Biking crosstown in 2015 is like driving crosscountry in 1915 – but a change is coming

June 22, 2015

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer


Indianapolis, IN: crossing eras.

If you want to see the rich opportunities in urban transportation, sometimes you need someone outside the transportation world.

On Monday, Washington Post “innovation” writer Matt McFarland wrote one of the most sweeping endorsements of protected bike lanes that we’ve seen so far.

McFarland found a creative metaphor for the problem Americans face when they try to ride a bike. Just as the Americans of the 1910s were obliged to bring a shovel with them on cross-country car trips, he writes, Americans of the 2010s are obliged to carry a different sort of burden on our crosstown bike trips.

Pity the driver who dared attempt a cross-country road trip in the early 20th century. Consider what an engineer for the primitive Lincoln Highway suggested motorists bring along for such a journey: a shovel, an ax, a four-foot hardwood plank, 50 feet of rope, 16 feet of cable and a pistol.

The advice comes from F.H. Trego, who appears in Earl Swift’s ?The Big Roads,? which chronicled the creation of the Interstate Highway System. Part I of the book is appropriately called ?Out of the Mud.?

The $130 billion project, despite its flaws, is arguably the United States? most important infrastructure ever. It connected the country and stimulated the economy.

Today, biking in your average American city doesn’t involve muddy roads, and there’s no need for an ax or shovel. But biking across town too often requires one to pack bravery, and a tolerance for stress. While bike commuting has grown 60 percent over the last decade, it remains a blip on the national level. (Bicyclists account for 0.6 percent of all commuters.)

Experts say that for cycling to truly blossom in the United States will require networks of cycletracks — bike lanes separated from vehicular traffic by vertical barriers.

McFarland’s piece is titled “Why cycletrack networks should be the next great American transit project.” Though experts on this subject won’t be surprised by anything in his piece, it’s an inspiring reminder of just how inspiring high-quality streets are to millions of people who would love to get around more by bicycle.

Fortunately, we’re gradually finding ways to make that happen. Protected bike lanes are already spreading fast. If we can keep today’s trends rolling, 30 years from now American life will once again be completely transformed by transportation infrastructure. Which means, by our calculations, that the future Jack Kerouac of bicycling should be born any day now.

The Green Lane Project helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write [email protected]

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