Photo by  Alisa Anton

Photo by Alisa Anton

As I put together this week's worth of content focused on bikes and bikeability I felt the need to make a confession: I haven't been a regular biker in several years. As a kid and a teenager, I used my bike to visit friends, go to the library or commute to summer jobs. And in my freshman year of college, my dad took apart my bike (using several YouTube tutorials), packed it into a box and shipped it halfway across the country so that I could use it to get to classes and run errands. That was probably the height of my biking days. But ever since college, after I sold my bike to a fellow student upon graduating, I haven't really biked...

Until a month ago when my dad (to the rescue, again) brought my mom's old bike down from Minneapolis. Just in time for the beautiful biking days of autumn, I've been enjoying both leisurely rides along the lake and practical trips to the grocery store, the library, and friends' houses. It's an activity my fiance and I like to do together because it gets us outside, saves us gas money and provides good exercise.

As a millennial, I realize I completely fit the definition of someone who would be open to using a bike as a form of transportation. It's easy to write me off. But I hope that we've shown you this week that biking is something people of all ages and abilities can participate in and benefit from:

Whether you're choosing to bike occasionally to run quick errands, biking with your kids for fun, or using a bike as your primary mode of transportation, those choices are saving you money, while offering an opportunity to get exercise and see your town face to face, rather than behind the windshield of a car. 

The choice to ride a bike is also beneficial to building a strong town:

  • More people biking means more people patronizing local businesses. 
  • More people biking means less wear and tear on our roads, which means decreases in road maintenance costs.
  • More people biking means more productive spaces in our towns that can be used for businesses and housing, instead of car parking.
  • More people biking means less people participating in the dangerous daily activity of driving.

We chose to focus on biking this week at Strong Towns for the above reasons. We also chose this topic because it's something that many of our members feel incredibly passionate about. There are important discussions to be had about the merits of protected bike lanes versus biking in the flow of traffic; about funding off-road recreational trails versus on-road bike lanes. There's no official Strong Towns position on these issues—what works in one place might not work in another. It's up to you, as residents and leaders, to find out what fits your town's needs.

What we do know is that making it easier to bike is one of the highest returning investments a city can make.

We need to not think about things in terms of “this bike path” or “this lane” but think about them in terms of “this network.”

In advance of Bike Week, knowing that my bike-related experience and knowledge was limited, I contacted two Strong Towns members who are involved in bike advocacy: Preston Tyree and John Simmerman, who coincidentally, are neighbors in Austin, TX. During our conversation, I asked them about some of the bike-related controversies that we often hear about from Strong Towns readers and members. When asked about prioritizing off-road recreation trails vs. on-road bike lanes for transportation, John answered:

We need to not think about things in terms of “this bike path” or “this lane” but think about them in terms of “this network.”  [...]  It’s all considered part of a whole. We should not to perpetuate the bike vs. car war, but think about things in terms of overall safety. These are people-oriented environments and then, by the way, these are inherently walkable and bikeable. 

Preston added:

Transportation cyclists are the largest proportion of cyclists. We did some surveys in Austin (where we live) and found that 40% of our transportation cyclists are below the poverty line. What we see is that they don’t make a lot of noise. […] Recreation cyclists are a very small part of the mix.

Their comments really reframed by perception of bike infrastructure. I also realized that I myself had, without knowing it, utilized the bike "network" that John spoke of.  On a hot September day, my fiance and I wanted to ride our bikes to the beach: We charted a route that began on some quiet residential streets, then connected with a bike trail for a while, then jumped onto a major road with a bike lane. I appreciate that I had all of these options at my disposal, but at the same time, realize that that was a very specific trip and I'm fortunate to live near those different pieces of the bike network. For many people, that network does not exist and for everyone, that network is limited. There's a lot of work to do if we want to make our towns more bike-friendly.

Later in our conversation, I asked John and Preston, "How can we encourage towns to make biking safer and prioritize bikeability as a transportation mode?" John responded:

Photo by  Jack Alexander

I would reframe that question as, How can we nudge towns to start becoming more people-oriented, safe for all modes, all ages, all abilities? The way you get that is you get the community demanding it.

This is very Strong Towns-esque; it has to come from the ground up, from the community saying, “We want a safer environment to meet our daily needs to get to school, to walk to the park, etc.” Part of what that safer environment could include could be bike /ped infrastructure.

Part of this […] is trying to get our message beyond our echo chamber of experts and planners and urbanists. How do we start educating and getting the attention of community members, to get them to say, “We could use haybales and potted plants to do a tactical urbanism demonstration”? That starts the process of showing politicians and leaders that it can work [...]

If a community has an environment where people can walk or bike to meet daily needs, more people will start doing it. 

People-oriented places. That's what we're advocating for at Strong Towns and that's what bikeability is all about. It's not about fancy racing bikes or 30 mile bike trips every morning; It's about utilizing a cheap, human-scale tool for getting us where we need to go that makes our towns better off in the process.

(Top photo by Tejvan Pettinger)

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