Bicycle Infrastructure

Infrastructure. What is this word that has been wafting through conversations and inundating the Interwebs of late? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, infrastructure is “a collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking; substructure; foundation.” Wikipedia describes infrastructure as “the basic physical and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise, or the services and facilities necessary for an economy to function.” There are many examples of infrastructure, from transportation to telecommunications to public services to utilities and more.

But what exactly does infrastructure do? Wikipedia provides a good answer, which states that “infrastructure facilitates the production of goods and services; for example, roads enable the transport of raw materials to a factory, and also for the distribution of finished products to markets.” Alright then, so infrastructure basically helps to move around the things that we produce or provide, which in turn can help to encourage or improve economic development or growth. The underlying question then, and the reason that infrastructure is such a buzz-word and/or an issue these days, is the age-old chicken and the egg question: should the infrastructure come before the economic development, or should resources be devoted to economic development before infrastructure?

bike-lane2-germany-cf-resizePhoto credit (and header image): Chloe Forsman

Well, herein lies the rub, especially as it pertains to bicycle infrastructure. In very general terms, there are usually limited resources to spend in any given place, and more often than not, the question is, to what or where should said resources be allocated? Should they be allocated to facilitate economic development through job creation, for example? Or should they be spent on fixing up existing infrastructure (in transportation, mainly roadways built primarily for cars)? While yet another option might be to allocate resources to build and develop new infrastructure (in transportation, potentially for bicycles)?. And of course, some combination of options is typically the norm.

Ok, ok, so this is probably pretty obvious. We all know there are limited resources, especially during these “hard economic times,” where budget cuts are more common than bike lanes. Nonetheless, it is important to think about the general purpose and function of infrastructure in order to come up with a feasible solution to the lack of bicycle infrastructure, which we all know is certainly a problem.

Which brings me to my inspiration for this post. The New York Times Magazine recently published their 9th Annual Year in Ideas, and bicycle highways made the list. Bicycle highways are cycling roadways with no red lights and no cars, which create a safe, efficient, and uninterrupted riding environment for cyclists. Bicycle highways, in principle, should be totally segregated from car lanes, so as to move bicycle traffic efficiently. For the United States, the NY Times writes:

The bicycle highway no red lights, no cars is every cyclist’s fantasy. There are now signs that infrastructure is catching up with the dream. In October 2008, an association of U.S. state-highway officials approved the concept of a national Bicycle Routes Corridor Plan the first step in potential American bike Interstates. But this amounts to little more than a go-ahead for states to put bike-route signs on existing roads.

Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, bicycle superhighways are in the works for the city’s large cycling population. Then again, Copenhagen tends to be way ahead of the curve in the bicycle infrastructure department, as this film by Streetfilms featuring Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycle Chic demonstrates:

But despite Copenhagen’s incredible achievements in bicycle infrastructure, one of the leaders of the movement, Jan Gehl, emphasizes that bicycle highways should not come first, and that a city should first focus on developing bike lanes and other cycling-friendly features before tackling the big stuff. So in a sense, the concept of a National Bicycle Routes Corridor Plan in the United States is a start in the right direction.

Along those same lines, the notion of using existing car infrastructure for cyclists is probably one of the better ideas of the year – in my mind – especially when we are stuck with the limited-resources-to-invest-in-infrastructure problem. In Portland, Oregon, another city known for its strong bicycle advocacy and infrastructure, the idea of using existing highways for new bikeways is gaining traction. Indeed, as Bike Portland points out, other people in the US are thinking about this, as well. In an article in Metropolis Mag, Karrie Jacobs writes that “its time for us to look at the interstate system not as an aging network of highways in need of repair or replacement but instead as we might look at a navigable river.” Another notable transportation and infrastructure improvement advocate – Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Portland – argues that our national highway system is a tremendous national untapped resource.” There is a lot of potential to rethink the current nation
al highway system so that it accommodates other forms of transportation – bicycle, train, and car, because why not? It’s already there.

So it seems that perhaps the best way to start on the road to improving bicycle infrastructure is to follow Copenhagen’s lead. Build up infrastructure slowly and develop a strong core, and then, when the time is right and resources are available, unveil the bicycle superhighways. Do I think bicycle highways are a good idea? Sure, I would love to have access to such infrastructure. But do I also think there are “better” ideas for improving bicycle infrastructure, especially in the United States? Why, yes! I think Portland, NYC, and other notable US cities are on to something really good with the reallocation of car lanes to bike lanes. The notion of a US Bicycle Route System is also a great start, though apparently, not the first time such an idea has been proposed.

finalposter1Image Credit: US Bicycle Routes System – Adventure Cycling

In the end, resources need to be devoted to improving bicycle infrastructure on one level or another. However, the best approach might be to use the least amount of resources in a way that has the most positive impact on cycling. It seems like shared-use (albeit separated to some degree) roadways are good start given the reality of the situation. What do you think?

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