National Bicycle Month vs. Reality

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.

Map showing roads and businesses in a small part of Janesville, Wisconsin.

From My House to Nearby Stores in Janesville, Wisconsin (Please click to enlarge for details.)

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 . . . .

12 thoughts on “National Bicycle Month vs. Reality

  1. I would love to be ride the bus to work and have my daughter ride her bike to school – unfortunately, neither are practical where we live in the north metro of the Twin Cities. My daughter informed me over the weekend that they were encouraged to ride their bikes to school this week – her school is not in a neighborhood; it is situated at the intersection of a 6-lane interstate and 4 lane major roadway with the traffic from 2 gas station/convenience stores on one end of the block. And that doesn’t include the fact that it has been cold and rainy for the past few weeks – if the kids did manage to ride their bikes, they’d be cold and wet all day – hardly a good recipe for a good day of learning. When I attended the commuter fair after starting my job, they laughed at me when I asked about riding the bus to work – you can’t get there from here is what they said! My commute is 23 miles each way and requires taking one of 3 interstates to get across the Mississippi River. I am keeping my fingers crossed as they are building another branch to the NorthStar Commuter Rail that will go within a few blocks of our home – I am hoping that I will be able to take that and connect up with the LightRail in Minneapolis, and then across the river to St. Paul. The deciding factor will be whether that gets me to work in 45min or less as that’s how long it takes me now and I am already away from home for 14 hours due to my 12hour work day plus commute. A friend of mine works for a biohabitat company and lives in Louisville – last year, she posted on Facebook about riding her bike to work and how the rest of us should be doing that as well – almost everyone that responded to her said the same thing – not possible with my commute! I don’t think that’s what she was expecting.

    I think the way cities and suburbs are planned now with such separate living and commerce areas is really a drawback to using transportation other than cars. The days of walking/biking home from work and picking up what you need for dinner on the way are long gone. And the way we shop doesn’t help, either. Instead of buying what we need as we need it, we are encouraged/forced to buy in large quantities all at once – kind of hard to bring that home on the back of a bike.

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    • Hi Susan. Thanks for your long and detailed comment. Lately I’ve been reading that developers and architects are increasingly interested in building more livable community infrastructures, but as far as I can tell, that isn’t happening here. What’s happening here is that walking and biking is getting more difficult – at least for the area in which I live. It you glance at the map in my piece, you can see a couple of cloverleaf-like highway interchanges. These are Interstate 90 exchanges as it cuts through Janesville. In the next two years, the four lanes of Interstate 90 will expand to eight lanes through Janesville. While that expansion will be a major improvement for automobiles, it won’t help pedestrians or bicyclists.

      As you suggest biking or walking to work or shopping areas really isn’t practical for most people, Perhaps the situation might be improved with some relatively minor changes such as the increased use of sidewalks, planned bicycle access, and the placement of bicycle racks where people might want to go. My impression, however, is that not too many people are thinking about these issues. The article I referenced in the Washington Post reported that the largest number of people who walk or bike to work are the poor. I’m guessing they would be driving a car if they could afford it.

      We need a cultural shift in thinking.

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  2. This is an excellent article. It hits on all the things we talk about at 1kfriends. Would you mind if I post it on our facebook page? Check out our website and facebook page. – http://www.1kfriends.org We also have another new website called BusBikeWalk.org

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  3. Pingback: National Bicycle Month vs. Reality | Bus Bike Walk Wisconsin

  4. Charles, This is a great article, especially your graphic and focus on the impossibility of getting from “here to there” — a very short distance — on foot or by bike. And unfortunately, even in cities where there are a lot of bike lanes, like Tucson, one always has to worry about inattentive drivers. (I know, I know, cyclists are also too often guilty of infractions, but they are still a lot more vulnerable.) So not only do our communities have to provide better infrastructure for alternate means of transportation, we also have to mount major campaigns to alert drivers to … their increasing lack of alertness.

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    • Susan, Thanks for your comment. Here in Janesville the newer streets have indicated bike lanes. Some of the older, but wider, streets also have designated lanes. Unfortunately, these lanes seldom connect to each other or to anywhere that people might want to go, except to recreational trails. It’s a start, but there’s a long way to go.

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  5. Not to be snide, but why didn’t you consider these transportation factors when you bought your house? Access to public transportation (or walkability) for our daily commutes was the top priority when we bought our house.

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    • Point taken. When I bought my house I had some of the criteria you mention but not all. My commute was twenty miles away to another town. So I chose the quickest exit. Public transportation in Wisconsin, except in Madison and Milwaukee, is largely non-existent, so that wasn’t a consideration. My thinking on these issues has evolved and I would probably choose differently if I had to make the choice again. But my basic point remains. City planners generally do not take pedestrians and bicyclists into account. Their perspective remains auto-centric. Also, the advent of big box retailers and the concomitant disappearance of neighborhood stores makes neighborhood shopping difficult for many of us.

      Thanks for your comment.

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      • I completely sympathize, not just with your personal evolution of priorities, but also with your views on city planning and the influence of big-box stores.

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