I re-asserted yesterday that my primary goal as a bicycle advocate is not increasing participation. My primary goals are to educate people how to use the streets we have and to return us to the idea that our streets are a public commons.
I think participation is a quality of culture. If a culture understands utility and commuter bicycling as normal, then participation will follow to the extent that people understand it to be safe and efficient.
That culture comes before participation explains why Portland, Oregon has a 7-percent bicycle mode share. That’s the best in the United States, and it is still pitiful compared to western nations with cultures that understand bicycling as normal.
What about the American culture makes utility bicycling odd? The nutshell version is that the personal automobile pushes many of our cultural hot buttons: freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and the mythology of the open road (related to the mythology of opening the west, i.e. cowboy mythology). There are many other things we can name that led to the American love affair with the automobile. We loved it so much we built an entire continent for the automobile.
Americans think riding a bicycle for transportation is crazy because they are thoroughly steeped in the culture. It’s just common sense that, for example, to ride a bicycle to work you must be a nut, a ne’er-do-well, a drunk who lost his license, or some pain-in-the-ass anti-car lefty.
Our environment is built to accommodate car travel first and foremost. So even if you want to ride a bicycle for basic transportation you have to change your lifestyle to do it. That’s what I did when I moved to Springfield. I took advantage of the grid street system and the flat topography by choosing to live close to work in an urban-core neighborhood (former inner-ring suburb). I made it easy on myself. Far too many Americans cannot make a similar choice. They are stuck.
Americans can decide tomorrow to spend the money to create the best streets in the world capable of accommodating all road users safely and efficiently and it will make only a marginal difference to bicycle participation. I’ve just told you the reasons: the culture and our environment don’t support the idea that riding a bicycle for transportation is a sane thing to do. You can build those safe streets, but if major destinations are still miles away then nothing will change. So, yeah, urban density also plays into this. Americans are culturally predisposed to hate it (except for people we want to marginalize).
I believe the culture is changing, but not because we we’re painting bicycle lanes or constructing complete streets. The Millennial generation is losing touch with the American love affair with the automobile. You can run your own Google search and come up with dozens of recent articles noting this trend. Why is this happening? I have no idea beyond pointing to the usual suspects. I feel pretty comfortable asserting that the trend has nothing to do with painting bicycle lanes.
Cultures change. And cultures can sometimes be changed by making physical changes, i.e. build it and they will come (and behave a certain way). But I think our cultural love for the automobile, the environment we built for it, and our loathing of density means that painting bicycle lanes will simply be a waste of money that makes utility bicycling worse for those of us who actually do it.
My primary goals are focused on cultural change. I promote the 1-Mile Solution because it is primarily a way to change the culture one short bicycle trip at a time, thus making it seem normal.