Active Transportation

As a way of sneaking physical activity into our daily lives, I’m a fan of active transportation, like walking, biking, roller blading, etc., to commute or do errands. In the US and some other modern countries, many of our cities had become too car-centric and not walk- or bike-friendly, but thankfully that trend seems to be reversing.

There is a really cool Ted talk (“How an obese town lost a million pounds”) by Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, on how Oklahoma City got itself off the list of 50 “fattest” towns in the US and moved it onto the list of 50 “fittest” towns by getting more active, which required various changes to make it more walkable1. This also had the side effect of attracting more young talented professionals to work in the city, and OKC now has one of the strongest economies in the US. As well as a great basketball team. As well as being interesting this is a fun talk because Mayor Cornett is an enjoyable speaker. He also co-authored an entertaining book on this topic, The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros .

OKC’s Skydance Pedestrian Bridge

There is a detailed discussion of the benefits of active transportation in general and cycling in particular in Peter Walker’s How Cycling Can Save the World. For a significant increase in active transportation there has to be enough spending on infrastructure so people feel safe doing it. We already saw how that worked out for Oklahoma city, and the most famous examples are countries like Holland and Denmark where 30% or more of trips are by bike. In Copenhagen, over half the commute traffic is by bike. In Utrecht, Holland, it is an astonishing 60%. The coolest tidbit from the book was about aging people who can no longer drive safely. That is a sad loss of freedom and mobility in people’s lives. But less so in Holland, where the just go back to biking, and with the advent of electric pedal-assist, are doing so into their 80s.

Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save The Economy by Elly Blue describes how incredibly cost effective it is to invest in active transportation infrastructure, compared to roads or even mass transportation. Motorists often have the objection that they are subsidizing other forms of transportation with their vehicle fees and gas taxes. Elly shows that this is not the case, that it is roads themselves that are subsidized: local roads are only about 15% funded by vehicle fees and gas taxes, and free parking is also a big subsidy.

Another concern is that bike infrastructure will interfere with motorized traffic but properly planned projects can often improve traffic flow, many examples of which from New York City are detailed in Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, by Janette Sadik-Khan.  Here’s an obvious example: parallel parking in a crowded downtown holds up car traffic for two reasons. First a lane is blocked while someone is backing into a space. Second, a significant amount of traffic in a downtown is people driving around looking for a parking space. So a win-win project is to remove the on-street spaces and replace them with a parking garage. The width formerly taken up by on-street parking can accommodate a protected bike lane and some landscaping or a wider sidewalk.

Brooklyn’s Prospect park west bike lane, A New York City Bike project that was successful after a lot of controversy

I discovered active transportation when I commuted by bike. There’s nothing more motivating than having your activity be the fastest way to get somewhere. “Exercise? I don’t have time” is no longer an excuse when it’s actually saving you time. I still do lots of errands on my bike. And when I go to the gym by bike, rather than getting to and from the gym making the workout more time consuming, it’s part of the workout.

I also want to make the point that even if areas that don’t have as high-quality infrastructure as described in some of the books below, cycling can still be safe, pleasant, and practical. This is especially true in quieter small towns. My town of Morgan Hill has a population of 45,000. We have good bike lanes on the major streets, and lots of quiet residential streets that are also fine to ride on. We also have some really nice paved off-road bike paths. Not everything is perfect, for example crossing over a major freeway (US 101) adjacent to town is problematic because you have to ride across freeway on and off ramps. But you can work around problems like this by choosing the route properly, for example by crossing 101 on a street that does not have an interchange with it. I’m a fan of good bike infrastructure, and I advocate for it, but in the meantime I get by just fine with what my town has. Bloom where you’re planted. 🙂

All of this great active transportation by bike came to a screeching halt a month ago when I broke my collarbone. But I want to make it clear that while that did occur on a bike, no motor vehicles were involved and it had more to do with poor bike maintenance on my part than infrastructure (like maybe if I’m gonna use clipless pedals I should change the worn out cleats more often than every 15 years). Anyway, I’ve done a lot of walking in the interim. And I’ve even managed to do some errands. I can’t carry as much with just one arm and I’m not able to put a backpack strap on my right shoulder, but I do ok. And it has been nice to reaffirm just how nice walking is as a way to get around as well as exercise.

My little downtown, a great place to walk

Suggested Reading on Active Transportation:

Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality , by Melissa and Chris Bruntlett, Island Press , 2018

How cities in other countries could benefit from following the example of bike-friendly urban planning in Holland. This book makes the very interesting point that Dutch cities were not always this way, they were as car-centric as other cities in other Western countries in the 1970s. It has taken a concerted effort since then to turn things around.

How Cycling Can Save the World, by Peter Walker

Peter gives examples of good infrastructure in Dutch and Danish cities, and argues that this level of quality must be emulated to get the high percentage of cyclist those cities have achieved. In contrast, in US cities cycling infrastructure is sometimes inferior, such as bike lanes with parking allowed in them, where cyclists have to ride through the “door zone” of the parked cars.

Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save The Economy by Elly Blue, Microcosm Publishing, 2016

Thorough discussion of the high cost-effectiveness of bike infrastructure compared to automotive infrastructure.

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck, Macmillan, 2012

How downtowns can be vastly improved by making them less car-centric and more pedestrian friendly.

Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism, by Mikael Colville-Andersen, Island Press, 2018

Mikael shows that Danish cycling infrastructure has a specific blue print, with a mix of concepts like “superhighway” bike paths independent of streets, protected bike lanes next to streets, and bikes mixed with traffic on quiet streets with traffic calming measures and low speed limits. He makes the same point as mentioned above in the Dutch example, that this did not all just happen, but required decades of effort and proper planning since the 1970s  to turn cities around from being car-centric. He also argues that other cities around the world are trying to re-invent the wheel on bike infrastructure, repeating mistakes that were already made in Denmark over the past decades, and would do better to go with the “tried and true” Danish blueprint.

The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros, by Mick Cornett and Jayson White, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018

Describes the examples of Oklahoma city and many other “midsize metros” in the US reinvigorating themselves through proper planning and investing in infrastructure. A fascinating and entertaining read.

Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow. Viking, 2016.

The story of the fight to make New York City more bike and pedestrian friendly, and how other cities can learn from New York’s experience.

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