A Placemaking Journal

Like Butterflies to the Garden: The case for urban biking

I can’t remember a summer that I’ve found such satisfaction in simple pleasures as I have this season. Maybe it’s because this is my forth summer as a Canadian resident — a country that proudly dominates winter and passionately embraces summer. Or maybe it’s because the sobering events of late on many fronts have reinforced the importance of small blessings.

My early summer after hours were about tending a small garden of vegetables, herbs, and cutting flowers. And thinking about how I might help localize ag in our city. While definitely not slow food, my two favourite recipes inspired by my garden are here and here.

Law breaker!

And now that the garden’s on its way, extra time is spent happily on my bike. For transportation or exercise or pleasure. When it’s all three at once, you know you’re on a complete street. You also know when it gets auto-centric, when otherwise law-abiding cyclists take to the sidewalks.

More than anything, both the garden and cycling have brought a sense of relaxation and the perception of time slowing down, just a little bit.

As I’ve cycled my way through my favourite Winnipeg neighbourhoods, and watched the community gardens starting to crop up on front lawns, I’ve noted again how much of what we love about the most authentic places is illegal.

Slow cars, comfortable bikes. Often illegal.

The best streets to cycle down are illegal to build in the majority of North America’s suburbs, because they’re too narrow, too pedestrian-oriented, too enclosed. Even the ones that are very pedestrian-oriented often restrict cyclists to bike lanes when they’d be safer mixing with cars, as clearly illustrated in Casey Neistat’s amusing but serious film on the subject last week. And those groovy front yard gardens popping up around here are threatening a Detroit woman with 93 days in jail.

Yet cities everywhere are moving quickly to enable both local ag and cycling, creating the infrastructure and environment to attract gardeners and cyclists. It reminds me of trying to attract butterflies to a garden, and the care that goes into getting the conditions right.

The SmartCode Bike Module. Click for larger view.

For example, the Bicycling SmartCode Module (4mb PDF) advises, “Some known bicycling accommodations are intentionally omitted from this module because they compromise other aspects of urbanism. For example, Wide Curb Lanes unnecessarily expand roadway width, thereby encouraging automobile speeding, while not meaningfully attracting bicycle use – probably for that very reason.” Butterflies and bikes – attract them.

Which takes us back to Casey Neistat’s point that the bike lanes really don’t work in most non-rural places. From the module, “Bicycle lanes and other bikeways that widen the right-of-way are not advised for new thoroughfares designed for the urban contexts of T-3, T-4, T-5, and T-6. They are, however, useful for retrofitting overwide existing thoroughfares,” Mike Lydon, The Street Plans Collaborative.

Bike trails, bike trails, everywhere.

And why are governments going to such legal extremes to get the conditions right? Many cities are investing hundreds of millions in bike infrastructure. It’s Planet, People, Profit, as usual. Although until recently, the order was wrong. Profit led decisions because governments get big bucks from gas tax, and the more we drive the more they make. So it was a client-provider relationship.

However, the climate change steamroller in the rear view mirror has recently been looming, which redirected our focus to the Planet. Who cares how much gas tax can be had if we’re going to have other irreversible and devastating damage unless we keep global warming to 2°C or less? This year’s droughts and floods may be an uncomfortable foreshadowing.

But for those who aren’t so sure about modern science, there are other reasons to encourage the burgeoning bike movement. Dollars spent on cycling projects (1mb .pdf) create 46% more jobs than road-only projects. And that study even includes Anchorage, so winter cities are in the conversation.

The bicycle is the “most efficient machine ever created: Converting calories into gas, a bicycle gets the equivalent of three thousand miles per gallon,” according to Bill Strickland. Others argue 1,000 miles per gallon, but whatever the case, it’s good for your wallet.

Even the ice cream man cycles in Winnipeg.

The Grist Bikenomics series that wrapped up this month points out that bikes won’t make us rich, but they will help us stabilize, get healthy, and have fun. Check out International Bicycle Fund’s Economics Index to look at economic development research from a variety of sources. So if you can’t get Profit out of the driver’s seat, there’s still a reason to change lanes.

Cities have healthy and sick zones based in part upon walkability and bikeability. Life expectancies are often 20 years shorter in dehumanized neighbourhoods. Yes, income factors in, but even that is mitigated by bikeability, of which Bogota is a shining example. Environments are defined as obesogenic when they promote obesity, usually the disconnected sections of the city. With health care costs spiraling out of control, biking becomes serious fun.

United States is on track to be 75% obese by 2020, per the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. A couple of years ago, with obesity at 34%, it was costing the US $147 billion annually, according to the Center for Disease Control, 2009. Assuming costs per obese person remain constant, that’ll cost us $324 billion per year by 2020. $3.2 trillion every decade.

All this reaffirms that People and Profit are closely linked. If you want to crunch the numbers for your transportation plan to estimate dollars and lives saved, check out the WHO’s Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT) for cycling and walking.

Not to mention that air pollution’s flat out killing thousands of people every year. And more of it will get to you in your car than on your bike.

People do get all this, obviously. Over the past 40 years, bike production has increased 4x, while car production has increased 2x. And for anyone who needs some reminders, see Dr. Chris Cavacuiti’s fully referenced case, Cycling Health and Safety: A Review. It’s a little older than the other links in today’s blog, but the science is solid.

Hop on your bike and come on down.

It’s clear, biking is gaining traction. Just look outside, or in cycling zoning codes, bike sharing programs, bikeability indices, a proliferation of trails and paths – here is Winnipeg’s new set. And all that exercise and fresh air may leave you hungry enough to phone up your local organic farmers, and see where you can find them on Saturday.

–Hazel Borys

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