As cities across the U.S. continue to expand their bicycle networks, every new project or bike lane seems to be coupled with an outcry from those choosing four wheels instead of two. Motorists complain about their loss of space and cite bicyclists as the cause of backups and delays.
It’s not our fault.
I left Brooklyn last year before I could experience the new separated bike lanes on Prospect Park West, one of many contentious projects created by the NYC Transportation Department in the past few years. Here in Chicago, the recent installation of the city’s first protected bike lanes created its own grumblings, with one columnist declaring such bike facilities a persecution of motorists, similar to the ire thrust upon smokers. (I’ll let you be the one to further connect the acts of smoking and driving a car.)
However, motorists who look to cyclists as the cause of traffic jams and delays should think again. Recent research from the University of Toronto claims that “If you build it, they will come” rings true not only for baseball fields in Iowa, but for roads and freeways, too. According to economist Matthew Turner, a co-author of the study, “If you had 1 percent more roads, you had 1 percent more driving in those cities.” Thus, it seems not to matter how many roads there are: there will always be traffic to complain about, even if all the bike lanes went away.
The “build it/use it” idea seems to hold true for bicycles, too. Recent counts in New York City have shown that the addition of bike lanes led to a significant increase in the number of cyclists on those roadways. People need to get around, and they will do so in the manner they feel is most efficient.
Drivers may complain about streets being repurposed to accommodate bicycles, but I ask, “What about me?” As a tax-paying citizen, part of my money is used for the upkeep of city streets, whether I use them or not. Like a quarter of Chicagoans and half of New York City households, I don’t own a car, so the only way I can get my money’s worth is to ride my bike on the city streets. Car drivers are often unhappy when I take the lane, cycling along at 15 MPH (something I have every legal right to do, by the way), so bike lanes would seem to be a win-win for us all.
To be sure, there are times when a vehicle is necessary—moving apartments or transporting the lumber necessary to build a rooftop garden, for example—but car-sharing groups, such as ZipCar or the Chicago non-profit I-GO, provide inexpensive ways to make that possible. For most of us living in most cities, travel by personal vehicle should be the anomaly, with biking, walking, and public transit the norm, not the other way around.
With more than two-thirds of American adults either overweight or obese, it’s obvious the added exercise a ride on a bicycle provides would be greatly beneficial. The 30 minutes of daily physical activity recommended for adults can easily be obtained on one’s commute to and from work, freeing up time and money that might otherwise be spent at the gym. Personally, if it weren’t for my time on a bike, I’d get no exercise at all.
Determining travel time on a bicycle is extremely predictable, and travel time is regularly faster than public transportation and for many trips within a city often on-pace with that of motor vehicles. The number of times I’ve had to deal with a flat tire pale in comparison to the gridlock and unexpected delays many drivers put up with on a regular basis.
There are even some less obvious advantages. At a birthday party a few months ago, the host received a call that some friends had hoped to attend, but after circling the neighborhood for 30 minutes, looking for parking, they had given up and gone home. I, having traveled by bike, had no such problems.
Instead of an affront to the “rights” vehicle drivers may claim regarding a city’s asphalt, the expansion of bicycle infrastructure should instead be viewed as providing individuals greater personal freedom to make healthy, inexpensive, and convenient transportation choices and as promoting vibrant, liveable cities across the U.S.
And really, a bike lane beats a traffic jam any day.