Hidden Obstacles To Cycling

Background Reading


Photo by Christopher Porter on Flickr.

Photo by Christopher Porter on Flickr.

For 10 years, urban policymakers have been talking more and more about the so-called “interested but concerned”—people who would like to bike more but who are, for some reason, held back.

Make biking attractive to those people, the thinking goes, and great things can happen to a city: road capacity rises, parking shortages ease, auto dependence declines, development costs fall, public health improves.

Since then, several local studies have explored the opinions of these people, usually within cities that were already fairly bike-friendly. But since the “interested but concerned” concept was popularized, there’s never been a study of these people at the national level.

Until now, that is.


A new national survey interviewed 9,376 adults who want to bike more

As part of its new national survey about bicycling participation, PeopleForBikes hired a public research firm to anonymously ask thousands of U.S. adults a series of questions. One of them: whether they would like to ride a bicycle more often.

To make sure people weren’t lying to make us happy, we also asked whether they’d ever visited an imaginary website, and then disregarded all answers from people who claimed they had. After that, to ensure a representative sample, we weighted the remaining answers by age, gender, region, ethnicity, and income to make the sample look like the United States.

As we shared earlier this month, 53 percent of American adults answered that yes, they want to bike more.

But that question also gave us an opportunity to do something else: to look more closely at the situations of the people who answered “yes” to this question. By comparing their answers to different questions, we can explore one of the holy grails of bicycling advocacy: what the most important obstacles to biking might be.

After a week of looking closely at the numbers, here are our six most interesting discoveries.

  1. One third of people who want to bike more are dissatisfied with existing bike infrastructure
  2. Bicycle ownership is a major barrier to riding, especially among poorer households
  3. Fear of being personally targeted is a major barrier to riders of color
  4. The western United States is much better at the bike + transit combo
  5. Every group worries a lot about getting hit by cars, but some more than others
  6. Every single demographic group wants protected bike lanes

Personal Observations

One thing that assumed but should be made clear about this survey was that it pertains to ‘transportation cycling‘. Bike trails get high marks from users for the most part. What some of us want however is for these trails to be linked up with either other trails or on-street bike routes.

Most of the people I know do not consider bicycles as ‘basic transportation‘. I sat down to dinner with a college administrator recently and asked point blank whether her college students used bicycles as the primary transportation mode on campus. She said no. After reflection she offered that long boards and skateboards got higher use.

In fact just looking at the UIC campus you see people walking nearly 100% of the time. Some students do use bicycles, but frankly I would imagine that being able to find a parking space for your bike would be more hassle than walking.

Protected Bike Lanes are a really simplistic way to avoid paying for bike trails in cities. It would make far more sense for trails like the soon to be completed Bloomingdale 606 or the Chicago Lakefront Trail to be created for bicycle users than on-street bike lanes.

I say this based on the fact that the really gnarly episodes between bikes and motor vehicles tend to occur at intersections. If you can keep bikes off of streets and on segregated paths you stand a better chance of getting reluctant riders out and about.

As a matter of fact the fears that ‘people of color‘ have about riding bicycles in traffic might be aided by making the act of cycling a wholly other one than street riding.

I have ridden just about every neighborhood in the city and find that despite all the new infrastructure created it still does not appeal to me as much as riding trails. In fact the best experiences I have had are with special trails inserted alongside busy multilane roads that have a parkway separating them from the street and wide multi-use lanes/sidewalks open to both bicycles and pedestrians.

The suburban areas in DuPage County seem destined to get even more of these kinds of lanes. They follow along roads that are typically leading to strip malls which serve in the suburbs as places akin to Milwaukee Avenue.

Being on street is an even greater concern the worse the weather. Bicycles are often awkward on streets because you have to find a place to sit and repair a flat tire or adjust some portion of your drive train. On street riding is what gives older and younger riders the most challenge. Streets are often chaotic and because you are close to faster moving traffic you suffer the same problems that pedestrians do on MUPs.

I for one applaud and will be looking forward to the experiences gained in Britain with their forthcoming bicycle superhighways. I am hoping that they are the bicycle equivalent of automobile superhighways. That is to say they have bathrooms and places to stop and eat if needs be. But most importantly that they go somewhere that people want to visit. They should hopefully have the same sorts of easily read signage as on automobile superhighways. And lastly that there is some sort of support system for folks who develop mechanical issues in much the same way as happens on automobile superhighways.

Get this sort of infrastructure in place and I think everyone will be happier.

Finally, the fear level of ‘would be‘ cyclists is oddly enough actually heightened by cyclists who focus much to much on their own fears. In some ways the Ride of Silence while meant to solve one problem actually creates others. It is inevitable given that most folks who do not ride are often unaware of the dangers of on street cycling. But once you start to plant ghost bikes all over town, it makes the would be cyclists that much more concerned about their personal safety.