You Can Only Buy Infrastructure, You Cannot Buy Respect

Background Reading


Zach Vanderkooy writes that the United States is better off looking to what has and is happening in Munich than in trying to pattern its bicycle infrastructure advances after those in either Copenhagen or Amsterdam:

Most protected lanes in Munich are at sidewalk grade, whereas American designs usually prefer that they be located in the roadway. Intersections follow the Dutch model.**

Most protected lanes in Munich are at sidewalk grade, whereas American designs usually prefer that they be located in the roadway. Intersections follow the Dutch model.**

Looking to other places for inspiration and a glimpse of a possible future is a critical part of the path to better bicycling in U.S. cities. That’s why it’s a big focus of the Green Lane Project. The best Dutch and Danish cities have been working diligently to make bicycling safe, appealing and convenient for about 50 years, but Munich’s dedication to bicycle transportation really took hold in the 1990s. The German city’s bicycle infrastructure is not yet world-class, but it’s more advanced than anything yet achieved in North America. In 1990, the percentage of trips made by bike in Munich was about 5% (comparable to today’s best U.S. cities, though some neighborhoods have much higher use). Today in Munich, bikes make up more than 15% of all traffic, a remarkably rapid transformation. The rise of bike use during the last two decades was no fluke —focused public and private investments in infrastructure, thoughtful policy decisions, and economic, social and legal incentives made it possible. Like in the U.S., these changes weren’t driven by the passion of select individuals, but by rational decision-makers seeking practical and cost-effective urban transportation. And like American cities, Munich’s traffic professionals struggled with design challenges and cultural inertia while adapting proven practices from other places to their unique streets. The parallels are strong between Munich’s bicycling growth during the 2000s and the current trajectory of U.S. cities.

Munich’s infrastructure toolbox consists of the familiar three basic ingredients: protected bike lanes (what we like to call green lanes), quiet, neighborhood streets and off-street bike paths. It forms a far from perfect network — evidence of earlier failed design iterations that had since been improved were easy to spot — and that’s reassuring for practitioners in the U.S. The rate of progress with American green lanes has been tremendous in the past few years, and what took 20 years to achieve in Munich could happen in 10 on our side of the Atlantic with the right mix of political support, smart design and modest investments.

Americans are “Johnny-come-lately” with respect to getting aboard the Urban Cycling juggernaut. Chicago has a well-connected mayor with friends that have deep pockets. In addition he has reaped the largesse of Washington D.C. as GOP governors have turned down monies earmarked for transportation infrastructure development. But as is being pointed out on the ChainLink you can only buy paint and PVC pipe and little else.

As one ChainLinker writes:

Reply by Mr. Ray Joe Hall yesterday

Stop signs are so lame. Especially when someone else has the right of way at one. Brakes too.

Clearly we cyclists have to share a portion of the blame for our inability to be taken as seriously as we might like in the recent rankings of “Bike Friendly” cities. We are not alone in having a significant segment of our Urban Cycling movement represented by people who frankly do not understand the necessity for doing more than “talking about safety” and “walking the walk” where safety is concerned. Cycling organizations like Active Transportation Alliance have created (or at least encouraged) an environment in which scofflaw cyclists are tolerated because without them it is feared that the movement’s progress would be retarded.

But a dispassionate view of what lies ahead (as mentioned in the article above on Munich) is what is needed. Another ChainLinker offers some insights into why Chicago is so far overlooked:

Reply by Jason Ward 2 hours ago
Well to back up Copenhagenize (2011 at least), it sucks to ride here.

I took a bike with me on a rock tour around a decent chunk of the nation a few years ago and I would say that, among other places, Portland, Seattle, Austin, Philadelphia, San Fran, San Diego, Boston, even parts of Houston, all struck me as nicer and more relaxing places to ride than here. Admittedly I have a lot more experience here/things to complain about, but pretty much every single day my life is threatened to some noticeable degree (beyond the mere fact that I am riding) on any trip longer than about a mile and if you think that is just normal, I’m here to say it’s not.

The streets are awful, Milwaukee is the dangerous superhighway of north side biking with doorings and right-turnings and right-passings always ready to kill you, theft is a major issue, the weather stinks for about 6-8 months out of the year. It’s better now than several years ago, but this place has a very, very long way to go before horns should be blown.

And a lot of it is not just infrastructure, it’s culture. The drivers are just more fucked here. Of Texas, I lived there for most of my life before this, still visit fairly often and have cycled there intermittently over the last decade. There have been MAJOR improvements down there, especially in Austin, but even in Houston (can’t say about Dallas, SA). Even in pretty crazy fast driving roads without proper bike lanes, most people really take pause and realize you are a very vulnerable human out there on your bike and give a wide berth, slow down, etc. Here each day people buzz me going 40 such that their side mirrors occasionally smack me in the hand or I could literally touch someones face with out outstretched hand as they passed me if it wouldn’t chop my arm off. It’s totally insane. No forward looking commissioner can really do much about that, it would take a sustained period of really punitive laws, actually enforced, to change this culture of indifference.

(That would certainly cause plenty of hostility…and the behavior of many cyclists only escalates the extant hostility towards us.) Anyway, I do not see this happening in a city where it’s everyone’s god given right to claim a chunk of street for their car for a week or more because they shoveled the snow from around it, and we couldn’t ever have a decent mayoral candidate without multi-millionaires from California raining down millions to ensure we get someone like Rahm yet again.

This ends my parade-raining. I ride a lot in Chicago, but I can’t pretend it is a great place to ride.

The problem with these kinds of “True Confessions” is that the people who offer them up take a lot of heat from their peers. They get labeled trolls or anti-cycling and that is simply not the case. What Chicago’s Urban Cycling Community needs is the Mother of All Interventions.

We are grasping at infrastructure increases as the panacea for what ails us. When the Dearborn Street PBL went in a sigh of relief came over us that we were finally “on the map“. But the folks who live outside Chicago can easily read the musings of those on the ChainLink and connect the dots as to the real situation here. The expenditure of $450,000 does not make us a “safe” cycling mecca. What it makes us is a great place in which to be the purveyors of green paint and PVC piping.

Our Cycling Advocates say as much every time they write a Letter-To-The-Editor to reprimand this or that journalist for calling out the bad behavior of cyclists. Like so very much in Chicago, “speaking truth to power” can be a “death sentence” in this tightly knit community with its shared paranoias.

I do not hold out much hope that things will change in the near future. Like the gun violence that marks just about every sector of the city (I heard about more shootings taking place on the Northwest Side this AM) we have become inured to what is going on around us. We are defensive and willfully ignorant of our own flaws and instead intent on focusing on the “sins” of motorists to the exclusion of all else.

So be it.