Unintended Side Effects

Posted on August 30, 2012 by Dave Feucht

Source: Portlandize

© Dave Feucht

As most people know, Portland has focused its efforts for accommodating bicycles on what we are now calling ‘neighborhood greenways’ – that is, neighborhood streets, through residential areas, which have lower automobile traffic.

This is in contrast to providing bicycle facilities on main commercial streets, and on thoroughfares that cut across neighborhoods or whole areas of the city, which the city has almost completely avoided, with a few painted-bike-lane exceptions on short stretches of a few streets (which then leave you hanging by disappearing suddenly).

In some ways, focusing on neighborhood streets works really well, as it has a fairly high benefit in terms of encouraging ridership for low cost (in many cases, almost nothing is done besides signage and maybe a few speed bumps or an occasional diverter to prevent auto traffic from turning onto a street at a particular intersection).

However, recently I’ve been thinking about some potential unintended side effects of essentially trying to funnel all bicycle traffic into residential areas.

First is that you’re diverting thousands of people away from commercial areas, where they would otherwise be riding right past rows of shops, bars, restaurants, grocery stores, etc. These people are moving relatively slowly, at a pace where they could see a shop or restaurant and spontaneously stop and go in. Instead, they have to know the place exists already, because they’re being routed around behind it to travel through the area, so unless they know it’s there already, they’ll never see it. Also, because there are no bicycle facilities on those main streets, people get annoyed if you decide to ride on them with a lot of traffic, because you ‘hold up’ forward progress. It’s not that you are forbidden from riding on these streets, but it can be extremely uncomfortable, and likelihood of harassment is exponentially higher than on other streets.

© Dave Feucht

Second is that you’re funneling a lot of traffic into areas that people would like to be quiet and calm. Granted, bicycles make less of a safety and a livability impact than automobiles would, but still, having 5,000 bicycles per day going down the street in front of your house/apartment certainly changes the way the street operates, as opposed to having very little traffic at all. It’s occurred to me that this may really not be all that welcome in some places, and doing this might increase the likelihood of tensions between neighborhood residents trying to walk around their neighborhood or use the streets expecting them to be mostly empty (because most of the traffic is on the ‘main’ street a few blocks over), and people on bicycles trying to make their way through the neighborhood on their way to somewhere else.

Anyway, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to provide good bicycle routes through neighborhoods, but I think we really need to start providing better (or any) accommodations for bicycles on main streets as well, as by not doing so, I feel like we’re exacerbating a number of tensions between citizens using the roads for different purposes.

What do you all think about this? Do you see these dynamics playing out as you move around the city?