I have a confession to make: I didn’t always believe in the Strong Towns approach. And that had everything to do with the fact that I ride a bike.
Sure, I loved Strong Towns’ message about the importance of financial resilience for its own sake—and I especially loved the fact that, conveniently enough, a lot of the things that would make my city richer also seemed to be things that would keep me safer when I’m cycling. When you stop overbuilding your public road network with no regard for how much tax the adjacent private property is actually producing—a.k.a., how you’re actually going to pay to maintain all that asphalt in the years to come—roads tend to get a lot narrower, and drivers tend to perceive that it’s not safe for them to zone out and drive quickly. And suddenly, cyclists find themselves pedaling alongside calm, slow traffic that’s unlikely to kill them even if a freak crash does occur.
I was in. I wanted to #slowthecars in my town, and I wanted to do it yesterday.
But the Strong Towns approach doesn’t quite work like that. Because the very first plank of the mission is this: A Strong Towns approach relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects.
When I look at my home city of St. Louis, Missouri from behind a set of handlebars, I see a place that’s in dire need of transformation — and it needs it on a scale that, frankly, makes me a little angry sometimes. When I first read the phrase “small bets,” I heard “band-aid solutions.” When I read “small, incremental investments,” I thought of how my local government seems to always scatter its resources into the richest pockets of town that need it least. When you’re trying to cross town on a five lane stroad, it’s not a lot of comfort to know that your city is experimenting with one single mile of bollard-protected bike lane on the opposite side of the city (oh, and by the way, they’ll take out the bollards in the winter to make it easier to plow.)
If our cities truly need an overhaul, why on earth are we talking about incrementalism? Shouldn’t we be talking about revolution?
Now I work for Strong Towns, so there’s no surprise here: I was wrong. And I’m pretty glad about that fact.
What Incrementalism Isn't
So before I talk about how Strong Towns-style incremental development is exactly what our cities need to make our places more bikeable and more financially productive, let me tell you what incrementalism isn’t.
Incrementalism isn’t an excuse for a lack of urgency. If a stroad in your neighborhood is truly dangerous and draining your community resources, someone has to do something, and — for reasons we’ll explore in a minute — an incremental development mindset can actually make it easier to do something quickly and make a more meaningful change.
Incrementalism isn’t necessarily small. It does take place through small steps—but smallness is always relative. If you live in New York, NY your next incremental step to make your city more bikeable is going to happen on a way different scale than it would in New York, TX (population 20).
Incrementalism isn’t always linear—or slow. When you talk about incrementally building a bike network, that doesn’t mean that you’ll need to wait for your local leaders to stingily parcel out the funding for one more block worth of bike lane, once a year, unto infinity. Instead, incremental development is about crafting lots of small experiments, seeing how they fare, and reacting to what we learn by setting up new experiments in turn. If that still sounds too slow, it might help to use the synonym “iterative development" here, or even "rapid prototyping." It’s all about using the scientific method to test our investments in public space, at a speed and a scale that makes sense for your community. And if you live in a big place, you can go big and go fast — as long as your "big", fast project is actually an array of smaller, deliberate projects.
Incrementalism is creative. And that means that when we’re looking for the next smallest thing we can do to make our places more bikeable, we need to always think in three dimensions, if not more.
1-D: The Incremental Bike Lane
Ask your average die-hard cyclist what they want out of their streets, and a good number of them are likely to say the same thing: lots and lots of bike-specific infrastructure.
I don’t blame them. I’ve been to Amsterdam and Minneapolis and lots of cities that have miles of glorious, separated bike lanes where I’ve spent many happy hours tooling around on two wheels without fear of being struck by a distracted driver. I also know how frustrating it is to visit a city and find bike lanes scattered in arbitrary places—one alongside a mega-stroad here, another on a random neighborhood street with an overzealous HOA there—with no regard for how the network connects the real destinations I actually want to visit. If you gave me a magic wand and told me I could use it to overlay St. Louis with a network of shiny new bike lanes in an instant, part of me would be really tempted to do it.
But here’s the thing about bike lanes: not all of them are created equal. Too often, they run right along the “door zone,” where the driver of any parked car could open into an unsuspecting rider. Sometimes, there’s a tree or a sewer grate or even just a bunch of broken glass in the middle of them, and no maintenance plan to clear it out. And sometimes, it just doesn’t make any sense to put a bike lane on a given street, because it’s actually safer to ride in the center of a “car” lane rather than risk it in an unprotected (or lightly protected) bike lane crammed to the edge of a narrow road where cars can’t give you adequate room to breathe.
For the safety of riders and the financial health of our city, it’s crucial that we test our bike lanes before we commit to a given design. But that doesn’t mean we have to go slow.
It’s often surprisingly easy to create a pop-up bike lane on a few streets that seem like they could really use one. Check our out list of resources on hosting a temporary traffic calming demonstration, including a temporary bike lane to get started. And do a little research at the local level. If you live in a town like mine, you might even have a local nonprofit who will give you the spray chalk and traffic cones you need for free.
But for towns that are ready to level up to the next increment, there’s no need to stop there. Towns like Macon, GA have pilot-tested entire pop-up bike networks, thanks to a one-time grant and the help of the Better Block Foundation and 8 to 80 Cities. Over the course of their one-week demo, the organizers of the Macon event reported that they increased ridership as well as built some serious community buy-in for bike infrastructure that wouldn’t have otherwise gained easy political traction; when people see a proposed development in action, sometimes that's all they need to get on board. And they also learned a few things about how their local cyclists might use their network that they would never have known if they hadn’t given the network a test drive first.
2-D: The Incremental Bike Plaza
Maybe there’s an area of your town where you really think cars shouldn’t be at all — or at least, a place where you’d really like to see a lot more people our riding. That’s where the humble bike event can come in handy.
I know, I know: it might not seem like throwing a party — especially if the party lasts for less than a day — could really re-shape your built environment in a meaningful way. When you have a few friends over for dinner, your apartment doesn’t magically transform into a restaurant the next day.
But before you judge, you should check out an Open Streets event.
I was lucky enough to serve on the advisory board of the organization that re-launched St. Louis’ one day, car-free neighborhood celebration, Open Streets STL. For just four hours, Open Streets closed off a mile-long, mostly residential stretch of Compton Avenue between the two busy commercial streets, Cherokee and Meramec. But closing the road to cars gave neighbors in the area the space they needed to explore it on bike—and on foot, and on scooter, and anything else they pleased.
The true power of Open Streets events lies in how vividly they demonstrate just how many things we can do in our public space if we stop devoting so darn much of it to moving and storing massive vehicles. From my volunteer corner, I watched kids play tag, elderly couples dance and residents of all ages draw beautiful sidewalk chalk art in the middle of the road. Skeptical drivers parked their cars, got out, and poked around. Neighbors who may have never met before exchanged names over park-grilled hot dogs and donated sodas.
Happiest of all, though, were the bikers. There’s simply nothing better than seeing a little kid who’s only ever been allowed to ride on the sidewalk turning figure eights in the middle of a road, realizing for the first time that a bike can really take them places.
Even the budget for this mega-scale Open Streets event wasn’t enormous—local businesses and organizations sponsored the event at low levels, and many were given booths along the route for free. Towns looking to demo closures in a smaller area can do it even more cheaply, and in less time. Ask around your streets department; city governments generally want their residents to throw block parties, so securing a street closure permit and borrowing some cones can be a lot simpler than you think.
And of course, you can always upscale your bike events too if your city responds well to the first increment. Bogotá, Colombia, home to the original Open Streets event, Ciclovia, closes many of the city center’s biggest streets — 76 miles of roadway in total — every Sunday, plus select public holidays. Communities across North America and Canada have followed suit at scales that work for them. Cities often report an increase in year-round ridership after they implement time-limited events like these.
And if a car-free block party doesn’t sound like the right fit for your town — or your particular skills as a community leader — just choose another event and run with it. Critical mass rides, scavenger hunts by bike, alley cat races, bike/ped only art festivals... when it comes to building strong towns one event at a time, the only limit is your imagination. Events like these are uniquely equipped to make biking not just safe and viable, but attractive and fun to your community.
3-D: The Incremental Bike Fleet
Of course, when it comes to making our communities more bikeable, the most important thing is the most obvious: we just have to get more people out on bikes. After all, you can only plan a bike network from the bottom up if you have a decent number of real cyclists to observe, talk to, and learn from. Otherwise, you’ll just be replicating the same old “build it and they will come” mentality that’s made our cities poorer for generations—and what you build may not actually serve the real needs of your real community if they do show up in your shiny new bike lanes at all.
This is where a lot of communities get stuck. If our streets are so dangerous, don’t we need to build a lot of stuff to make them safer before we can expect anyone to jump in the saddle? On the other hand, if we wait to build, won’t we fall short when we try to gather meaningful data on how people actually use our road network, especially if the only people who are on the roads are people brave enough to ride alongside cars?
There’s one simple answer, and it might seem a little counter-intuitive: for just a little while, we need to stop focusing on would-be riders who are afraid of our streets, and start focusing on would-be riders who just don’t have bikes.
The recent rise of hyper-affordable dockless bikeshare has demonstrated just how many in the latter camp are hiding in our cities. In my home city of St. Louis — a city not known for its bike-specific infrastructure, by the way— more than 60,000 unique riders have been recorded since the launch of bikeshare program Limebike three months ago. That's a staggering increase for a city of 300,000 that reported a 1.2% bike commuter rate in 2013.
The stats on these riders’ core demographics are still being collected, but as someone who rides on these city’s streets every day, I can say, anecdotally, that the diversity of riders and the diversity of places where people ride has positively exploded since Limebike and its competitors came to town.
It’s not yet clear whether these new riders stayed off the road before because they simply couldn’t afford a bike of their own, or because they didn’t ride enough to justify purchasing and storing a private bike, or for other reasons altogether. But it is clear that there are many more riders willing to ride on St. Louis’ imperfect, car-dominated streets than anyone previously thought—and now that they’re out on the road, we have a vast amount of rider behavior to observe, analyze, and incrementally translate into bike-specific infrastructure that actually works for real cyclists. After we've done that, riders who aren't comfortable on our car-dominated streets can join the fun.
Best of all, the introduction of Limebike was a truly small bet for cities like St. Louis. Recognizing the demand for more transportation options, STL has been struggling for years to find a bikeshare program that would work for our debt-saddled region, scrapping plans for a $1.4 million docked bikeshare program before they even got off the ground. But Limebike and its compatriots are private companies; the city government simply had to take the risk of allowing them onto city streets. If things didn’t go as planned, they could iterate, negotiating new policy to regulate the bikes or renegotiating their contract with the companies themselves. If things went great, they could scale up, or even explore a dockless bikeshare option that the city would collect the profits on.
There are infinite methods for making our cities and towns more bikeable — and we can accomplish this goal in ways that are not only affordable for our communities, but that also help support a development pattern that will generate real community wealth over the long-term.
When we opt for top-down development strategies instead — yes, even the ones that sound great on paper — we cut ourselves off from the full breadth of options that are right at our fingertips.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what many of our cities do. If we have funding to support biking at all, we tend to devote it to big projects that aren’t exactly planned in the messy, rich, chaotic-but-smart style that Strong Towns advocates. My home city of St. Louis, for instance, has been building bike routes that run alongside our region’s waterways for decades, which is a tidy organizing system (and does generate some fun recreational trails for the occasional group ride), but doesn’t connect a whole lot of real destinations that transportation cyclists actually need to reach day-to-day. I often fantasize about what our city would look like if the budget for those riverside projects was instead devoted to the kind of tactical urbanist demos, transformative bike events, and real-time data gathering that can lead to more useful permanent changes throughout the city.
Does that mean that sometimes I have uncomfortable conversations with my fellow cyclists about why I don’t support a particular “bike-friendly” megaproject that I think will make our city poorer and not-particularly-less-dangerous in the long run? It sure does.
But if I get them to hang with me for a second, I can usually get my pro-bike friends to see my point. When I advocate for incremental, iterative, hyper-adaptive solutions to biking problems, I’m not being anti-bike at all. Instead, I’m saying that cyclists deserve better solutions. I'm putting my faith in creativity, and in expansive thinking, and in the collective knowledge of my neighbors rather than a single mind in a planning office. I’m recognizing that biking is a tool to make our cities stronger, not an end unto itself — but that community wealth and bikeability are often even more deeply and powerfully intertwined than we realize.
We don’t have to choose between fixing our streets with the urgency they demand and making our cities financially strong. If we think iteratively, incrementally, and with the full force of passion, they’re the same goal.
(Top photo source: Open Streets STL)