Tagnetwork

Bike lane mileage is the wrong metric for your city to publicize

Sometimes I tweet things that get pretty popular and then I need to go into more details. Case in point:

Which I followed by tweeting:

Knowing how many miles of bike lanes you have has little importance in determining if I’m going to bike in your city when I visit, or if I’m considering moving there, or if I want to add you to a “bicycle friendly cities” list.

What’s more important is how much the number of people bicycling on those bike lanes has changed. This number will reflect the quality of your bike lanes. Are they still in good shape or have they faded a lot? Do they connect to each other to create a network, or are there gaps that increase the stress of a route? How have you treated the bike lane at intersections, the place where a conflict and crash is most likely to occur?

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin touched on these points in his recent critique, one of the few worthwhile articles the Tribune has published in the last year about bicycling, by interviewing an organization that tries to make it politically palatable to build unconventional – in the United States – bike lanes.

“Chicago has made incredible progress over the last few years,” said Martha Roskowski, vice president at People for Bikes, a Boulder, Colo.-based advocacy group. But, she added, “Chicago also has a ways to go.”

That’s saying it nicely.

Addressing the gaps in the city’s network of protected bike routes, Roskowski said: “People evaluate a potential bike ride on the basis of the weakest link, the scariest part of the trip, which might be a really busy road you have to ride along or across. People have tolerance for a little bit of that. But if it’s sustained or if it feels dangerous, they just won’t do it.”

Enter Close Calls, deteriorating bike lanes, bumpy pavement, and constant obstacles and you get Chicago’s ridiculously low bicycle commute to work numbers.

Since Emanuel took office in 2011, Chicago has installed 52 miles of protected bike lanes [it’s only installed 16 miles of protected bike lanes], which use a variety of means — plastic pylons, striped pavement markings and non-curbside parking spaces — to separate bikes from vehicles. That brings the city’s total bicycle lanes to 207 miles.

That’s cool that we have 207 miles. How many miles of streets without bike lanes do we have? It’s 4,000 and some change minus 207.

Why doesn’t Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk about how many people have taken up bicycling since he took office, or how many more trips Chicagoans made (and where) because of those 52 miles of new buffered and protected bike lanes?

He can’t say how many people are riding their personal bikes because the city doesn’t track this.

Conversely we can track Divvy bike-share use down to the minute and the company announced that Saturday, May 24, they had their most trips ever. Only to be eclipsed by almost 4,000 more trips on Sunday, May 25 (helped in no small part by the Bike The Drive event where people can bicycle on a Lake Shore Drive that’s closed to vehicles).

In another blow to good data for Chicago, Divvy will only be releasing trip data twice a year, while Citibike in New York City will be publishing it monthly, an improvement of Capital Bikeshare’s quarterly data releases.

If you’re not tracking who’s using your infrastructure, will you be able to know if the people you set out to attract have come out?

Gaps

A map that focuses on striped bikeways in downtown Chicago.

When you look at your bikeways more abstractly, like in the graphic above, do you see deficiencies or gaps in the network? Anything glaring or odd?

It’s a simple exercise: Open up QGIS and load in the relevant geographic data for your city. For Chicago, I added the city boundary, hydrography and parks (for locational reference), and bike lanes and marked-shared lanes*. Symbolize the bikeways to stand out in a bright color. I had the Chicago Transit Authority stations overlaid, but I removed them because it minimized the “black hole of bikeways” I want to show.

What do you see?

Bigger impact map

This exercise can have more impact if it was visualized differently. You have to be familiar with downtown Chicago and the Loop to fully understand why it’s important to notice what’s missing. It’s an extremely office and job dense neighborhood. It also has one of the highest densities of students in the country; the number of people residing downtown continues to grow. If I had good data on how many workers and students there were per building, I could indicate that on the map to show just how many people are potentially affected by the lack of bicycle infrastructure that leads them to their jobs (or class) in the morning, and home in the evening. I don’t know how to account for all of the bicycling that goes through downtown just for events, like at Millennium and Grant Parks, the Cultural Center, and other theaters and venues.

*If you cannot find GIS data for your city, please let me know and I will try to help you find it. It should be available for your city as a matter of course.

Intercity bike paths, or “bike roads”

Imagine every suburb around Chicagoland connected to a handful of others by a “bike road.” In the Netherlands, it’s a strip of pavement about 1.5 American-car lanes wide but the bicyclist always has priority and any drivers must drive at the speed of the bicyclist. For cars, the road serves mostly rural towns, but for bicycling, it serves as part of a cross-country and intercity bikeway. On some parts of your trip to another town you might ride on bike roads, and others on bike-only paths.

This bike road helps connect Houten and Utrecht. I’m traveling north alongside a Nederlandse Spoorwegen Sprinter train. See more photos from my day trip to Utrecht and Houten.

The Cal-Sag Trail is a typical multi-use path in the works and will do something similar, connecting south suburban Cook County communities (like Calumet Park, Blue Island, and Alsip) along the Calumet River and the Calumet-Sag Channel. It will be car-free. While multi-use paths in Illinois are often used for recreational or touring use (many don’t lead to destinations, or are out of the way for convenient routes), the Cal-Sag Trail will be useful for social, shopping, and school trips as well as fitness. Additionally, it will connect to at least three existing trails.

When any path or road opens it needs sufficient wayfinding. The “United States Numbered Bicycle Routes” system began in 1982 to do for bicycling what numbered highways did for driving: make it easy to create and follow a route. Planning for the system was revitalized in 2010.

Several European countries (including Netherlands and Germany) have had such a system for years but instead of numbering routes, they number junctions. Starting at any origin shown on the junction map, find the junctions that connect the route segments to your destination and remember their numbers. Then watch for signs that point you in the direction of the next number. You only need to remember 2-3 numbered junctions at a time because there will eventually be a new map to remind you which junction is next. See photo and route example below.

This junction is number 34. To go to Houten from here, follow the directional signs, first to 33, then to 36, then to 01. The “bike road” photo above was taken near junction 36.

Welcome to the grand entrance of the Illinois Prairie Path to Elmhurst, Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, Aurora, and Batavia!

Another Chicago trail example

There’s a great example near Chicago of a trail that’s “80% there.” The Illinois Prairie Path begins in Maywood, Illinois, a couple miles from the western edge of Chicago, and a mile from the Forest Park Blue Line terminal. Getting there from Chicago is a problem: it’s not connected to anything but 4-lane, fast-moving 1st Avenue. And bicycling to Maywood from anywhere in Chicago there is a lack of safe routes, regarding infrastructure and personal safety (a lot of Chicagoans would consider the center west side quite dangerous). I grew up the far western suburb of Batavia and have occasionally ridden the trail, but only once did I ride it while living in Chicago.

Another view of the trailhead. Photo by Carlton Holls.

I wanted to visit Fry’s Electronics in Downers Grove, just 4 miles from the trail. It took me over an hour to get to the entrance and then I missed the sign (or wasn’t there one?) for Finley Road and went too far. It was getting dark, so I decided to call the trip a small loss and boarded a Metra train at Glen Ellyn for downtown.

Igniting the discussion on equity

I want to have more conversations about transportation equity

My master’s project is all about it. You might have read me talking about it a little here two weeks ago. A then I shot off a post with some key quotes I’m using about the topic in my project.

The purpose of the map is to show the difference in distribution between 2008 and 2009.

This post, though, is all about the graphic above. A lengthy conversation has begun in the comments on the Flickr page. I want more people to get talking about why 2008 might look the way it does, and why 2009 looks the way it does. Perhaps you need a little background on 2009: I made sure to visit the most underserved Wards you see in 2008 and ensure they receive new bike racks in 2009.

A big question is why people in those areas aren’t asking for bike racks. Does no one there ride a bike to the store? Or maybe they do but don’t know how to request a bike rack or know the purpose of one? Maybe they got a bike stolen and need some tips on proper locking.

Those are all questions I want my project to answer – and I’m working hard 20 hours per week to answer them! But I want more questions. I want ideas that point me to look in new directions. If you don’t like my response, tell me.

Bike parking is almost always mentioned in nationwide bike plans as a necessary way to complete the urban bicycling network. Mia Birk, “famous” bicycle planner, and principal at Alta Planning and Design in Portland, Oregon, says that bike parking is part of “the tool kit for successful 
bicycle infrastructure in cities.” Another Portland entity is aware of equity: BikePortland.org.

What’s going on here? Photo by Eric Rogers.

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