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Yes, there is room for all of us — it’s not a zero sum game

This week the National Journal asks its transportation experts to weigh in on the question, “Will bicyclists and pedestrians squeeze out cars?”

Our Andy Clarke was the first to respond, saying “It’s not a zero-sum game“:

This is SO the wrong question. Zero-sum games are rarely constructive and rarely ask the right questions. The issue for urban transportation planners isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “which mode is going to win”. The questions should be more along the lines of what is the balance we need achieve among the different modes; what are people trying to do in urban areas that transportation facilitates or enables? Transportation – even riding a bike – is rarely an end in itself; in fact it almost always imposes costs that individuals and the community end up paying for somehow: in time, or pollution, or energy consumption, etc.

We should be asking how we minimize the need to travel in urban areas; and how we minimize the impact and cost of urban travel – in part so that essential traffic, like deliveries and emergency services and Presidential motorcades (kidding…), doesn’t get stuck in traffic made up largely of single-occupant vehicles driving a mile or two down the street at not much more than walking pace. Just look at the madness we create for ourselves with the school trip: 20%-30% of morning rush-hour traffic in many metro areas consists of perfectly able-bodied kids being ferried to school by parents with better things to do with their time who won’t let their kids walk or ride their bikes to school because there are so many harried parents rushing their kids to school and the roads and sidewalks around the school aren’t safe. And frankly, many of the kids could use the exercise.

And lest we forget, the numbers show that fully half of all trips in metropolitan areas are three miles or less; 40% are two miles or less and more than one quarter are just one mile or less. These are the trips we ought to looking at to see if there are more sustainable and efficient ways that people can travel than by car – which is how the vast majority of those trips are currently made, and it really isn’t working that well. That should make sense whether you are a cyclist, pedestrian, transit user, or car driver.

Similarly, the numbers show that we are going to be adding 100 million people to the US population in the next two to three decades, mostly in urban areas. With the best will in the world, that simply isn’t going to work if all those people have two cars and expect to be able to drive an open road 20 miles each way every day to their job or to buy groceries. We have to diversify our transportation system and rely less on SOVs. That means more and better transit, and safer, more convenient and attractive bicycling and walking. That isn’t rocket science and it isn’t an assault on cars either.

The best cities in the world, and the best streets in the world have managed to find a good balance. Copenhagen has a 37% bike mode share, which is amazing and which somehow civilizes the city and rush hour. But the second biggest share of traffic is cars. You can drive almost everywhere you want to in Copenhagen, but it doesn’t always make sense and there are real choices. Places like Portland and Boulder in the USA provide decent (not great, yet) examples of the same phenomenon. And the contrast between New York City avenues that have been balanced and those that haven’t are really quite instructive. Eighth and Ninth Avenues have been rebuilt recently with much better pedestrian and bicycle provision, much better transit, delivery and parking management, and the streets really work as multi-modal corridors. Safety for ALL users has improved. By contrast, 6th and 7th Avenues are still wide open race tracks with illegal and double parking, pointless 4 foot wide bike lanes, terrifying pedestrian crossings that are five or six lanes wide…and frustrated drivers.

Hopefully others can weigh in on the need to create places for people, the need for actual bona fide land use planning to which people adhere, the incredible co-benefits of reducing car travel and getting people onto transit, foot and bike, the cost-effectiveness of a more balanced approach etc. And hopefully the urge to pick one mode over another or to take sides can be resisted. After all, we have it on good authority that the era of favoring motorized over non-motorized transportation is over. We are all in this together.

As for me, I’m escaping to Deep Creek Lake for the week and a few bike rides that actually will be ends in themselves.

Keith Laughlin from the Rails to Trails Conservancy adds:

Despite the media’s attempts to create conflict, it won’t be a death match pitting motorists and truckers versus pedestrians and cyclists. Rather, it will reflect an evolving redefinition of what is necessary to create economically vibrant cities in the 21st century.

The always reliable Representative Earl Blumenauer of Portland, OR also gave an eloquent response. Here’s an excerpt:

First, let’s be clear about one thing: there is enough room on our nation’s roads for everyone, particularly those who are taking up less space, reducing traffic congestion, causing less wear and tear to the roads, and putting less pollution in the air. In fact, drivers should be thankful to see more cyclists and pedestrians hitting the streets – the more people biking and walking to work, school, or the grocery means the fewer people holding up traffic or honking their horns to make it through a light.

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