Sprawl, Mega-Roads, and Cycling
Mighk Wilson
Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator
Effective Cycling Instructor # 590K

The Bike People has asked me to throw my opinions into the ring on the issue of vehicular cycling and its relationship with future urban design. John Forester (founder of the Effective Cycling program) accurately framed the discussion as one between "those who emphasize getting along in the present road system, and those who emphasize changing urban design to greatly reduce motoring." Framing it this way defines where the two groups differ, but it fails to identify the values they have in common. I'm going to attempt to outline how we got to where we are today, and suggest how we can move encourage urban designs that will make our communities more livable and friendlier to vehicular cycling.

Yesterday and Today
I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, called Euclid. In the 1930s, Euclid won a US Supreme Court case upholding their desire to segregate land uses. We call it zoning. Euclid wanted to keep heavy industry--which it deemed a noxious land use--segregated from residential areas; an admirable goal. Unfortunately this concept has been taken to a ridiculous extreme, to where a grocery store or even an apartment building is classified as incompatible with single-family residential development.

After World War II the US experienced a tremendous economic upswing. Americans tired of the sacrifices required during the Great Depression and the war were eager to cut out their own little piece of paradise by having a "house in the country." The increased mobility offered by widespread and inexpensive automobile ownership and operation made life in "the country" seem more attractive to city dwellers. The GI Bill brought home ownership within reach of many more Americans. The ingredients all came together--the Euclidean zoning laws, the GI Bill, the desire to leave the cities that held such bad memories of the Depression, cheap automobiles and cheap gasoline--and the suburbs were born.

In the suburbs the distances between homes and destinations were no longer walkable. The automobile was the hot item for transportation, and the bicycle was perceived as nothing but a child's toy. Transit also did not work as well in this environment, as the lower densities made bus routes less profitable and sprawling residential neighborhoods put them out of walking distance for most people. From the 1950s to the present the segregation of land uses increased, marginalizing non-automotive travelers, especially the very young and the very old, even more.

As more and more cars filled our roads, engineers began using techniques to keep them moving, usually to the detriment of pedestrians, transit, and to some extent bicyclists. Higher design speeds, free-flowing right-turn lanes, high-speed merge lanes, continuous right-turn lanes, and continuous through lanes at "T" intersections are some examples. While these are negotiable for cyclists using vehicular cycling principles, I believe they encourage higher speeds and an expectation of priority in motorists' minds. It is near these types of roadway features that I've experienced the greatest amount of confused, careless, reckless, and aggressive motorist behavior while cycling.

The Limits of the Suburban System
Throughout the nation, communities are bumping up against the limits to providing increased single-occupant motor vehicle capacity. Right-of-way costs are rising at astronomical rates. Transportation theorists are finding that capacity that is provided today is quickly filled with what they call induced trips, or trips that are not attributable to increases of population or vehicle ownership.

Now is the time to curtail the encouragement of unnecessary single-occupant motor vehicle trips. Note that I am not saying "discourage" those trips. I believe it is an important distinction. Transportation planners have been making self-fulfilling prophecies for the past four decades. Because they are not economists, they generally ignore the laws of supply and demand. Think of the capacity of a roadway as the supply. The most important currency one uses to "pay" for the road is the time spent on it. Too much congestion results in more time spent traveling the same distances. This results in the demand (use) leveling off. Add capacity (more lanes) and the cost of use (time) lessens. Add the cheapest gas (adjusted for inflation) since the 1920s and the "cost" drops even more.

The way this process affects cyclists is perfectly illustrated on Lee Road here in Orlando. Prior to 1992 this road was four lanes with a nice 15-foot wide curb lane. The FDOT widened this road to six lanes to fulfill their projected need for greater capacity. Since right-of-way was expensive, they decided to add the new lanes to the inside along the median and reduce the lane widths to 11 feet. The number of bicyclist/motorist crashes went up, mostly involving cyclists using the sidewalk who evidently no longer felt comfortable on the road.

If we can get road-builders to stop widening roads, this upward spiral can begin to level off. There is also mounting evidence that the removal of capacity results in a reduction of traffic, but without a significant shift in congestion to nearby roads.

Oil won't last forever. A number of forecasters believe we are about to reach the peak of worldwide oil production. As the supply starts dwindling and nations that are now oil producers become oil importers, the price of gasoline will go up. China looms large in this picture, with its huge population and growing economy. It could happen next year or it could happen in 20 years, but it will happen. When it does, we must be prepared. Governments will once again be looking for alternatives to the single-occupant motor vehicle, as they did during the seventies. Let's make sure they do it right when it come to bicycling.

Now is the time to develop strategies that team vehicular cycling concepts with those that curtail encouragement of unnecessary single-occupant motor vehicle trips. These concepts include increased densities that make walking, transit, and cycling more efficient; putting an end to subdivisions with access only via a major collector or arterial; transit-friendly development; and siting schools, shopping, and other community services in closer proximity to residential areas, and preferably within them. Once this type of community design becomes common, it becomes easier to justify roads with lower design speeds and capacity. The need for the higher capacity pedestrian- and bicyclist-unfriendly roadways mentioned earlier is reduced as people discover they are finally able to use modes other than the private automobile. Shade trees (which have often been removed to improve sight lines for high-speed driving) can be returned to our neighborhoods.

It is also important that cyclists develop relationships with the new breed of urban planners. Many of these planners are focused on improving the pedestrian environment, which is commendable, but do so without a good understanding of the needs of cyclists. Vehicular cyclists should work with these planners to help them understand what we really need. They like bicycling. It fits in with their warm and fuzzy vision of the future. But they still perceive the vehicular cyclist as either some sort of superman or a lunatic. We need to show them that we are neither; that vehicular cycling is relatively simple, using straightforward techniques and, for the most part, easily acquired skills.

The latest forecast report written for real estate investors, Emerging Trends in Real Estate 1998, highlights several trends that financial analysts deem to be critical to the future of cities and suburbs:

"Sample the attitudes of suburbanites today and you'll find a growing number who think their lifestyle is becoming more difficult and less appealing, and for the first time, they're considering alternatives." The researchers predict the next 25 years will be "kinder to cities and harder on suburbs," urging investors to "evaluate the consequences of sprawl" and invest only in suburbs that preferably have "mass transportation modes" and "pedestrian-friendly areas." Traffic congestion "is strangling many edge cities," the report notes, driving the desire for traditional neighborhood development among many suburbanites "exasperated about the time spent trapped in their cars" and increasingly favoring stores and town centers "within easy walking distance."
More than cycling is at stake.

People aren't interested in elevated tubes for bicycling or bicycle monorails or other such silliness. They want the kind of places they or their parents grew up in--the cities and towns we built before Euclidean zoning laws and the GI Bill. The kinds of places where driving a motor vehicle faster than 35 mph was deemed reckless. The kinds of places we built before we thought we needed special facilities for bicyclists.

Vehicular Cycling and the Future
I won't presume to speak for other cyclists on this last point. But I myself want to live in a place where I can cycle on any road in town without a second thought. I'm a very confident vehicular cyclist, and think I can handle any situation the engineers throw at me, but I would prefer that my trips by bike be on roads with slower speeds, shade trees (especially important here in Florida), and intersections that are simple and straightforward to negotiate. I want the engineers to quit trying to make collectors and arterials into freeways.

A small number of people currently know--or believe they can be taught--how to cycle with reasonable safety in today's road environment. I believe that if we change our built environment so it no longer requires high speed motor travel, more people would consider vehicular cycling principles as ones they can utilize. They would feel, as they too often do not these days, that they are a legitimate and welcome presence on the streets.

Mighk Wilson