Green Scene Blog: Biking is all about infrastructure

When I was in Amsterdam in 2008 I found the traffic infrastructure completely befuddling–until, that is, I got on a bike. Car lanes, mass transit, pedestrian sidewalks all seemed to have a certain slight orientation towards getting the bikes through as quickly as possible. In most cities I went to in Europe, even small towns, there was an obvious, concerted effort to support all modes of transportation. What a far cry from what we have in the U.S.!

I’ve biked in a lot of cities, and I find Charlottesville to be reasonably bike friendly, but mostly by accident. The fact that most roads wind around so much and have speed limits of 25 to 35 means that cars are moving slower and paying more attention. There are enough bikers and bike lanes to keep it in people’s consciousness as well. And, I have to say, I love the bike-and-arrow icons now painted on many streets.

But in other ways Charlottesville is very bike inaccessible. There are a number of large dysfunction junctions that are seriously hazardous to those not surrounded by a ton of metal and plastic (the intersection of Preston and McIntire is one I try avoid as much as possible). 29N is virtually impenetrable by bike, and to get up there by bus can take more than an hour one way! Also, a personal pet peeve: the traffic light sensors (for times when they’re not on a set timed rotation) are scales in the road, and they’re set high enough that most bicycles can’t set them off. This means waiting for a car to come, hopping up onto the curb to hit the pedestrian signal, or going through a red light.

A city’s level of bike accessibility has so much to do with the infrastructure. A very common technique in European cities is to create physical separation between the lanes of different modes of traffic. Often there is a sidewalk, a 6" drop to a bike lane, another 6" drop to a car lane, and then light rail lines in the middle of the street.

Good practices extended off street as well. Every train and light rail station that I saw had an extensive bike storage system (not to mention the fact that every town of any significant size has a train station with service running at least every hour). My favorite was the three-story bike parking garage outside Amsterdam’s Central Station.

Studies have shown again and again that increasing infrastructure for cars does not decrease traffic, but only increases the number of cars on the road. Studies have also shown that lots more people would bike if they felt safe. And when people talk about what makes Charlottesville a “livable” city, they don’t talk about being able to drive up 29N to Sam’s Club; they talk about the downtown mall and the flourishing culture that that kind of development supports.

In 2008, a few months before I went to Europe, I was at the Car Free Conference in the bike mecca of Portland, Oregon, and had a chance to hear Gil Penelosa speak. Gil Penelosa worked with Mayor Enrique Penelosa to revolutionize the bicycle, mass transit, and public space infrastructure of Bogota, Columbia. It’s not about money, Gil said. Politicans will always talk about how there isn’t the money to do this or that project. It’s about political will. If a politician is willing to stick their neck out and the community is willing to rise up to support them, the money will be there.

Sky Blue helps run C’ville Foodscapes and Alexander House and gets around mostly by bike.

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