Does Cycling Infrastructure Change The Cycling Experience?

I am old enough to remember the first great cycling boom in the US in the 1970’s.  In 1973 there were over 15,000,000 cycles sold in the States. I saved up money from my paper route, and with help from my parents, bought a Schwinn Varsity. It was yellow, and the guy at the shop threw in the fenders at no cost. I remember I paid $92.00 for it, which seemed very expensive back then.

Schwinn Varsity Catalog

I grew up in Portland, Oregon and I don’t remember there being “cycling infrastructure” at that time. It didn’t seem necessary really – I don’t think there were as many people driving all over the place all the time, but I might be wrong. But I remember the Mayor of Portland riding his bike to his office – he lived on the hill above us and I sometimes saw him riding down the hill while on my way to school. Cycling was not seen as an unusual activity. I would ride all over the neighborhood to friends’ houses, head up Mt. Tabor in NE Portland, go on bike camping trips up the Columbia Gorge, and jet down to the airport with my dad to watch planes take off and land. Cycling was something people seemed to do just for fun.

Now we are in the next great cycling boom – and with that has come the non-existent “war on cars”, and the assault on people who ride bicycles. Municipalities spend a fraction of their transportation and road budgets on improving the safety of the roads by trying to make space for people to ride their bicycles, and that is changing the perception of the status quo. I believe this causes stress in many car drivers, creating tension between them and bicyclists: It’s not the same as it used to be! Get out of my way!

I’ve also had the pleasure of living in Seattle for many years, a city which prides itself on leading the way in progressive policies to improve cycling accessibility. All over the city you see a growing, connected network of bike paths, bike lanes, separated bike lanes, and “sharrows”. Cycling has become an easier mode of transportation and it does feel safer than when I first moved to the city in 1986.

This summer I moved to London on a work visa. London is a much bigger and crowded city than Seattle by far, but it shares with Seattle some of the progressive ideology around cycling infrastructure. I was surprised to learn that Londoners are as connected to their cars and driving as any place in the US. Sure, there is a very good transit system of underground (the Tube) and overground rail, and a good bus network, but I’ve witnessed the worst traffic jams I have ever seen here. I don’t know how or why Londoners do it.

Still, cycling is a great way to get around if you can avoid the more egregious traffic spots. There is a good network of bike routes around town. Like Seattle it suffers from issues with the disconnected nature of the network, a mix of old and new ideas, and some obvious “just squeeze it in” situations. I come across many examples of well meaning, but totally misguided attempts to make things “safer” for cyclists. These appear to be designed by traffic engineers who haven’t ever traveled by bicycle – or on foot for that matter.

Pedestrians and Cyclists meant to share the same space. Safe from autos, but dangerous for pedestrians, and not ideal or direct for Cyclists.

Pedestrians and Cyclists meant to share the same space. Safe from autos, but dangerous for pedestrians, and not ideal or direct for Cyclists.

I see infrastructure like this all over London. A cycle lane is situated off the road on a wide sidewalk. On the positive side, it provides effective separation between cars and cyclists, but it puts pedestrians in harm’s way, and it means cyclists must slow way down to use the path. Often the track runs for less than a block, and then unceremoniously drops you back onto the street. Well meant, probably expensive to implement, but not useful really for anyone trying to get from point A to B, (note the cyclist waiting at the light in the street). This kind of thing causes unnecessary ill will: The naive person driving a car thinks “Why aren’t they using the bike lane?,” while the person on the bike thinks, “Who would design something this idiotic?”

London does have some excellent cycle networks that let you travel quite a long way across London. Some of them are designated by blue painted lanes as cycle highways. Others lead you on less busy streets around the city, like the “greenways” Seattle is finally embracing.  I rode one cycle highway from East London into the center of the city on a Sunday. It was great. There were plenty of cyclists using it. It’s well marked and lets you take a direct route to where you want to go. All good. But everywhere in London, drivers just park in the cycle lane with impunity. It’s endemic. Why go to the trouble of installing this safety structure if you continue to allow cars to park there without penalty? To be fair, on Sunday it’s legal to park in parts of these lanes, but you still see it all over London, any day of the week. It makes no sense, not to mention unsafe. Bicyclists have to squeeze between cars and London’s huge double-decker buses. Those things are massive!

Blocked Cycle "Highway"

Blocked Cycle “Highway”

This is when a cyclist might justifiably ask, Why bother to spend money this way if you don’t enforce the regulations? When riding in London, I constantly have to be alert for cars and scooters blocking the bike path so I can then move over into the other lane to get past. It’s aggravating, and a good example of a dangerous situation being created with public funds meant to prevent a dangerous situation.

Blocked Lane ahead

Blocked Lane ahead

I’m still learning about how bikes fit in here in London. When I lived in Seattle, I welcomed new bike infrastructure being put in, but also felt it wasn’t always necessary. I knew how to avoid bad traffic areas, and learned how to get across town on the disconnected network of bike lanes, paths and safer-feeling side streets. I also knew which bike lanes sections to avoid (I’m looking at you, 2nd Avenue!). But now that I am in riding in a heavily populated world capital, I can see how good bike infrastructure can improve safety and facilitate navigation (don’t get me started about street signs in London). Cycling is a vital part of transportation all over the world. Making streets safer for all users of the road can be accomplished, and in places like London and Seattle, it will happen.

How is bike infrastructure being managed in your city? Do projects like these work for you?