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Bicycle-Friendly Suburbs: Better Biking Beyond the Urban Core

This article, written by Fionnuala Quinn (pictured right), originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the League’s American Bicyclist magazine.

Growing up, cycling all over Dublin city center on the thousand-year-old narrow streets I never imagined another life, decades later, bicycling around the northern Virginia suburbs.

This isn’t to say you won’t find me ferrying teenagers around in my minivan, but when I can I use my bike instead. It’s fast and it’s cheap and just seems like a nicer way to encounter the world. But nowadays when I bike, many aspects of how and where I ride differ greatly from back in my Dublin days  — because of the suburban location.

Although I still greatly enjoy bicycling, these days you rarely find me in the thick of traffic. Instead I’m riding in the relative isolation of adjacent sidepaths trying to avoid high-speed vehicles and oblivious drivers. Few of my neighbors or friends know quite what to make of my choice of getting around. This most ordinary and sensible means of local transportation can be an oddity in a travel culture that has developed around minivans and SUVs.

Modern American suburbs were made possible by new means of transportation that allowed living further from employment, services and activities. In general, they have lower population densities than urban areas and feature land patterns that separate residences from shopping and other commercial development. While early U.S. suburbs developed around streetcar lines, much suburban expansion occurred in the latter half of the 20th Century and focused around automobile travel.

While the Dublin streets that I biked had evolved over the centuries into a network of connections and river crossings, I find that my suburban bicycling involves out-of-the-way treks in settings where someone seems to have forgotten I’d be riding there. The combination of street layout and road infrastructure design greatly impact comfort levels, safety and trip routing for the many folks who do get around suburban communities by bike.

There’s much suburban design variation depending on when land development occurred, as well as when and how roads and highways were configured. Having settled in a community developed in the 1990s, I have become very familiar with the type of cul-de-sac layout so ubiquitous in many suburbs.

In such communities, there are few internal connections to limit through traffic while roadways outside of the neighborhood are primarily intended to move vehicles swiftly to other destinations. A simple one-mile trip to a close-by friend now becomes a roundabout journey that involves traveling along a suburban roadway and back into another neighborhood, a possible tripling of the distance. Suburban roadways can be made up of lengthy blocks that end with wide intersections that can easily be six or eight lanes across. Such roads have high traffic speeds and a general lack of on-road bike facilities and may have such additional features as added left and right turn lanes, free turning lanes and off-ramps. And there are many missed opportunities: neighborhoods that don’t connect internally, sidewalks and trails that lack continuity and connectivity, path surfaces that are unsafe and long stretches of unlit trails.

Local conditions have a marked impact on bicycling choices about where and when to ride. By necessity or by choice, much local riding takes place on narrow sidewalks and parallel sidepaths — many with barely a buffer from adjacent traffic. Bike travel is frequently two-way on these paths because of the very large blocks and wide intersection crossings. With luck there may be a buffer from the adjacent high-speed traffic but often times, there is little. Drivers make right turns on red with nary a glance for approaching bicyclists or without regard for yielding. Given the high speeds that are the norm on suburban arterials, it is unrealistic to expect all but the most brave to take the middle of travel lanes.  Where available, trails are often a popular alternative to dealing with the issues associated with the roadways and can play a key role in local bicycling travel, especially for those who commute.

Current suburban riders represent a wide spectrum: many are the most dedicated-types of cyclists, but there’s also much riding among those who work in service industries, as evidenced by the numbers of bikes found behind the fast food outlets and carwashes.

While my husband’s eight-mile bike commute is a key aspect of integrating health into his busy work life, there are many living in the suburbs unable to drive or with no access to a vehicle. Children and younger teens are frequently stranded without independent travel options. With little by way of a bicycling culture, relatively few seem to realize that lots of trips are already bikable or that bikes may allow them to link to existing transit. Like in urban areas, many suburban trips are short and there may already be many suitable areas to safely and comfortably ride to get places. I could never be categorized as a “brave and fearless” rider, yet I’ve found ways to get to many community destinations. Even in my almost-entirely suburban county, approximately one-third of all daily trips are less than three miles in length, a distance readily covered by bike in 15 to 20 minutes.

Many suburbs can be improved for bicycling with biking networks assembled though a mix of on- and off-street bike facilities. In fact, improving local bicycling may be one of the lowest-cost retrofits to improving suburban livability and restoring local community. Suburban ‘bikability’ may offer much of what walkability adds in denser urban locations. With political will, support and advocacy, many suburban bicycling barriers can be removed.

Much of what limits and frustrates bicyclists in suburban environments is readily fixable, especially with new policies, agency staff training and integration of needs into routine design, operation, maintenance and programs. Travel culture can change and the built world can be altered and improved. In the case of the suburb where I live, redevelopment and enhancement of the transportation network is actually making significant changes to where people are choosing to live, how people get around and office space leasing. As part of the maturation of the local travel network, local agencies are increasingly investing in bicycling as a local travel option and as a linking element of the expanding multi-modal transportation network.

Low-cost options already available in the engineering tool kit could be employed much more widely in suburban applications without impacting travel for other users. Examples include lane resizing, signal devices, and paint treatments as well as alterations to existing signals and operating speeds. Small quantities of asphalt and light-weight bridges could traverse yawning gaps and missed short connections in the current network.  Applying funds to wayfinding and mapping could be a low-cost means of encouraging residents to make better use of what’s already built. Following routine maintenance practices could ensure that existing infrastructure remains usable. It’s a shame letting a perfectly serviceable suburban trail or path be destroyed whether through unchecked tree roots or by allowing misuse by utility vehicles.

On a longer-term basis, the wider suburban roads may yield space for protected on-road bicycle space and the built barriers caused by highways can be tackled to create and restore underlying local travel networks.

In many cases, suburban bicycling lags simply because the necessary planning work has not yet been done. By identifying a network that connects to key destinations, suburban communities can start funding and prioritizing fixes and needs as well as availing of low-cost spot improvements and routine opportunities. Luckily, bicycling needs are fairly basic and returns on investment are high. Bicycling is well positioned as an important means of improving life in the suburbs for many. Creating more hospitable bicycling conditions in suburban communities will expand transportation choices for the entire community.

The current limitations in suburban bicycling are in many cases a product of a situation where biking was just not considered in legacy decisions. Already leaders including Washington County, OR; Fairfax County, VA; West Windsor, NJ, Menlo Park, CA; and Elmhurst, Ill are each working on the necessary steps to transform suburban bicycling and reaping the rewards.

Fionnuala Quinn is an engineer and advocate in Fairfax County, Va.