief reflect reality? I doubt it. After all, we already have millions of miles of infrastructure – called roads – that cyclists can use. We’ve also seen 30 years of infrastructure (bike lanes, bike paths etc.) additions that have not increased ridership at all other than in the short term. After the novelty wears off, ridership generally goes back to pre-infrastructure levels.

    The problem is, many people today are either too fat, too lazy, or scared of being unarmored on the road (or all three). Bicycle paths and reductions in speed limits remove the ‘scared’ part, but the ‘fat’ and the ‘lazy’ aspects are still a big part of the equation for the vast majority of people.

    As a result, the only guaranteed way to really increase ridership is to make cycling financially unavoidable. This can be done in two ways – by taxing car/gasoline use (which is how the Europeans do it), or by oil becoming scarce and therefore prohibitively expensive (which – thanks to the 2005 global peak of oil production – is how it will be done in countries where car/gasoline taxes are not a factor).

    Posted 28 Feb 2012 at 12:41 pm
  5. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Here’s my babble on Bremen.

    http://www.labikes.blogspot.com/2011/01/ubiquitous-gazelle.html

    It wouldn’t surprise me if cities with more bike infrastructure had higher biking rates because safety, whether real or the perception thereof, keeps coming up as a major contributor to a reluctance to ride. But I do agree with Mr. Cooper and Andy in that real mode changes (rather than small ones like 135%) will require a lot of other variables to line up, as I said in an earlier comment and in my Bremen screed.

    Whether one calls it lazyness or something else, modern conveniences are in widespread use in our lives. Whether it be cars, automatic transmissions, vacuum cleaners, automatic dishwashers, automated clothes washers and dryers (my grandmother had a wringer washer, soap, and a clothesline), or gas grilles, people obviously crave convenience. It will, undoubtedly, be the death of the species, but until then its a reality.

    Posted 28 Feb 2012 at 2:57 pm
  6. Ian Cooper wrote:

    I forgot to mention – the bike lane image illustrates a big part of the problem: like the vast majority of bike lanes, it’s in the door zone and therefore a death trap. Is it any wonder that ridership is stagnant when the largest bicycle advocacy organizations in the US see this kind of infrastructure as a positive step and respond with ire to any criticism of it?

    As long as bicycle advocates see even the worst kind of infrastructure as worth defending, ridership will never flourish, because if the average Joe-potential-cyclist can’t even trust cycling advocacy groups to lobby against unsafe infrastructure, there is always going to be a strong disincentive to ride.

    Posted 28 Feb 2012 at 4:09 pm
  7. Steve A wrote:

    Andy, Andy, Andy. You are SUCH a dreamer. $5 gas is dirt cheap. Multiply that price by 10 and maybe gas prices would affect behavior. How much does gas cost right now in the UK, Ian?

    Posted 28 Feb 2012 at 6:07 pm
  8. Khal Spencer wrote:

    When I was in Germany last year gas was eight or nine bucks a gallon, converting liters to gallons and Euros to dollars. I saw zero SUVs of the American type. Plenty of cars, though. Lots of mini-delivery trucks. I suspect the average delivery truck in Bremen had a small four cylinder engine and was similar in size to those old 1960′s VW vans. So gas price matters, as did the ubiquitous tram and bike path. Still, the bike mode share was 20-25%, not 70-75%. But Germany isn’t Texas. Distances are small. Not sure how the average Texan or New Mexican in his SuperDuty would do with nine buck a gallon gas and a fifty mile commute. Be Bitchin’ a lot, fer sure…and blamin’ that Socialist-Kenyan-Elitist-Colored Guy for all of it. ;-)

    Posted 28 Feb 2012 at 6:19 pm
  9. Ian Cooper wrote:

    Steve, I haven’t a clue, as I live in Maryland now and haven’t lived in Europe since 1989. I suspect it’s around double what it costs here though.

    Posted 28 Feb 2012 at 8:59 pm
  10. Andy Cline wrote:

    Steve … For the middle class, I agree re: $5 gas.

    Posted 28 Feb 2012 at 10:06 pm