Should The U.S. Consider Cycle Superhighways?

7.23.12 | Last week I wrote about how our public transit system is doing a less than adequate job of getting people to work, especially since jobs are increasingly moving away from city centers.

But maybe transportation planners here should be looking to Europe where, as usual, city planners are taking a novel approach to getting suburban commuters to work, by focusing on biking.

Copenhagen opened its first of 26 planned Cycle Superhighways in April, according to an article in last week’s New York Times, that runs some 11 miles between Copenhagen and suburban Albertslund.

The path has air pumps, foot rests, and “green waves” for cyclists – an unbroken string of green lights if you travel at a certain speed during rush hour. And if their commute is anything like ours, this sounds absolutely majestic, even despite the fact that Copenhagen’s residents commute through the snow and ice in the winter months.

The effort is part of the city’s plans to reduce CO2 emissions and become the first carbon neutral country by 2025. They have  plans to open 186 miles of bike paths, and at this rate they just may succeed.

Many people (37%) already ride to work in Copenhagen. It’s expensive to buy and own a car because of high sales tax and gas prices.  Yet the city and its environs are far from dense. The city has the third largest sprawl in Europe, by one estimate.

But planners saw opportunity in suburban commuters who were less likely to take their bike to work because of the long distances, most choosing cars or public transit, like we do here.

Planners figured the superhighway was one important way to encourage commuters to take their bikes to work even if they live far from the city center.

“We want people to perceive these routes as a serious alternative,” Brian Hansen, the head of Copenhagen’s traffic planning section told the Times, “like taking the bus, car or train.”

Planners are taking things like lighting, snow removal, and quality of pavement into consideration in order to help attract commuters

In addition to C02 emissions, planners say biking can reduce health care costs (less traffic accidents, pollution, more exercise) and just generally make people happier.

This is working in other parts of northern Europe, like the Netherlands where car trips have dropped and biking is increasing.

Check out this video from the Times that shows happy families biking to work and school every day.

I see this sometimes where I live here in Berkeley, where moms and dads can be spotted commuting on cargo bikes in ties and suit jackets dropping their kids off before heading in to the office. My husband commutes to work everyday to neighboring Emeryville on his bike, not because it was the most environmentally friendly choice, but because it was the fastest and most convenient option, by far, even without a bike superhighway. That said, some residents of Berkeley are complaining about the unsafe conditions and lack of smooth pavement on some of the roadways here.

We are obviously far behind places like Denmark, and my family’s experience with bike commuting is the exception rather than the rule.

The latest transportation bill to pass in July cut funds for bike paths and pedestrian walkways and trails. It gives states permission to redirect funds away from biking and walking projects and put it toward highway funding.

New York City, whose bike sharing program I covered a few months back is stuck in delays, and Americans love their cars, so it’s hard to imagine them giving them up.

Check out this analysis from Public Radio International’s Marketplace about how Americans get to work. Reporters there used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to create this interactive map. They find that biking and walking are, not surprisingly, the least popular ways to commute to work.

No state reported more than 5 percent of their commuter population on bikes. Thanks to its bike-friendly city of Portland, the state of Oregon topped the list – but still its bike population is only about 4.63 percent of the total. The majority of states didn’t break 1 percent in this category.

You can investigate how your state performs here. And next time you are packed into an overcrowded subway train without a place to sit, or late to pick up your kid because you are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the freeway, it might be helpful to imagine a cycling alternative and whether city planners and individual households should think up some more creative solutions to our transportation problems.

Photo/ Barbara Ray

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