I just read that this is “National Bicycle Month” and that this week is “Bicycle to Work Week.” I have no idea who makes these pronouncements, but I am sure they represent a kind of wishful thinking rather than an accurate reference to everyday reality. Last week an article in the Washington Post reported new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that a mere .6% of us bike to work and only 2.8% of us walk. So we should not expect any big parades of bicyclists causing traffic jams on their way to work this week. The article also reports that 86% of us in the United States get to work by car.
One might say that these findings are not really news because the article confirms an already well-known reality. Many of us live in places where it is difficult to get anywhere we need to go except by car. Janesville, Wisconsin is probably a microcosm of large expanses of the urban United States where public transportation is non-existent or inadequate. I am now retired and no longer need to make a daily commute to work. But when I did, my commute was twenty miles to another city. Although I no longer make that daily drive, the automobile is still my primary form of transportation, even to places that are close by.
Referring to the image above, it will be seen that the distance between my house on Bluewing Court in Janesville and the closest shopping center is .68 miles as the crow flies. That route is only available if I am willing to go through a corn field. Taking the roadway, however, is only 1.25 miles. From the shopping center to Woodman’s Supermarket where I buy food is .95 miles. These are not large distances, but I cannot walk to either the shopping center or the supermarket with comfort or safety. Getting to the shopping centerl is possible, but only by walking about 100 yards between a drainage ditch and a four lane highway. Walking to the supermarket is next to impossible. Riding a bicycle to the shopping center from my house is possible, but it requires that the rider either dismount and walk or ride the bike on the busy highway. Interestingly, the city has built a bicycle path behind the shopping center, but that path does not provide access to the center itself. The reader can see that riding to the supermarket from my house would be an undertaking only for the foolhardy. Such a trip would likely result in serious injury or death about 20% of the time. Even if one did arrive safely, there are no racks available to park bicycles.
Janesville, like most other cities, is both pedestrian and bicycle unfriendly. This is sad because Janesville has built numerous bicycle paths around the entire city that meander through city parks and along the Rock River. These paths are truly beautiful, providing a scenic escape from an otherwise auto-centric urban landscape. In fact, the bicycle paths of Janesville are better than those of any place I have ever lived, and I am sure they are equal to or better than those found in 95% of American cities. The problem, however, is that the bicycle paths were built with only recreational purposes in mind. In our culture bicycling is regarded as a recreational, not a practical, activity. We do not view bicycles as practical transportation. Therefore, bicycle paths are not built to provide access to places people might actually want to go in their daily lives such as those for work or shopping. And though many of us live close to where we work, shop, or go to school, we are almost forced to get to those destinations by car. Sometimes it appears that those who build our transportation infrastructure forget that pedestrians and bicyclists even exist.
All of this really needs to change. City planners, infrastructure engineers, and architects should think much more about pedestrians and bicyclists. As it is now, we leave the isolation of our houses in housing developments, get into our isolated cars, and drive to large parking lots so that we might consume stuff, or work to buy it. Getting out of those cars onto bicycles and sidewalks would vastly improve our quality of life. If only we could . . . .