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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


New Urbanists Learn to Love Bikes

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: urban planning, urban design, architecture, bicycling, pedestrians, environment, Keith Goetzman,

Bike lane 


 New urbanism is the increasingly popular school of urban planning and architecture that aims to create pedestrian-friendly communities. But are these mixed-use developments always bike-friendly as well?

I’ve bicycled in some new-urbanism-influenced developments where the narrow streets, “traffic calming” devices, and wide sidewalks leave little safe room for bikes—and Philip Langdon at New Urban News confirms that my impressions may have some grounding in reality. He writes in a commentary for the September 2010 issue that he’s been an “around-town,” year-round cyclist for nearly 30 years.

Until recently, however, I hadn’t written all that frequently about bike planning in New Urban News because I wasn’t sure that cycling was in tune with the campaign for walkable cities and towns. In particular, I was concerned that the push for bike lanes could result in wider streets or bigger setbacks for buildings, both of which can detract from the pleasures of urban settings.

Having confessed his dark secret, Langdon has come to realize that “Progress over the past couple of years has now persuaded me that biking is indeed good for urbanism.”

I’m left wondering how many other new urbanists have been viewing bicycles as a complicating factor more than an integral part of vibrant city life. It’s not that the movement has ignored bikes—bon vivant bicyclist David Byrne has even spoken at a new urbanist conference—but rather that the emphasis on walkability often seems to have taken precedence over bikeability. Fortunately, New Urban News in the same issue (September 2010) covers a new set of guidelines meant to integrate bicycling into new urbanist communities.

In keeping with the wonkspeak of the architecture and design world, the framework is called a “module” and trades in terms such as “shy zone” (“a painted buffer between parked cars and a bike lane”), “peg-a-track” (“parallel dashed pavement markings that continue a bicycle lane through an intersection”), and “bicycle shed” (“how far a typical bicyclist can travel in five minutes”). The module is available for free at the website of the Center for Applied Transect Studies.

Beneath the lingo there appear to be some good ideas, such as tailoring bike planning to specific communities rather than taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach, incorporating bike lanes where they are best suited, and providing more bike parking. But there’s at least one highly questionable directive: The guidelines are skeptical of the converting underused railroad rights of way into bike trails because “rail infrastructure should be preserved for future use as transit.”

As someone who commutes every workday on a bike trail that shares a corridor with a working rail line, and has ridden on countless great rails-to-trails routes, I beg to differ.

In any case, it’s great to hear that the new urbanists are getting on the bike saddle. One person who responded to Langdon’s commentary chided him for his slowness in professionally embracing two-wheeled transportation:

We committed bicyclists would like to welcome you to the future, Phil! Not only are bikes compatible with habitable urban spaces, they’re one of the most promising solutions to the urban transportation problem, and perhaps the most ‘green’ too. Plus, cyclists are a quality of life enhancer: nobody comes back from Europe to say, “Love that place but hate all those bikers clogging the streets!” Isn’t this a no-brainer? We like those places, so why not emulate them? Is any grand ‘a ha!’ moment necessary?

Sources: New Urban News, Center for Applied Transect Studies 

Image by Richard Drdul, licensed under Creative Commons.