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Bike commuting goes broadband

Beyond Amsterdam, cities like Chicago aim to convert drivers to cyclists. Lance Armstrong and Barack Obama back human-powered commutes. Ready for green waves and two-wheeled highways?

As city centers grow more congested and contaminated, a push to get commuters onto two wheels is becoming not just good environmental policy, but a growing necessity.

In Mexico City, where car use doubled between 2000 and 2007 and where air pollution levels now exceed permissible levels set by the World Health Organization more than half of the year, the city government has committed to building 186 miles (300 kilometers) of bike paths by 2012, as well as bike parking lots that will be watched by security guards.

Even in cities without imminent pollution problems, bike commuting is being seen as an affordable and available means of relieving downtowns impacted by too many cars.

Take a city like Melbourne, Australia where currently 600,000 people commute in and out every day and, according to the community group Bicycle Victoria, that number is expected to double. To deal with the congestion, Melbourne planners are giving people more reason to bike to work.

They are installing “Copenhagen lanes”, bike baths separated from traffic, on some of the busiest city streets.

Using research that a bike lane can carry 12,000 people/hour and a car lane only 4,000 vehicles, the community group Bicycle Victoria calls using bicycles for trips in congested parts of the city “like switching from dial up to broadband“.

Green waves for bikers

This new “broadband” biking network is taking on many forms in cities around the world: from the very successful bikesharing programs of Paris and Barcelona (see our article Smart Bikes: bike sharing redux) to the doubling of bike lanes in Berlin, bike commuters are being given new forms of support in cities across the globe.

In already bike-friendly Copenhagen, where 36% of residents commute to work or school on bicycle, cyclists now are being given a “green wave”.

Motorists take it for granted that most large thoroughfares will give them a green traffic light wave- where signals are synchronized to allow for no red lights-, but Copenhagen is the first city in the world to grant the same privilege to bicycle riders.

The first green wave has been established on one of Copenhagen’s busiest streets, Nørrebrogade. Here, during the morning and evening rush hours, traffic lights are coordinated so that the 30,000 daily cycle commuters can travel a 2.5 kilometer stretch without stopping, provided they keep the 20 kilometer per hour pace.

The green waves- the city has plans to implement more- are part of a larger plan to improve biking infrastructure with more special lanes and bike parking and increase the number of bike commuters to 50% by 2015. All in an effort to become the “bike capital of the world”- an honor unofficially given to Amsterdam (where today about 40% of residents commute by bike).

Cycling superhighways

In London- where 40% of Londoners own a bike, but only 1 in 8 use it regularly- residents may soon have access to cycling superhighways as part of an initiative to motivate a 400% increase in the number of people cycling the city by 2025. Ex mayor Ken Livingston had planned for not only 12 radial “Cycling Corridors” that will connect commuters from outlying areas with central London-, but also for “Bike Zones” in Inner and Outer London for shoppers and school runs.

“We want nothing short of a cycling transformation in London,” says the mayor who is putting money behind his ambitious plan. “We will spend something like £500 million over the next decade on cycling – the biggest investment in cycling in London’s history, which will mean that thousands more Londoners can cycle in confidence, on routes that take them quickly and safely to where they want to go”, said the non-cycling mayor.

England’s first “cycling city”

The rest of the country is being given its own two-wheeled makeover. Although the UK ranks near the bottom of European cycling nations, in January of 2008, the Secretary of State for Transport, Ruth Kelly, announced a sixfold increase in funding for cycling.

Part of that money will go toward the £47million quest to establish England’s first “cycling city” as well as six “cycling towns”. These locations will receive more funding for bike infrastructure and will be added to the already existing Cycling Demonstration Towns.

The government is spending on cycling not just to help protect the environment- though they expect their new cycling network to save 16 million car trips per year by 2012-, but as a weapon against poor health, particularly childhood obesity. Secretary Kelly argues that funding bike programs can change behavior.

“The results of both Bikeability and Cycle Demonstration Towns are hugely impressive and prove that by providing the right facilities and support more people are willing to get on their bikes.

For example, Darlington has quadrupled the proportion of children cycling to school. Aylesbury has also seen a five-fold increase in residents using a bike as one of their two main means of transport in the last two years. “

Obama for more bike “usage of roads and sidewalks”

In the United States, while 50% of the working population commutes five miles or less to work (according to 1995 Government of Transportation figures ), a history of policies that support low-density sprawl and the development of highway networks has resulted in a national rate of bike commuting at just .4% (Amsterdam is at 40%).

While, historically, government funding for cycling infrastructure in the US lags significantly behind that in Europe, there are signs of change.

In 2008, support for the bicycle is being promised support by one candidate for the White House. In his energy platform, Democratic candidate Barack Obama addresses bicycles as one alternative to help us “move beyond our simple fixation of investing so many of our transportation dollars in serving drivers”.

His platform focuses on reforming transportation funding to take smart growth considerations into account and “to ensure that more Metropolitan Planning Organizations create policies to incentivize greater bicycle and pedestrian usage of roads and sidewalks”.

1,800 miles of bike lanes for New York by 2030

There are already some big city mayors working to combat climate change through support for cycling. In 2007 in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration- as part of a plan to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 30%- committed to adding 200 miles of bike lanes by 2010 and 1,200 new bicycle racks by 2009.

Mayor Bloomberg says the efforts should make biking more of a viable means of transportation. “Whether through increasing and improving bicycle lanes or building bike shelters near transit hubs, by making New York more bike friendly, we’re taking steps to prepare for the future.”

By 2030, according to the city’s long-term environmental plan, the city will have 1,800 miles of bike lanes and paths. In 2007, there were 270 miles of bike lanes on the streets and 200 miles of bike paths in parks and greenways.

A plan to put everyone in Chicago within a half mile of a bike path

Given the country’s bike commuting rate of .4%, Chicago city planners have set forth a very ambitious goal to have 5% of all trips less than 5 miles be carried out by bicycle by 2015.

The city has plans to build a bike network extensive enough so that every resident will live within a half mile of a bike path. Besides the 500 miles of cycling paths, this bike-friendly version of Chicago in 2015 would include 5,000 more bike racks and 1,000 more long-term bike parking spaces, as well as improving bike-transit connections to increase bike-transit trips by 10% per year.

Lance Armstrong champions the common bike commuter

Another American opinion-maker, Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, has spoken out for the average bike commuter. While unveiling the site of his new Austin, Texas bike shop- Mellow Johnny’s-, Armstrong argued for the necessity of biking to work. “This city is exploding downtown. Are all these people in high rises going to drive everywhere? We have to promote (bike) commuting.”

There is evidence that in communities where bike commuting has been given support- even when competing with American car culture-, ridership increases.

Since the 1990s, Portland, Oregon has tripled investment in cycling infrastructure and as a result, there are three times as many people on bikes. According to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey of 2007, Portland has more bike commuters- 3.5% of its residents- than any other large US city.

Can America look more like Davis, California?

While Portland is exemplary, it is Davis, California that wins the title of bike capital of the US. As far back as 1966, Davis city planners began laying the foundations for an extensive bikeway system that today includes over 100 miles of bike paths for just 65,000 residents.

Bikes are a priority here: cars are banned from some streets and the city has spent millions on bike-only underpasses and overpasses, as well as on bike traffic lights. This investment has has paid off and today, 17% of residents commute to work and 20-25% of all trips are made by bicycle.

Could the future of US cities look more like Davis? According to the Bicycle Program Coordinator for the University of California David Takemoto-Weerts, it just takes vision.

“With more and more communities becoming aware of the many advantages which accrue to the promotion of alternative transportation modes, Davis can continue to serve as a shining example of what can be achieved when hard-working residents and community officials agree on a common vision of what makes a place truly livable.”

Bicycle commuting resources