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Designing Bicycle Cities Designing Bicycle Cities

Designing Bicycle Cities

by Eric Wicks

January 28, 2010

Planning clearly-marked urban biking systems can help us educate car drivers and decrease cycling accidents.

design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine. Find new posts every Tuesday and Thursday.

If you ride a bike and live in Texas like I do, you’re screwed. Three of the largest cities in the country are in the Lone Star state, and they are all among the worst to bike in. But in fact, only one or two of the biggest urban areas in the country are considered acceptable for biking by the most basic standards. During the life cycle of these cities from small town to metropolis, planners had to answer the question of how to accommodate the transportation needs of the growing population. Unfortunately, those boom periods coincided with the rise of the automobile and the oil industries, not the urban biking surge we’re now experiencing. As a result, planners are now faced with the task of retrofitting new concepts and ideas to existing infrastructure.

In Austin, as in other cities that experienced dramatic population increases in the past decade, there is an opportunity to make the right transportation decisions where we have seen other American cities fail. We have a healthy cycling culture and infrastructure for a city this size (population: nearly one million). The problem—as in many other places in the United States—is public perception. Most people, even in Austin, don’t consider biking a serious mode of transportation, and they feel as though bikes don’t belong on the road. Car drivers consider the road “theirs” and cyclists too often frame the argument in terms of “mine too.” At this point both cars and bikes can benefit from one word: “ours.”

Mariel Mentink, a friend of mine, was recently very seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident on a busy road in Austin. If you look at the map of where she was riding, there aren’t really any options traveling east/west besides meandering side streets and dead ends. Indeed, people using their two-wheelers as a primary mode of transportation are forced at some point to use an arterial road to get to where they’re going. Reading the comments on the news page where a video was posted of her story is telling of the social perceptions of cycling. Riding on the sidewalk is not the answer, and neither is comparing a cyclist to a child looking both ways to cross the street. With accidents like hers happening fairly often, simply sharing the road isn’t the answer, either. We need to develop a system that removes the liability from both the cyclist and the driver, and sets the stage for cycling to be taken seriously. Accidents like Mariel’s can be avoided with the right types of facilities in place.

What a person knows of cycling is learned from their community, so a city that is designed to accommodate only one mode of transportation is bound to inspire a certain myopia. For example, the “bike path” where I grew up doesn’t seem to have anything to do with bikes. Its meandering and unconnected web of trails is impossible to navigate on foot, much less on a bike. Nevertheless, when I was younger I had fun riding on it, and occasionally I used it as a way to get around. I bring this up because recreational biking and biking for transportation are two very different activities, and people need to understand the difference. A place to recreationally ride is a necessary and good thing, but as a stand-alone part of the community it can have the effect of teaching the community that a bike is for recreation only. In fact, most people in U.S. cities see biking as being a means of having fun rather than transportation, and that’s a perception that can be changed with good city planning and design.

Designing a good transportation infrastructure is like designing a good user interface. Each element should help us understand the system on a grand scale, give the user the right amount of appropriately timed information, and be very deliberate and unobtrusive. A designer creating an interface must take into account the knowledge a user has (or does not have) when using it for the first time and on a continuing basis. Taking the types of users into account is crucial to creating an intermodal transportation system because it accounts for each person’s goals and objectives and is custom tailored for each user mode (biking, driving, or public transportation).

In Amsterdam, 40 percent of the population rides a bike. Every day you see kids and parents (on one bike), locks big enough to outweigh the passenger, cargo baskets, business suits, briefcases, high heels, dresses, miniskirts, folding bikes, dogs on bikes, and no helmets. I won’t advocate not wearing a helmet, but it’s worth asking why cycling in the Netherlands is safer than in any other country with nearly half of the population commuting by bike without a helmet. I would suggest the answer is very simple: They’ve designed a clear and comprehensive network of safe and efficient bicycle routes.

Photo of the woman biking in Amsterdam by Flickr user Amsters@m

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Designing Bicycle Cities