On Participation

I re-asserted yesterday that my primary goal as a bicycle advocate is not increasing participation. My primary goals are to educate people how to use the streets we have and to return us to the idea that our streets are a public commons.

I think participation is a quality of culture. If a culture understands utility and commuter bicycling as normal, then participation will follow to the extent that people understand it to be safe and efficient.

That culture comes before participation explains why Portland, Oregon has a 7-percent bicycle mode share. That’s the best in the United States, and it is still pitiful compared to western nations with cultures that understand bicycling as normal.

What about the American culture makes utility bicycling odd? The nutshell version is that the personal automobile pushes many of our cultural hot buttons: freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and the mythology of the open road (related to the mythology of opening the west, i.e. cowboy mythology). There are many other things we can name that led to the American love affair with the automobile. We loved it so much we built an entire continent for the automobile.

Americans think riding a bicycle for transportation is crazy because they are thoroughly steeped in the culture. It’s just common sense that, for example, to ride a bicycle to work you must be a nut, a ne’er-do-well, a drunk who lost his license, or some pain-in-the-ass anti-car lefty.

Our environment is built to accommodate car travel first and foremost. So even if you want to ride a bicycle for basic transportation you have to change your lifestyle to do it. That’s what I did when I moved to Springfield. I took advantage of the grid street system and the flat topography by choosing to live close to work in an urban-core neighborhood (former inner-ring suburb). I made it easy on myself. Far too many Americans cannot make a similar choice. They are stuck.

Americans can decide tomorrow to spend the money to create the best streets in the world capable of accommodating all road users safely and efficiently and it will make only a marginal difference to bicycle participation. I’ve just told you the reasons: the culture and our environment don’t support the idea that riding a bicycle for transportation is a sane thing to do. You can build those safe streets, but if major destinations are still miles away then nothing will change. So, yeah, urban density also plays into this. Americans are culturally predisposed to hate it (except for people we want to marginalize).

I believe the culture is changing, but not because we we’re painting bicycle lanes or constructing complete streets. The Millennial generation is losing touch with the American love affair with the automobile. You can run your own Google search and come up with dozens of recent articles noting this trend. Why is this happening? I have no idea beyond pointing to the usual suspects. I feel pretty comfortable asserting that the trend has nothing to do with painting bicycle lanes.

Cultures change. And cultures can sometimes be changed by making physical changes, i.e. build it and they will come (and behave a certain way). But I think our cultural love for the automobile, the environment we built for it, and our loathing of density means that painting bicycle lanes will simply be a waste of money that makes utility bicycling worse for those of us who actually do it.

My primary goals are focused on cultural change. I promote the 1-Mile Solution because it is primarily a way to change the culture one short bicycle trip at a time, thus making it seem normal.

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Comments 11

  1. Mighk Wilson wrote:

    Since World War II, the vast majority of new development in this country has been oriented towards automobile-based mobility. This means large residential lots separated from routine destinations by distances which are well beyond comfortable walking distances, and often comfortable bicycling distances.
    Furthermore, motorist accommodation, particularly in the form of excessive off-street parking at commercial sites (mandated by local governments), has served as a massive hidden subsidy to auto use.
    European countries also did this to some extent, but far less so than we did. Indeed, in some places, such as The Netherlands, urban residents reacted negatively to government efforts to increase auto use.
    Bicycling is not normal in most of the United States because it was made less convenient than auto use. On top of that we can add the social disincentives of ridicule and propaganda telling people it’s dangerous.
    Portland is the marginal success that it is not only because they built bikeways, but because they limited suburban sprawl and created modest disincentives for auto use, such as removing some downtown parking and removing a downtown freeway. They also built a pretty good rail transit system, which is always a complement to bicycling. They also have a very good grid system, a good climate for cycling, mostly flat terrain, and a significant college student population.

    Posted 22 Jun 2012 at 10:46 am
  2. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Wow. Can you expand that essay and send it to The Atlantic?

    I’m an old coot and have no idea why the Millennial Generation is turning away from the car. Back when I was working at the U and had a lot of interaction with students, the conventional UG’s drove and the graduate students in SOEST often biked. I don’t think it was just cost, but also that they, like some of the faculty, saw value in something besides driving a car and made hard nosed cost/benefit choices as well.

    I wonder if some of the disillusionment with the car has to do in part with the advances of high speed electronic communication and with the re-gentrification of cities. It makes no sense to drive on a congested road from the house in the ‘burbs to the office when you can do something electronically. When cities are attractive places to live, the advantages of living close to others outweighs fleeing to the ‘burbs, which are rapidly losing their allure. The central tenent of a car-centered lifestyle, which was that the car was an indispensable component of one’s life, is fading slowly.

    I lived in Honolulu, which had great neighborhoods, low crime, and civic beauty. The only reason one would live outside the urban center was cost–and for two junior professors making ends meet, we moved ten miles from the university. I rode my bike, my wife either took the bus or the Corolla. I had a shower at work and a glorious commute along a tropical shoreline. But even in Hawaii, bicycle commuting was (is?) a tiny minority.

    Minds are a tough thing to change. But you have something going in this essay, Andy.

    Posted 22 Jun 2012 at 10:55 am
  3. Steve A wrote:

    Portland has a good climate for cycling? Which Portland might we be talking about? If the one in Oregon, it is a good thing it is fairly flat because I often found it a thrill to stop in Seattle on the steep hills even AFTER I got aluminum rims.

    Dallas has a much better climate for cycling, except when the electrical storms are passing through. I do find the “student theory” interesting, as PM Summer recently asserted the same thing about Portland. I never heard such things when I lived in the Pacific Northwest. I do think there’s a lot to the “compact and hard to park” theories. Those go far to explain why I sometimes wonder if I’m the only transportational cyclist in Tarrant County. It is neither of those, well, unless you want to park a bike.

    Posted 22 Jun 2012 at 5:16 pm
  4. Brian wrote:

    Well, yes. Chicken-and-egg time, though: so, if culture precedes structure, how do you change the culture? In order to convince people that an activity is normal, you need to show them that A) the institutional authorities of the culture value it, and B) lots of people are doing it. And so we go around the circle again. From my observations of American culture, I’ve concluded that infrastructure does a lot more to change the culture than propaganda does. What people see on the road does affect what they think they ought to see on the road.

    I agree that density and parking are the biggest factors. By a lot. 😉 But it’s also true that in places that are already dense and difficult to park a car in, bike lanes/paths can meet pent-up demand that already exists. That’s what has happened in New York in the last four years, and it seems like it’s happening in Chicago now. If people actually do want ’em (again, that’s not true in most of the U.S. — yet), I don’t see any reason not to give ’em what they want.

    Posted 22 Jun 2012 at 6:47 pm
  5. Khal Spencer wrote:

    I go back to my Bremen story. It was about a mile from my hotel to the airport, which is where the Thermo-Fisher factory (my daily destination) was located. Its no big deal to ride a mile, hence the One Mile Solution. A little more daunting to ride across Chicago or Albuquerque, even with cycletracks. There is a reason people use modern conveniences–it makes life easy and as Mighk points out, fifty years of development was optimized for the car.

    With higher costs and more congestion, it (ie, cars) won’t be so easy or optimal. We should provide other options, but not expect an easy or fast transition.

    Posted 23 Jun 2012 at 6:50 am
  6. Brian wrote:

    “We should provide other options, but not expect an easy or fast transition.”

    Yes. I actually think Portland is doing quite well, considering the full circumstances. People won’t change their daily habits overnight.

    Posted 23 Jun 2012 at 7:56 am
  7. Keri wrote:

    Khal, that should be “especially with cycletracks.” 🙂

    I made numerous trips on one in DC — average speed inbound was 5mph, outbound 6mph. In addition to red light delay, the cross traffic sometimes gridlocks the cycletrack, so it’s difficult to cross even when the light turns green.


    When it was crowded it was downright frightening — faster bicyclists passing slower ones into oncoming bicyclists. I’ll take the street with its cars and trucks and crazy cab drivers!

    At least it’s not legally mandatory (though, socially it is) to use the cycletrack in DC. It is in NYC and Chicago. Eventually it will be in every city that invests a lot of money in such infrastructure. Just like it is in Amsterdam.

    The desire for these facilities needs to be put in context. For almost 100 years the car culture has been driving humans off the streets with control mythology and fearmongering propaganda. For several decades, bike advocates have been telling people they need bike lanes to be safe on the street. Bike lanes, which are promoted as being safe, generate a lot of manufactured conflict in urban areas—because channelizing traffic by vehicle type, rather than speed and destination, violates the principles of movement and breaks an otherwise functional system. So the bike advocates are now telling people they need “protected” facilities to be safe. Then they use the fact that people, who have no other point of reference, want these facilities as justification for building them.

    It’s asinine to squander our road rights, reinforce the very beliefs that inhibit bicycling and screw the bicyclists who are currently successful, in order to create an illusion of safety for people who have been programmed to want some shiny object they don’t even understand! The only people benefitting from this are the consultants.

    Posted 23 Jun 2012 at 7:57 am
  8. Andy Cline wrote:

    Khal… Yes, you’re getting what I’m getting at 🙂 The 1-MS is about incremental culture change. A mile is easy and, I would argue, can be more easily experienced as “normal.”

    Posted 23 Jun 2012 at 7:57 am
  9. Andy Cline wrote:

    Keri… Yes. You’re going to see the exact same situations and behavior in my video. And you’ll see some rather stunning choices. An example: A bike lane just disappears along a line of traffic on a narrow street. I try to merge into the lane, but a car behind me squeezes me out. I end up out of the bike lane to the left but not quite behind the vehicle in front of me. And here they come on the right of me — one bicyclist after another hugging the gutter and going up the right side of stopped traffic, including a truck. Yikes.

    I think the fair observer will note a general and, perhaps, shocking lack of bicycling skill and judgement even given the system they have.

    Posted 23 Jun 2012 at 9:29 am
  10. Khal Spencer wrote:

    One mile at low speed is normal for a lot of people. It works especially well in small cities (e.g., Bremen) because a person typically doesn’t have to go very far, so low design speeds, such as in the Bremen cycle culture, are not unduly punitive. But as Keri alludes, and as John Allen has recently commented, you cannot expect very many people to undertake a long commute at low speeds–not if they have something else to do. Hence the need to resist trying to pound square pegs into round holes. John Allen has commented elsewhere that European cities which are “sprawling” are looking at “bike highway” designs that work at typical modern bicycling speeds rather than those of the clunkers we see in those Amsterdam or Copenhagen videos.

    Posted 23 Jun 2012 at 9:37 am
  11. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Oh, and as far as conflicts. I got to quote Keri here: http://www.labikes.blogspot.com/2012/06/avoiding-right-hooks.html

    Posted 23 Jun 2012 at 9:46 am