I was a happy three season bike commuter. I was branching out into winter commuting as well. Then I got run off my bike at an intersection when I was riding on a separated bike path. Five surgeries later I was happily a transit commuter. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. I’m now a four season bike commuter.
Every day in the winter I bike 5 km more than my shortest possible route for a total of 15 km. It’s dark and it’s cold (-26°C with the windchill on my way home the day I wrote this). Saving that 5 km would be great. But I don’t even consider it. And why? Because if I go five km out of my way I can ride separated bike paths pretty much the entire way. If I went the shorter way I would have to do about 3 km on signed but not separated paths. And a km on what used to be a signed route on relatively quiet roads. And in the winter, these paths just aren’t safe enough.
I share all of this because it tells you some of my criteria for a bike route. I’ll bike further to stay safer. And I’m willing to commute 15 km in the winter. This is not the criteria that other commuters I know have. And that’s the thing. Different people have different thresholds regarding factors like safety and distance. So how do these influence urban planning of bike networks?
Steinacker, Storch, Timme, and Schröder (2022) propose an approach to designing bike networks that starts with the ideal network. Then, through a series of calculations, parts of the network that have the least impact on cyclists are removed. They argue that using this approach can help to maximize efficiency of limited budgets for cycling infrastructure.
I like the idea. But I feel like it’s still missing an important factor. I just finished reading the book Curbing Traffic by Melissa and Chris Bruntlett. It reviews some of the ways that a town called Delft in the Netherlands has created a vibrant community network through cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. I never really understood the idea of a cycling network for people aged 8 to 80. Living in my context, this makes no sense to me. But after reading Curbing Traffic I think I do.
The difference in what Steinacker et al (2022) are discussing and what the Bruntlett’s describe is the priority. Steinacker et al still leaves the cars as priority and figures out what is the best we can do for cyclists given the circumstances. But what the Bruntlett’s describe in Delft is something different: it’s making cycling and pedestrians the priority and then figuring out where cars can fit.
I can only dream as to what this flip might look like where I live. I can see cars, where drivers and passengers stay warm and protected from the elements directed around the longer path, while cyclists get to ride the more direct path. As a result those cycling paths take less time and they’re safer. This means more people, from 8 to 80 can get out of the car and onto a bike.
This doesn’t change whether someone like me is willing to commute by bike. I does change it for others who can’t or won’t do what I do. But, the reality is, it would change my commute too. It would decrease my stress and, it would likely improve my fitness because I’d have time to do other types of exercise. I’d also have more time to do things like volunteering, which I always want to do more of. I can think of any number of things I could do if my commute was less mentally and physically draining.
I don’t have any issues with the proposal by Steinacker. I just would like to see a change in how we think about it. Instead of what is the minimum we can do for cycling, what if we truly asked how do we maximize the ability to cycle?