There is a strong push in our culture today to push environmentally friendly products, services, and lifestyles. The transportation sector is not a lot different, and many people promote non-automotive transportation (or even alternative-to-oil fuels) based on environmentally friendly benefits.
While there is validity to the point of view that riding a bike instead of driving a car for some or all trips makes less of an impact on the environment, there are a number of reasons why I think pushing this point as a main motivator to both get more people on bicycles, and to get governments to better accommodate bicycles is probably ineffective at best, and often harmful.
There has been a huge surge in promoting “green” living over the last decade – organic food products, clothing items, “eco-friendly” household products, even buildings and other development projects, sustainably-grown, humanely-raised, etc. I have nothing against these things, and when done properly and responsibly, organically grown food items, sustainably and humanely raised animals, energy and waste-efficient buildings and low-environmental-impact items are a good thing. The problem is, it has been seized by marketing firms and capitalized on, and people are aware that now a majority of what gets labeled as “green” is labeled so only to sell it – it’s become a marketing gimmick. Green is the new black, in that it is often more of a fashion statement than a real part of someone’s lifestyle or beliefs. I feel that marketing bicycling for transportation as “green” just increases the perception that it is a fad that will die off soon enough – just another marketing trick.
Secondly, look around. How many people are actually concerned enough about being environmentally responsible to really change their lifestyle if their circumstance do not already support the change? I think there are maybe a handful in Portland. I don’t mean to be cynical, but looking at myself first, I personally would change some minor things, and I happen to fortunately be geared in such a way that I don’t get great joy out of consuming more and more of things (except maybe food and beer), but if environmentalism were my only motivation to ride a bike, my bike would be in my apartment 70% of the year. This is just part of human nature – we gravitate towards what is convenient and easy (however we perceive that), and if we have to go out of our way to do something, we’re much less likely to do it. Environmentalism for the sake of the environment, for the large part, falls right into that category of requiring real inconvenience in order to make a difference.
Thirdly, do you like being handed religious pamphlets on the street corner and being told you’re morally wrong? No, neither does anyone else. Painting cycling as environmentalism, and therefore the “morally responsible” thing to do can have the same effect, and people use that effect to paint cyclists and those supporting them as conceited hippies who are out to steal the freedom of the rest of the citizens. Pushing a moral agenda is not a good way to get anyone who doesn’t already agree with you to listen to you, it mostly just encourages defensiveness and misunderstanding.
The good news is, there are many different reasons why favoring bicycles in a city’s transportation plan make sense, both from the point of view of the city, and the point of view of the citizens. As a couple of examples:
Economics. In a city which focuses on accommodation of bicycle and pedestrian traffic over motorized forms, there are a myriad of financial benefits. The infrastructure is simpler, more durable, and has much, much greater longevity. The sidewalks in much of the city of Portland are still there from 1906 to 1920. They are still in usable condition, at 100 years old. How many highly-trafficked street surfaces can say the same? None that I’m aware of. A person on a bicycle imparts a similar amount of wear to the ground as a person walking, and therefore the roads on which they ride hardly notice them passing.
In a city which focuses on emphasizing non-motorized forms of transportation, there will be development of things you need for your daily life (food, entertainment, healthcare, jobs, etc) nearby the places where people live. Because of the nearness of the things needed to live, a person may very well not need to own and operate a car. This potentially leaves them with a considerable amount more available spending money than a person who does own and operate an automobile, and therefore, the potential to put more money back into the non-automotive economy (that is, local shops, restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores, etc). This is good for a city, because if people there have money to spend, businesses are going to thrive, and non-local businesses will be attracted to the area as well.
It used to be the assumption that a person who owned a car was well-to-do, and could afford to spend a lot of money, and therefore, businesses felt the need to go out of their way to accommodate people driving cars. Especially in our current economy, and with rising gas prices (which are still around half what much of Europe pays), more and more it’s becoming the case that people are required to own a car by their physical circumstances, to the effect of their financial ruin. The stereotype that only homeless people and hippie commie pinkos ride bicycles is quickly disappearing, and people are realizing that accommodating pedestrian and cyclist traffic means more people can get to their place of business, they have to spend way less (by many orders of magnitude) providing parking, and they are more likely to get people with money to spend, and who maybe didn’t intend to spend it there, but just happened to see the shop and stop in.
Currently in the Portland area, we are embroiled in a new freeway bridge debacle, where the capacity of the current bridge over a nearby river is likely to be massively increased, and the reason for this is largely that there are too many people living outside of Portland, but driving to work in Portland every day, via this bridge. This causes all kinds of problems, even restricting the movement of freight which is essential to the business of the region. And we are prepared to spend on the order of $5-10 billion in order to build a massive bridge that will only exacerbate the problem by making room for more people to do the same thing. If our region was to localize more and spend time and money generating jobs in areas where people actually live, we could go without expanding all this massive infrastructure that tears our cities apart, and turns them into space to pass through, rather than space to live in.
There are many other financial benefits from healthcare, lack of death (if you’re going to die before age 35, the most likely way it will happen in America is inside a car), to even cutting the massive government subsidies that go into propping up the automobile industry here. See Elly Blue’s series on Bikenomics for some great discussion of how bicycles can play a role in boosting our economy.
A sense of fear and danger pervades our streets. This is felt by everyone, not only those who cycle or walk for transportation. We (collectively) don’t let our kids out on their own to play, to cross the street, to go to school or their friends’ houses, because we perceive the public space that is the street to be extremely dangerous – and while I’m not one to dive into fearmongering, the streets can be very dangerous, because the way they are designed in many places is to move cars fast, at the expense of visibility, reaction time, etc. I think everyone realizes this, no matter how they get around. Emphasizing non-motorized transportation in a city has the effect of making streets a public space again – a place where your children can play, you can have street parties with neighbors, restaurants can set up outdoor seating, you can walk without fear of your life.
In Portland, on streets where bike boulevard or neighborhood greenway treatments have been applied, there has been more neighborly interaction, more people out and about by foot and by bike, and property values on the street have gone up. Dense mixed-use development is encouraged, because people in the neighborhood can then just casually meander over. People like the idea of living in a place where the space around them is comfortable, and emphasizing non-motorized transportation helps to remove that sense of danger from the streets. Imagine neighborhoods in which you can just calmly walk down the middle of the street if you please, with your children, calmly letting traffic by if it comes, and people observe your right to be there as a citizen of the city. It can and does happen.
Now, all of that is not to say that I think the environmental benefits of cycling are negligible or irrelevant – but as a tool to motivate people to ride their bicycles and to motivate governments to make it easy and convenient for them to do so, I think harping on the environmental benefits while ignoring the rest often does more harm than good.
Do you all have any thoughts on this? What do you think about using environmentalism as a means to promote bicycle use?