City without safe bike network is like swimming pool without shallow end

Cyclists mix with vehicular traffic on the Mayo Bridge in Richmond, Va.

Cyclists mix with vehicular traffic on the Mayo Bridge in Richmond, Va.

I often draw from my experiences as a cyclist to form many of my opinions for improvements and alterations to roadways and bike networks. As someone who bikes often and is accustomed to being able to relax while taking risks among faster, larger vehicles, I’ve learned that that might not be the best strategy.

While children and less-experienced cyclists are usually on my mind, I’m still learning importance for how to plan for the most vulnerable users.

According to an article posted the planning website, Planetizen.com, “it’s becoming increasingly clear that the successful implementation of plans often hinges on the views of some of the most historically underrepresented residents.”

Historically, community engagement on cycling issues attracts primarily avid cyclists and angry anti-cycling critics. The result is often a highly polarized debate between people with entrenched and relatively extreme views.

The most important audience is also one that is historically underrepresented. To dramatically increase cycling and reduce traffic congestion, the team needed to hear from less confident cyclists who make up 60% of the population to understand what infrastructure would make them feel safe and comfortable.

I’ve been to plenty of planning meetings where the majority of the attendees are the most committed users. Problem is, you’ve already got them interested in cycling and they don’t usually need fancy bike infrastructure to encourage them. We need to hear from the most vulnerable. The ones who need help to increase their commitment.

While confident cyclists typically only represent 1% of a given population, people who occasionally cycle because they are “interested but concerned” about their safety in traffic may represent 60% of the population. The risk of an inaccessible or too-narrow public consultation approach comes from vastly under-representing the voice of this majority.

The article referenced the most experienced, hardcore riders as “vehicular style” cyclists. They may be more comfortable mixing with motor vehicles and prefer more aggressive riding style on direct, busy streets. That is not where you want to send children and novice riders.

Remember, biking for many people is transportation, but it is active transportation. Fun active transportation, which is even more true when you have safe places to ride.

I really liked this metaphor (again, from the Planetizen article):

A city without separated bike lanes and off-street cycling paths may be like a swimming pool with no shallow end. It’s fine for confident swimmers but intimidating for novices.

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