Those increases are all the more remarkable given the historical context. For decades, in the United States, the cycling rate has held stubbornly around 1 percent – despite the fact that almost 50 percent of trips Americans make by any mode are three miles or less.“The number one reason people don’t ride is that they don’t feel safe,” said Roskowski. “When we put in the protected lanes, people feel safe.”
An important study by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBT) looked at the public’s attitude toward cycling. Researchers found there are four types of cyclists. The first type – “strong and fearless” – is the daredevil who is comfortable riding with motorized traffic on the busiest roads, no special protection needed. This hardy group, however, represents only about 1 percent of the total population of potential cyclists, the study found.
Meanwhile, about 7 percent of the total population, researchers found, are “enthused and confident.” These are the folks who have been attracted to cycling in Portland by the improvements the city has made. The study found that an additional 60 percent of the population is “interested and concerned,” – so, potentially winnable – followed by a unmovable 33 percent, classified by PBT as “no way no how.”
“The system we have built today has gotten us a 1 percent bike mode share,” said Roskowski. “We think we can do better.”
Increasing the number of cyclists on the roads has been an important motivating factor for cities like New York, Portland, and Chicago. Boosting cycling rates reduces traffic, improves air quality, and public health, while also extending the life of traffic infrastructure.
Additionally, increasing the number of cyclists can, in itself, help reinforce the well-being of the cycling community. Numerous studies have documented the “safety in numbers effect,” wherein increases in overall cycling rates across cities produces a decline in overall injury rates. Between 1993 and 2011, for example, the cycling rate of Minneapolis, MN, almost tripled, but collisions held steady.
But another critical selling point for the political officials championing protected bike lanes is economic. Studies have shown that high-quality bike infrastructure can boost local commerce along the cycling routes, often dramatically. For example, after a protected bike lane was installed on New York City’s Ninth Avenue, NYC DOT recorded a 49 percent increase in retail sales along the corridor. Meanwhile, a Portland study found bike commuters spend 40 percent more at local businesses than their car-driving counterparts.
Even more compelling is the perceived effect on talent attraction and retention. There’s plenty of evidence that highly educated, young workers – who urban economics guru Richard Florida would call the “creative class” – are simply demanding better bicycle infrastructure. Early last year, Transportation Nation announced, “for the tech sector, bikes are the new cars.” The article featured interviews with leading tech companies like Foursquare, which have made locations along important bike corridors a key part of their employee attraction and retention strategy.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been particularly explicit about his intentions to use bike infrastructure to help attract new tech talent and investment. When Emanuel was campaigning for the mayor’s seat in 2011, a key part of his platform was a promise to install 100 miles (160 kilometers) of protected bike lanes during his first term.