Cycling Is Key to Safer, Healthier, More Vital Cities

Author Richard Florida

Frustrated by the obstacles to urban cycling in North America, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett traveled with their two kids from Vancouver to the Netherlands in 2016 to take a deep five-week dive into places that do cycling better. Traversing cities in the Netherlands by bike, they found that cycling is not just a better way to get around; when done right, it leads to healthier, safer, more vibrant, more family-friendly communities. They wrote it all up in their new book, Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, which provides a guide for cities and communities that want to do cycling right, and for urban cyclists and families who want to learn the keys to cycling as a way of life.

I spoke to the Bruntletts by phone earlier this month about what they’ve learned and about what cities and people in the United States and Canada can learn from the cycling lifestyle in the Netherlands. Our conversation has been lightly edited for space and flow.

Why did you decide to go to the Netherlands and start cycling like the Dutch?

Melissa: We lived so long experiencing cycling in Vancouver and telling a lot of great stories about what building cities for cycling can do. We felt that in order to really tell that story, we needed to go to the place where that is what people enjoy throughout the country and learn what has made them so successful.

Sometimes critics of cycling say it’s about “yuppies,” “hipsters,” and “the creative class,” and a force for “gentrification.” But your book talks more about the role of cycling for families and in building stronger communities.

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Street smarts:

Every day, about 102 people in the United States are killed in motor vehicle crashes. The majority of the crash-related deaths (which total more than 37,000 each year) occur in rural areas, but these fatalities have been rising in urban areas since 2009. That has spurred more than 30 cities in the U.S. to commit to Vision Zero, with the goal of bringing their road fatalities to zero by 2025.

To make this happen, cities have taken a range of steps that include improvements in street design and stricter traffic enforcement. A new bit of research from the American Public Transportation Association and the Vision Zero Network finds that public transit can be a safety workhorse, too. In cities where public transit trips get taken more frequently, there are fewer road deaths for passengers and pedestrians. The secret? Buses and trains get more people out of their cars. Read up on the research in my latest story:Cities With Good Public Transit Have Fewer Road Fatalities

Happy Trails: What it Takes to Make a Good Hiking Trail

By Stephen Nett

A good trail is like a comfortable pair of shoes: It feels welcoming and pleasing under foot and takes you confidently to a favorite destination and back.

Sonoma County’s Regional Parks have a wide selection of trails to choose from. But making a good trail takes a lot more than meets the eye.

Trails Through History

Modern park trails are carefully crafted, though it’s worth noting that the walking trail is ancient technology. Thousands of years before Sonoma County had roads, such paths were essential to people to move efficiently around the landscape.

The first trails walked by humans in Sonoma County were likely created by wildlife, worn into the landscape by repeated trips to water and grazing meadows. Native peoples later established their own routes to resources and to trading and ceremonial centers. Tolay Lake in Tolay Regional Park, for example, was likely connected by trails to the greater Bay Area and beyond

Portals into Nature

Today’s trails provide more than simple transportation. One of the roles of modern park trails is to provide portals for the public into nature and protected wildlands. The only way most of us will ever experience a mountain pond or glimpse a bobcat is because a park trail brought us there.

Good trails also remove obstacles that keep people from the outdoors.  Many, like the Valley of the Moon Trail at Sonoma Valley Regional Park, pictured below, and the Cloverdale River Park trail, are specifically crafted so people with a range of physical abilities can experience wild environments and scenic beauty.

Family walking at Sonoma Valley Regional Park 485

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Why Did America Give Up on Mass Transit? (Don’t Blame Cars.)

One hundred years ago, the United States had a public transportation system that was the envy of the world. Today, outside a few major urban centers, it is barely on life support. Even in New York City, subway ridership is well below its 1946 peak. Annual per capita transit trips in the U.S. plummeted from 115.8 in 1950 to 36.1 in 1970, where they have roughly remained since, even as population has grown.

This has not happened in much of the rest of the world. While a decline in transit use in the face of fierce competition from the private automobile throughout the 20th century was inevitable, near-total collapse was not. At the turn of the 20th century, when transit companies’ only competition were the legs of a person or a horse, they worked reasonably well, even if they faced challenges. Once cars arrived, nearly every U.S. transit agency slashed service to cut costs, instead of improving service to stay competitive. This drove even more riders away, producing a vicious cycle that led to the point where today, few Americans with a viable alternative ride buses or trains.

Now, when the federal government steps in to provide funding, it is limited to big capital projects. (Under the Trump administration, even those funds are in question.) Operations—the actual running of buses and trains frequently enough to appeal to people with an alternative—are perpetually starved for cash. Even transit advocates have internalized the idea that transit cannot be successful outside the highest-density urban centers.And it very rarely is. Below is a set of maps that show the present-day network rail and bus lines operating at least every 30 minutes, all day to midnight, seven days a week, for five urban areas in the U.S. and one in Canada for comparison. That could be considered the bare-minimum service level required for people to be able to live adequately car free. In fact, research says that frequencies of 15 minutes or better—good enough for people to turn up and go without consulting a schedule—are where the biggest jumps in ridership happen. But that is so far off from service levels in most American cities that a 30-minute standard is more appropriate.

From top left corner: Columbus, Ohio, does not have a single route that meets the full service standard. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the the newly extended Lynx LRT helps a little. Denver, Colorado is adding light rail and commuter rail, but many still struggle to get to the rail station without a car. So do people in Portland, Oregon, despite its large light rail network and forward-thinking transit culture. Washington, D.C.’s Metro is one of the most well-used U.S. rapid transit systems, but connecting bus service is limited. It’s Toronto, Canada, that shows what properly high level of transit service looks like in North America. (Design: Jonathan English/Michael Binetti/David Montgomery/CityLab. Ridership data: American Public Transportation Association/Toronto Transit Commission. Map tiles: Stamen Design, under CC BY 3.0. Data by OpenStreetMap, under ODbL.)

The maps illustrate the vast swaths of urban areas untouched by full service bus routes. For those who do live near one, it’s quite likely that the bus wouldn’t get them where they need to go, unless their destination is downtown. A bus that comes once and hour, stops at 7 pm, and doesn’t run on Sundays—a typical service level in many American cities—restricts people’s lives so much that anyone who can drive, will drive. That keeps ridership per capita low.

What happened? Over the past hundred years the clearest cause is this: Transit providers in the U.S. have continually cut basic local service in a vain effort to improve their finances. But they only succeeded in driving riders and revenue away. When the transit service that cities provide is not attractive, the demand from passengers that might “justify” its improvement will never materialize.Here’s how this has played out, era by era. A forthcoming companion article will look at how differently things unfolded in other parts of the world—watch this space for a link.

The decades at the turn of the century were a time of massive transit infrastructure growth in the United States, carried out primarily by private companies with some municipal subsidy. Much of New York City and Philadelphia’s subways, Chicago’s ‘L,’ and Boston’s ‘T’ were built in this era. Huge networks of “interurbans”—a kind of streetcar that ran deep into rural areas—spread out from cities across the country. “Streetcar suburbs” grew outward along main streets, allowing middle-class people to buy homes while still easily getting to jobs downtown.

Streetcars run in St. Louis, 1890. (Library of Congress)

This was an era when transit could usually make money when combined with real-estate speculation on the newly accessible lands, at least in the short term. But then as now, it struggled to cover its costs over the long term, let alone turn a profit. By the 1920s, as the automobile became a fierce competitor, privately run transit struggled.

But public subsidy was politically challenging: There was a popular perception of transit as a business controlled by rapacious profiteers—as unpopular as cable companies and airlines are today. In 1920, the President’s Commission on Electric Railways described the entire industry as “virtually bankrupt,” thanks to rapid inflation in the World War I years and the nascent encroachment of the car.

The Depression crushed most transit companies, and the handful of major projects that moved forward in the 1930s were bankrolled by the New-Deal-era federal government: See the State and Milwaukee-Dearborn subways in Chicago, the South Broad Street subway in Philadelphia, and the Sixth Avenue subway in New York. But federal infrastructure investment would soon shift almost entirely to highways. A return to transit by Uncle Sam would not come for another three decades.

Levittown, New York, is a pleasant collection of Long Island bungalows that sprouted between 1947 and 1951. It’s become popularly known as the “first suburb,” which is not quite true—there have always been places on the urban periphery where those who could afford transportation lived in a comparatively pastoral setting, away from the noise, congestion, and pollution of the city. The rich always had rural estates, and trains and streetcars made homes with gardens available to the upper middle class.

But Levittown was among the first postwar communities that established the idea of the middle-class suburb as we knew it in the second half of the 20th century: a car-centric community built around automotive access. By the 1950s, the increasing affluence of the American family and the declining cost of the automobile made this postwar suburban dream possible for even the average worker—though not for many minorities who were systematically excluded. White Americans could now drive far further, in a reasonable commute time, than had ever been possible with transit. And transit companies did little to serve these fast-growing new communities.

Like most of these postwar suburbs, Levittown had no meaningful transit to speak of. The nearest Long Island Rail Road station was well outside the town; its service was limited and its trains elderly and dilapidated. Those who worked in Manhattan, 30 miles away, were expected to drive. Since most households were single-car, people—usually women—were pretty much trapped in the house when the car was gone.

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More and wider roads cause more congestion, not less, report says

Author:Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune

A proposal for expansion of Interstate 55, shown outbound from Damen Avenue, would add “managed” lanes, open both to Pace buses and cars willing to pay a toll.

A proposal for expansion of Interstate 55, shown outbound from Damen Avenue, would add “managed” lanes, open both to Pace buses and cars willing to pay a toll. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Conventional wisdom holds that if you build a road, or widen one, traffic will improve.

But what if that’s wrong? A new report by an advocacy group for biking, walking and transit says that adding new roads and highway lanes encourages more people to drive instead of taking the train or other means of getting around, thus creating more congestion.

The study issued Monday by the Active Transportation Alliance finds that roadway expansion has spurred an explosion in driving since 1980, worsening area traffic and leading to more crashes and pollution.

“We have to rethink this decadeslong strategy of relying on cars to take us everywhere on wider and wider roads to bigger and bigger parking lots,” said Ron Burke, executive director of the alliance. “We don’t think it’s an effective strategy to address congestion. We also don’t think it’s the future in urban areas.”

Burke said that widening roads and making driving easier and faster leads some people to take more car trips than they otherwise would, and to live farther from work and other destinations, while some companies will choose to locate farther afield and away from transit.

Instead of more and wider roads, the region should instead invest in transit and making it easier to bike and walk, the alliance said. The report comes just before the Tuesday close of the public comment period for “On to 2050,” the new draft plan by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP, which sets the agenda for transportation funding for the region and determines which projects are eligible for federal funding.

CMAP has designated some major highway expansions — including the widening of Interstates 294 and 290, and portions of Interstates 55 and 80 — as “regionally significant” and deserving of money. CMAP also favors transit projects like extending the CTA’s Red Line south to 130th Street.

The Active Transportation Alliance wants highway expansions off CMAP’s list and a moratorium on highway expansion in the Chicago area.

“We don’t think they’re a good investment,” said Burke. He noted that the estimated price tag of planned expansions of I-294, I-290 and I-55 is $7.4 billion, while just $12 million was spent on Chicago’s 100 miles of new bike ways from 2011 to 2015.

In a written response, CMAP defended its support for planned highway rebuilding and expansion.

“The plan’s goal is a region with a well-balanced, multimodal transportation network,” CMAP Executive Director Joseph Szabo wrote in an email. “Given the region’s limited resources, the plan takes a ‘fix-it first’ approach while advancing ambitious strategies for increasing transit ridership and walkable communities.”

The Illinois Department of Transportation also is reviewing the report, and responded in a statement that the department “takes into consideration all modes of travel when planning projects, in urban areas, in particular.”

Michael Sturino, president and CEO of the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association, scoffed at the Active Transportation Alliance’s report, saying it ignores the reality that people enjoy the freedom automobiles give them. He also said the alliance is unrealistic, thinking it can convert a sprawling area where most people need cars to get around into something more like Europe.

“They don’t like the internal combustion engine. They don’t like cars,” said Sturino of the alliance. He said that people will drive anyway, and when highways are too crowded, drivers simply go on local streets, moving congestion there.

The alliance report uses numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau and its American Community Survey, along with data from CMAP, IDOT and Texas A&M University’s Urban Mobility Report.

The study found that between 1980 and 2016, the percentage of people walking, biking and taking public transit to work fell from 24 percent to 17.1 percent. During the same period, the number of miles vehicles traveled grew in the region by almost 69.2 percent, while the population grew at the much lower rate of 18 percent.

The alliance report said that though 1,000 miles of new expressways and arterial lane-miles have been added in the region between 1996 and 2015, congestion keeps getting worse. In 2014, Chicagoans spent 61 hours stuck in traffic, compared to 31 hours in 1982.

Meanwhile, the number of bus and train commuters in the suburbs fell from 9.3 percent to 6.1 percent and in the city from 32.4 percent to 28.2 percent between 1980 and 2016, the study said.

Despite Chicago’s high number of transit options, including the “L” and Metra systems, walking, biking and transit use in Chicago is lower than in other big cities, according to the study. Just over a third of Chicago commuters, or 36.5 percent, get to work by walking, biking and transit, compared to 67.7 percent in New York City and 54.3 percent in Washington, D.C., the report found. In traffic-choked Los Angeles, the percentage is 13.7 percent.

The study also noted that Chicago’s share of bike commuters increased from just 0.18 percent to 1.7 percent in the last four decades, despite the city’s population loss.

Among those favoring new thinking about road construction is Hawthorn Woods Mayor Joseph Mancino, who opposes the long-discussed proposal to extend Illinois Route 53. Supporters of the project believe it will relieve congestion in Lake County, where the population is growing, but opponents fear it will increase traffic and hurt the environment. The extension is not part of CMAP’s priority list for new projects.

“New roads are not always the answer,” Mancino said. He said less expensive traffic fixes like creating a railroad grade crossing and improving existing roads would be a better way of alleviating congestion in Lake County, saving billions of dollars and preserving natural areas.

Some proposed highway projects include a transit piece. The plans for expansion of I-55 and I-290, for example, would add “managed” lanes, open both to Pace buses and cars willing to pay a toll.

The Illinois Tollway created a “flex lane” for Pace buses and emergency responders when it expanded the Jane Addams Tollway. Planners working on a redesign of North Lake Shore Drive are also considering a managed bus and tolled lane — either by adding a lane in each direction or replacing a current lane of traffic.

The Active Transportation Alliance and the Metropolitan Planning Council, a policy research group, both support converting an existing lane of Lake Shore Drive traffic into a bus lane, instead of adding a new lane. But Sturino said this would just cause more problems.

“If you take a car lane away, where will those cars go?” said Sturino. “They’re going to surge into all the surrounding neighborhoods.”

mwisniewski@chicagotribune.com