The (Bike) Path Forward
Like most, I really didn’t have any appreciation for one of the world’s greatest inventions. I assumed bikes were only for children, drunk drivers and men with a lycra fetish. When I ran the Ohio Main Street program, I was tasked with putting together a regular schedule of workshops. One of these workshops was on the topic of making cities more bike friendly and Greenville, Ohio was the host city. In an effort to gain some first hand experience on this topic, we, as staff at Heritage Ohio, decided we would make our way there by bike. This two-day, 120 mile trip changed my life and certainly changed my view on bicycles.
I can’t be sure the last time I rode a bike up until this trip, but it’s safe to say, I was younger than 16 and didn’t recall how it felt, except that nearly skidding into my brother on my BMX was totally badass. This trip taught me that there are few sensations as pleasurable or liberating as the feeling of riding a bike. We are brought up to understand that the car is the ultimate source of freedom, but once you’ve ridden a bike, you realize just how wrong this notion is. Car ownership is far from the liberating experience we’ve been told. Cars are extremely expensive to own and maintain. They take up a ton of space both at home and in our cities. They are used less than 10% of the time they are owned and they have degraded our quality of life in nearly every single way.
I am not here to make a pitch for why people should ride bikes. There are a number of amazing organizations already advocating for increased ridership and others working tirelessly to create expand the trail system (yeah I'm looking at you, Rails to Trails). That being said, I wholeheartedly believe that if anyone decides to take up biking, it would without a doubt improve their life in a myriad ways. There are few things more enjoyable than an evening trail ride with a wine filled water bottle. Instead, my aim is to advocate for why city leaders should give serious consideration to making their communities more bike friendly. While bikes ARE for children and drunk drivers and men with lycra fetishes, they are also for absolutely everyone and cities that invest in becoming more bikeable are well rewarded for their effort.
As is often the case, we make assumptions that the things taking place in larger cities just don’t translate or aren’t relevant to smaller towns. This small thinking often leads to a significant delay in implementing policies that would provide an economic benefit. Rest assured, people that live in large cities and small towns are not all that much different, they are just located in different places. They share the same set of values and enjoy the same things. People that live in larger cities often travel to small towns and people that live in smaller towns often like to visit larger ones. Time and time again, ideas that seemed only achievable in larger cities make their way to small towns. There is no need for cities of any size to delay implementing bike friendly policies. Enough studies have been completed to demonstrate the significant benefits of being more bike friendly. There is practically no downside to this effort, except ignorant people ranting that bikes are some sort of liberal Trojan horse to make us all into mustachioed hipsters.
Bikes are dope and make cities better in every way. So many cities focus their revitalization efforts around providing more car storage, when adding more parking has never made any place better. This thinking overlooks the fact that nearly every single great destination is pedestrian oriented and does not give primary consideration to the car. We forget that as we add more car accommodations, we make our places worse. I believe it was Einstein that said, “We cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for pedestrians”...or something like that. No place that has been prioritized for cars will ever be great. And now...allow me to lay out the reason for making great places. *Ahem*
-When a place becomes special, more people want visit.
-When those people visit, they spend money.
-Business improves, sales improve, sales tax increases.
-Successful businesses seek to locate in a place with lots of people.
-Business improves again, more visitors arrive.
-Rental rates go up.
-Real estate values increase.
-The amount of taxes collected increases.
-Quality of life increases.
***Boom.*** The case for placemaking made simple. You’re welcome.
I know this is NOT new ground, but it needs reiterated. In making great places, we improve the economy and car oriented places are not great. Here is a fact: if people want to go somewhere, they will find a way to get there. If people site parking as a reason they are not visiting somewhere, you can simply infer that statement as, a small hassle was not worth it for me to visit this place. When people actually want to visit a place, the small hassle of readily available parking is no barrier at all. They will find other ways to make their way to great shops, restaurants or events. In making places more bike friendly, we are making them better places while also making them easier for people to visit. The very best commercial districts in the country depend on bike traffic because they cannot accommodate ample car traffic.
It’s an economic issue. Contrary to popular belief, people on bikes can carry money. In the case of the lycra set, you can pretty much count it. There is the notion that prioritizing bikes over cars leads to a decrease in traffic and sales. This is simply not the case. In a Fast Company article from January 2014, the following was cited “Studies show that stores benefit from being near bike lanes. For example, retail sales on 9th Avenue in Manhattan rose 49% compared to a borough-wide rate of only 3% after a bike lane was put in.” There are dozens of other studies that show, removing parking for bike lanes increases visits, increases sales and increases real estate values. All these benefits while also making a place easier to love. Make it easy for people to visit your downtown by bike, you will be shocked by how many people chose to do so.
It’s a quality of life issue. Cars suck and most people don't enjoy using them. They are also very expensive and make people angry and kill lots and lots of people. Bikes don’t tend to kill people. Bikes are not expensive, unless you are into lycra and then they are very expensive. And bikes don’t make people angry, unless you are a driver, and then they make you Mel Gibson angry. Bikes are fun AF and when people ride them they enjoy the shit out of themselves. They make simple trips, that would otherwise be monotonous, a pleasure. They are healthy and add years to your life. They can be enjoyed at all ages and do not cost much to own or maintain. Protected bike lanes and bike trails make a city a more enjoyable place to live, which makes a city a better place to live. As i’ve mentioned time and time again, the key to rebuilding struggling cities is to focus on livability issues. These are the reasons good people decide not to move away and also the reason good people leave their garbage city that is sans bike lanes and move to your town. These simple and affordable amenities help reshape a community as a whole.
It’s also a community issue. Bikes bring people together. No one ever experienced a sense of community in a car, expect for a mutual hatred of someone biking. When we create bike lanes and paths, we invite people out of their homes and into the public realm to be with one another. There is little more satisfying than seeing people pass one another with a heartfelt greeting on a bike. The common experience of being on a bike and sharing the same space, brings people together and makes them feel closer. Cars have only managed to pull us apart and tear at the fabric of community, to whereas bikes help begin to repair that fabric and make communities stronger.
It’s a convenience issue. Having the ability to make a trip by bike, not only is more fun, but can also be extremely convenient on shorter trips. I like to try and make my small trips by bike because it adds an element of fun to my day, it saves me some gas money, it provides a bit of much needed exercise and it’s typically a simple trip. For one, I never need to find gas for my bike. Every time I eat some nachos, I am providing the fuel for it. I certainly don’t have to drive around the block ten times looking for parking. I have an ‘85 garage sale Schwinn that I can park absolutely anywhere without fear of anyone nicking it. In some instances, depending on traffic, it can be quicker to ride my bike. It requires very little maintenance and the state does not ask me to bring it in for an annual inspection. It is also very convenient for my budget. An article in Investopedia from December, 2018, cited that the average car costs nearly $10,000 a year to own. That is an enormous amount of money for something that only gets used a small amount of time. By making cities more bike friendly, we can begin to reduce car dependence and have a substantial impact on residents’ financial well being as well as their spending power. Outside of local service shops, very little money from the auto industry stays in the local economy.
A small gripe. One does not need lycra and special shoes or those awful Oakley sunglasses to ride a bike. One only needs legs and a bike. And there are even bikes for people without legs. The more specialized we make biking seem, the less likely people are to take it up. Biking is a form of convenience and a means of transportation. While it is also an enjoyable sport, it is not primarily a sport. The “sportification” of riding bikes has done harm to the overall acceptance of biking as a means of transportation. Biking doesn’t require special clothing. Bike genius and owner of Rivendell Bicycle Works ,Grant Peterson, put it this way in a New York Times article from 2012, “In its need for special clothing, bicycle riding is less like scuba diving and more like a pickup basketball game.” Sure, if you go racing or intend to put on some serious miles, specific clothing can help- but this is just not the case for most people. People can and should ride bikes in any clothing. Hell, they can even ride bikes in a cowboy hat from Gucci with Wranglers on their booty. We have to start to look at biking as a convenient and fun alternative to cars and not as a hardcore sport that requires $10,000 in gear and genital highlighting pants. The more dangerous and/or specialized we make biking seem, the fewer people that are likely to take it up. There are plenty of ways we can go about making biking safer, but the number one solution is to get more people doing it. Another bit of brilliance by Grant Petersen, “No matter how much your bike costs, unless you use it to make a living, it is a toy, and it should be fun.” For more on this topic, I highly recommend Just Ride by Grant Peterson.
This past weekend, a phenomenal local bike advocacy organization, BIKE PGH, hosted their first OPENSTREETSPGH event of the year. My wife and I drug all four kids to the event, because we want the kids to experience our community and a chance to enjoy streets as they were meant to be. Some children were a little less interested in attending than others, but in the end, every one of them had an amazing time and had a bit of an eye opening experience. We saw neighborhoods we had not seen before. We got to share the streets with people from every background. Even our most novice rider learned that it was possible to ride a bike UP a hill. This was an enriching, heartwarming and overall, highly pleasurable experience. We enjoyed a day out in our beautiful city. We talked about what it means to be a community. We contemplated how deeply cars have effected our lives. We had fun as a family, we had a couple of wrecks, we all got sweaty and smelly, and we kicked ass. Bikes kick ass.
*Thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog, if you found the information useful, I do hope you will consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues.
- Jeff Siegler