The Same Could Be Said of ‘Bike Lanes’

Background Reading


© Detroit Free Press

© Detroit Free Press


Never were truer words spoken:

Only in America would we assume that Robertson’s 46-mile commute is the natural order of things and the problem is that some people don’t have cars. Robertson’s situation demonstrates that low-income residents of Detroit and other cities around the U.S. need two things: mass transit and affordable housing near jobs.

So let’s break this down a bit to see what can be done:

There’s been lotsofdepressingnews coming out of Detroit lately, but this week we were treated to an inspiring story from the Motor City.

It started when the Detroit Free Pressreported on the daily life of James Robertson, 56, who lives in Detroit but works 23 miles away at a plastic parts factory in suburban Rochester Hills. For the last decade, since his 1988 Honda Accord died, he has been unable to afford a new car. Rochester Hills is one of 40 communities in affluent, conservative Oakland County that chooses not to participate in the regional mass transit system. Buses only cover roughly half of Robertson’s 46-mile roundtrip commute, so he walks 21 of those miles every day. His commute takes four hours each way, and the trip home after his evening shift requires him to walk in the middle of the night through dangerous Detroit neighborhoods, where he has been mugged several times. (There’s a wonderful 2014 New Yorker profile of Oakland County’s longtime chief executive, L. Brooks Patterson, who opposes mass transit and has a history of racial insensitivity. Detroit is mostly black and Oakland County is mostly white.)

Well let me clue you in to one big similarity between what Patterson is saying and what bike lanes do as well.

As Mr. Adler points out the problem is housing and cheap transport. Even if most of us could have a bike lane, few of us could pedal 21 miles a day. The distance is not the only problem, it would be conditions like those we have experienced here in Chicago this past weekend. Cold, icy and snowy.

Bike Lanes make sense for one group and one group alone (for the most part), people who live short distances from their places of employment. ‘Elites‘ seem to not understand the disconnect between their needs and the fact that they do not match well with those who have to seek what employment they can find outside of the range of bike ride along a ‘bike lane‘.

The quick knee-jerk solution is to offer something like Divvy as an option. But again if you are trying to find a way to get from the far South Side of Chicago to some place west along the Illinois Prairie Path you suddenly realize that it is not just the distance, but the conditions of the roadways that conspire to make this a problem.

Municipalities have all they can handle just clearing snow from streets where plows can do their thing, quickly. But frankly the costs of hiring the drivers to ply their snow removal skills and the additional costs of keep their trucks in working order is daunting. Municipalities like Detroit have to decide early on what sorts of things are feasible and affordable as well.

Mass Transit Is Nearly Non-Responsive

Getting back to the situation involving mass transit. In terms of fixing at least one half the problem (housing and mass transit) the latter is the easiest to deal with. What the poor can afford in terms of housing is very limited indeed. People offering affordable housing closer to the jobs that poor people will be hired for is rarer still. Most cities after all are ringed by more affluent suburbs.

But where the jobs are is anybody’s guess. Business that provide semi-skilled positions are the best bet. But frankly they are not always the most profitable. So job openings could come and go. When that happens it is nearly impossible for mass transit to respond.

Light rail takes years to ‘build out‘. Bus routes are easier to ‘move around‘ but that cannot be done at the ‘drop of hat‘. Only two forms of transportation are viable long term with good short term response rates: bicycling and automobile driving.

You can nearly always drive to any new job. A good serviceable car can take you many miles to places where mass transit cannot currently afford to operate. The thing that moves cars above bicycles when it comes to dealing in the realm of the real versus ‘making a statement‘ is that a person taking a bike has to be fit enough to use it and fortunate enough to find clothing that can sustain longer rides.

Honestly the cost of dressing well enough to ride for a couple of hours out in the cold is staggering. Most ‘elites‘ have no real idea about just how difficult (no impossible) it would be to buy the kind of clothing needed to ride for an hour or more in sub-zero weather. And of course it also should be said that 56-year old adults are nearing their useful life as workers. So there is that to take into account.

Say what you will, the automobile is the ‘one leveling factor‘ that makes the most sense. If you could supply the poor workers with minivans that could serve as RideShare for several folks they could carpool. And I know that the ‘War on Cars‘ gang is groaning right now.

But given the conditions a car is best. If somehow we could find ways to do for minivans what we are attempting to do with BikeShare we might have something that actually works.

Bike Lanes Should Be ‘Bike Routes’

I heartily dislike ‘bike lanes‘. In cities like Chicago they make some sense. But they are the equivalent of driving lonely rural roads on the way to your place of employment. What makes them work for ‘elites‘ is that they are adequate enough to get them the 3-5 miles they live from the office. You could rush to get from the house to the office and park before you ever got too cold, perhaps. But even at the paltry distances most Urban Cyclists travel they too get cold and in really nasty weather opt to take the bus or train.

If you are a poor person trying to ply the streets all the way out to the suburbs where the jobs might be, you are faced with the daunting prospect that bike lanes are controlled by several municipalities and that their upkeep is less than uniform. If you run into mechanical issues you are ‘on your own‘.

There are spots along most trails in the suburbs (where bike lanes are rarer) where a bike flat could be disastrous. You could slip and fall and have no means of finding help!

We should be thinking more holistically about bicycle travel for those who are covering distances of 1-3 hours each way. First off we need places to get mechanical help if you strike a piece of glass and your front tire flats. But even more important are places to ‘warm up‘, grab a bite to eat or even use a bathroom.

Such routes need to be well lit. And if winter we either need to have BikeShare that uses Fat Bikes or better yet something with more than two wheels. A trike comes to mind or maybe even a quad. And if it is BikeShare we are talking about then why not electric-assist?

Just pushing ‘bike lanes‘ is the equivalent of needing a custom made suit but being presented only with blue jeans and a tee shirt. We need to stop thinking about bike lanes as anything more than the ‘last mile‘ options that they really are.

A Dirty Little Secret

But here is the kicker. Every bike lane and rider it serves is costing mass transit sorely needed ridership. In a perfect world, using private bicycles for anything would be a ‘sin‘. The very reason that guys have to walk 21-miiles back and forth to work is that their municipalities cannot afford to be as flexible and cost effective as they need.

Having ‘elites‘ ply private bikes back and forth just puts additional burdens on a city. After all when you get to your destination contrary to popular opinion you still need a parking lot. Only this one might need to take care of bikes instead (or in addition to cars).

But every person who opts for a private bicycle is literally killing the chances of BikeShare ever becoming sustainable. And every bike lane with pretty green paint and PVC bollards is a waste of money that would be far better spent providing warming houses and suitable ‘Bike Routes‘ or ‘Bicycle Super Highways‘ that are inviting and can handle thousands of riders each day.

In fact the sooner you find a way to make a ‘Bike Route‘ separate from car traffic altogether the sooner they are likely to flourish. A good set of color-coded bike routes just like those the CTA uses is vital. You need a system that does not require much thought on the part of its users.

It needs to offer the kinds of bikes that ‘level the playing field‘ for men and women and young and old. You do that by offering ‘electric-assist‘ and well lit warming stations with mechanics on-duty and plenty of police bike patrol presence. These bike routes should be inviting enough that people want to take them and can do so for very little money.

If you can get the elderly to choose and use these kinds of routes you are surely going to have more capable folks able to make use of them as well. I would offer up that spending the money to make these routes largely sheltered from weather is a great thing! The poor are not going to be out in $300 moisture wicking suits designed for Nordic skiers.