Saturday, March 6, 2010

Do Sidewalks and Bike Lanes Promote Walking & Bicycling?

By Dom Nozzi
 Quite commonly, we are told that sidewalks and bike lanes will induce more people to walk and bicycle.
However, in my experience (and note that I am referring strictly to utilitarian/commute walking/biking, and not recreational), sidewalks and bike lanes don’t seem to induce a meaningful number of utilitarian trips by pedestrians or bicyclists — particularly in suburbia.
In my opinion, it is irrational and therefore extremely unlikely that people will opt to walk or bike (even on bike lanes or sidewalks) instead of drive a car, for trips to work or a store or other utilitarian trips. Particularly because, as Donald Shoup so convincingly points out, the free parking spaces that Americans find on nearly all of their car trips are begging people to drive a car.
Another important factor that make bike lanes and sidewalks unlikely to induce new utilitarian bicycle or pedestrian trips are the enormous distances one finds in low-density, single-use suburban settings.
Gainesville FL, where I was a planner for 20 years, had sidewalks and bike lanes everywhere, yet it was VERY rare for me to ever see or hear of someone walking or bicycling for utilitarian purposes (even though we had an enormous number of college students there). In my daily bicycle commuting, I almost always felt that I was one of 3 or 4 bicycle commuters in allegedly bike-friendly Gainesville (where bike lanes and paths are all over the community).
In stark contrast, I have been to communities in both America and Europe (Charleston, Copenhagen, Rome, etc.) where there is an enormous amount of biking and walking. And quite frequently, such places have rather inadequate sidewalks or bike lanes. In my opinion, those places have lots of bicyclists and pedestrians because of their high town center densities, mixed uses, scarce and expensive parking, and short travel distances.
Other examples: Many have observed that in a number of “new urbanist” towns, many continue to drive despite sidewalks and short distances. Or notice that most everyone drives even though their trip is only a few hundred feet in length.
Again, in my opinion, that is largely explained by the abundance of free parking that awaits at the destination.
Too often, I’ve seen elected officials unjustifiably pat themselves on the back for creating a bike-friendly community because they required installation of bike lanes or bike parking. But it was mostly window dressing, because in places like Gainesville, most everyone continued to drive for the reasons I mention above. Politicians are typically unwilling to show the leadership needed to use effective tactics like density, mixed use, efficient parking, etc. Instead, they engage in easy-way-out lip service that buys them votes but doesn’t meaningfully change the community.
In sum, the suburbs are in deep trouble when gas prices go way up again. Their low densities, single-use patterns, and long travel distances means that even with bike lanes and sidewalks, most people will feel obligated to pay a lot more money to buy gas, because the distances are too daunting to walk or bike. Suburbs, to have a future, need to densify or at least create new town centers.
I am in full agreement, despite what I’ve said above, that communities should always require new development to install bike lanes (particularly in suburbia) and sidewalks (particularly in town centers). In fact, I enthusiastically wrote ordinances that Gainesville adopted which required sidewalks for all new development.
I fully agree that people should not be expected to walk on a road due to lack of sidewalks (except, perhaps, in very low-density rural conditions), or be expected to bike without bike lanes (except in low-speed town centers).
If nothing else, such facilities show the community is bike- and ped-friendly. A very important message to send.
It shows that the community respects such people.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life. Visit: Or email me at: