Using Tactical Urbanism to Promote Bikeability

Mike Lydon

Mike Lydon

Mike Lydon is a Principal at Street Plans Collaborative and lead's the firm's New York City office. He is an internationally recognized planner, speaker, and advocate for livable cities, and the primary author of the Tactical Urbanism guides. I had the chance to chat with him about improving bikeability—a topic his organization has particular experience with.

Rachel: Which do you think is better for cyclists: protected bike lanes or streets where bikes can safely ride within traffic, or both?

Mike: As always, context really matters and cities need both slow, narrow streets that optimize cycling and walking, but also protected bike lanes along higher volume, wider thoroughfares and critical links such as bridges, waterways, and to/from schools/areas of employment. 

Rachel: Which do you think is better for cities and towns? Which is the most achievable goal?

Mike: Again, towns and cities need both types. However, protected lane have been shown to encourage many more people - young to old, male and female - to ride. oth are achievable and should be pursued. Already, narrow streets should be optimized for cycling and walking, which generally isn't that challenging to do if political will is present. And wider streets should be the focus for protect bikeways. It's far easier to narrow already wide streets with protected lanes than it is to add protected lanes along narrow streets...

Rachel: What can towns do to improve bikeability in an affordable manner?

Mike: Compared to most roadway infrastructure projects, bikeways are already very, very inexpensive and have benefits that far outweigh their cost. That said, many towns still need to showcase that it's possible and desirable to invest in cycling for political reasons. Thus, we at Street Plans often start by helping communities develop demonstration or pilot projects that improve cycling conditions. If done well, these low cost efforts help communities get over the hump of "why" so that they can focus their energy on "where." 

 Rachel: How can we convince people of all ages and abilities that biking is feasible for them, and not just for spandex-clad athletic guys?

Mike: It's not rocket science: Make driving more difficult/less convenient, and build high-quality, bikeway networks that connect where people live to where they want to go. That said, I'm a firm believer that a pre-cursor to all of this is the presence of compact land use patterns. Relative proximity is critical.  In this regard, small towns and cities with walkable downtowns are often better primed for cycling networks than sprawling metropolitan areas. 

Rachel: If a city isn't ready (culturally or financially) to install extensive protected bike lanes, what are some incremental steps they can take to make biking safer? 

Mike: I usually recommend organizing an Open Streets day. If well marketed and planned, this will bring out a wide cross-section of the community to a fun, free, and family-friendly event that showcases the joy that is cycling/walking on normally car-dominated streets. Beyond that, develop bike lanes between a few key destinations, or try out a "neighborhood greenways" approach that optimizes slow speed streets with additional traffic-calming and wayfinding treatments, especially on streets that link neighborhoods with parks and schools. 

Simply reclaiming space overnight with cones or other homemade elements has shown city leaders that there is a constituency that desires much safer infrastructure for cycling.

Rachel: What tactical urbanism tactics can be used to promote bikeability in our towns?  

Mike: In a sanctioned way, one day to one week demonstration projects, protected or otherwise, can really help communities move towards bikeability.

The hands-on, community involvement helps build champions for more long-term investments in safe cycling streets. In an unsanctioned way, simply reclaiming space overnight with cones or other homemade elements has shown city leaders that there is a constituency that desires much safer infrastructure for cycling. 

Rachel: Are you familiar with any examples of citizens just going out and painting their own bike lanes, or does it usually require coordination with the local government in some manner?  

Mike: I'm very familiar with so-called "guerrilla bikeway" examples. There is a burgeoning movement across this country, loosely re-appropriating the DOT acronym as Department of Transformation (see Seattle, Portland, Boston, NYC, San Francisco etc.). I think it's wonderful, the guerilla approach, insofar that it's done respectfully and with community collaboration. However, it ultimately needs the support of government to become lasting change. Thus, the tactics used must also consider communication, not just cones, and how the short-term demonstrations call attention to the shortcomings of city-led project delivery. The new DOT's are doing this well and seeing results, from temporary to permanent. Moreover, we are working with a few cities to develop actual policies / guidance for citizens to lead the way on demonstration projects, with the intent that cities will invest in pilots or permanent infrastructure if said demos are a success. This is really exciting. 

Rachel: I saw the video of your fantastic work in Burlington, VT (above). How much planning and time and money went into that? What was the process like? Is this demonstration project model something you think is replicable elsewhere? 

Mike: It was four different projects, three weeks of planning, and $4,000 dollars worth of materials, much of which is being reused by the local non-profit partner, Local Motion. It's absolutely replicable. We're doing it with community groups and city departments all over the country, in places that you wouldn't think to be a "hotbed" of cycling activity. We're also finishing up a whole guide regarding materials and design for demonstration, pilot, and interim design projects. The intent is to demystify the process and scale up the impact Tactical Urbanism can have in towns and cities of all types. 

Rachel: Why should bikeability be a priority for towns? Is it only something that's important in big cities or is it also important in smaller towns and suburbs?

Mike: It's really important for small towns to invest in cycling. The health, local business, and joy dividends are critical, but it's also a point of differentiation. A lot of towns are struggling these days. Why not just make it easier and cheaper for people to get around? 

(All photos from Facebook)

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