America is Returning to the Suburbs

America’s urban renaissance is a meme that has gained a lot of traction in media since the financial reset of 2008, but census figures released yesterday suggest that things are (to misquote David Byrne of Talking Heads) the same as they ever were.  America’s most urban counties continue to bleed residents to the suburbs.  This is true across the country but nowhere more so than in the Rust Belt.

I’ve written about this before.  It certainly meshes with what I’ve seen on the ground as I travel around the United States.  Indianapolis offers a representative snapshot.  In spite of local officials pouring billions of dollars into downtown and the presence of a loud and passionate new urbanist contingent, Indianapolis-area residents continue to flee the urban core for the donut counties and communities like Carmel, Noblesville and Zionsville.

Interestingly enough, Carmel (pop 86,000) is rapidly approaching the urban core (Center Township, population 142,000) in terms of total number of  people who choose to live there.  This is not insignificant.   People have been fleeing Center Township since the 1950s when the population peaked at 337,000.  In real numbers, the urban core has lost almost 60% of peak population.  That’s an incredible loss over a sustained period of time.   Sorry, new urbanists, but suburbia is still winning the battle for hearts and souls, just as it has since the end of World War Two.

This is not necessarily bad news.  The suburban areas that are doing the best are those that have staked their future on bicycle and pedestrian movement.  Take, Carmel Indiana, for example.  This “suburb” of Indianapolis has, in many ways, supplanted Indianapolis as the urban core.  This is where most of the growth is occurring.  This is where most forward thinking ideas originate.  The folks downtown, by and large, are clinging to a model that no longer works.   The future of America is decentralized.  Places that thrive won’t have one big core, but lots of little nodes where people can easily access resources on foot or a bicycle.

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Downtown Carmel.  It feels more like a European village than suburbia.

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Bikes are kind of a big deal here.

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Central Indiana’s bicycle resource is not focused on the traditional core, but rather the new core…Carmel.

Carmel has aggressively implemented traffic calming measures.  It may have more roundabouts than any other community in America.  Most arterials have bicycle and pedestrian side paths.  The critically acclaimed Monon Trail cuts through the heart of the city.  Unlike in Indianapolis where there are dangerous road crossings, here there are bridges and tunnels across arterials.  It’s well thought out and integrated rather than slopped together.

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Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, offers a glimpse of what America’s most successful suburbs may soon look like.

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Like other urbanizing suburbs, Mississauga is bicycle friendly.

What’s happening in Carmel is also happening elsewhere.  Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto Ontario, looks like the core of most mid-sized American cities.  Dallas County Iowa, west of Des Moines is one of the five fastest growing counties in the United States.  Officials there recently unveiled plans to expand a regional park replete with bike routes. The park is already the area’s most popular attraction and gathering place according to TripAdvisor.  Imagine that, a suburb where people congregate in a park instead of a mall.

Today’s most successful suburbs don’t look anything like those of old.  Carmel feels more like a European village than the type of cornfield-gobbling sprawl so often associated with Midwestern suburbs.  Mississauga looks more like a big city than an edge city.  It isn’t surprising to me that people are choosing to live in these places.  They’re attractive, pleasant and relatively safe.  They can be easily navigated on a bicycle, even with kids.  This is our future.  If you live in one of these places, engage with local officials.  Bicycle friendliness isn’t just for young urban hipsters.  It’s a suburban thing, too, and the suburbs who do it best are the ones that have the brightest futures.

ACATT (All car, all the time) Is Bankrupting Us

Aside from losing weight, another big reason I got back on my bicycle a few years ago was to save money.   It wasn’t that I was broke or couldn’t afford a car.   It was more along the lines of understanding the true cost of motoring and making the conscious decision not to pay it any longer.  It’s okay with me if you consider it a small act of civil disobedience…my way of sticking it to the man.

If I were to get 100 of my fellow Americans together, town-hall style, and ask them to quantify the actual cost of motoring I’d be very surprised if more than a few of them even came close.  The system is designed to hide costs and it works remarkably well.

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Big roads…big bucks.  They’re mostly empty most of the time.  They’re always crumbling and require constant maintenance.

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Fighter jet over Ogden.  The true cost of geopolitical risk is approximately $100 million per plane.  These costs never make it onto the motoring income statement.

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On approach to Salt Lake City.  In spite of Utah politicians’ attempts to blame this pollution on China, it’s mostly on motorists.

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Cyclists waiting for the train at North Temple Bridge with oil refinery in the background.  Given this, the choice is easy.

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Show me a lot of cars and I’ll show you a dysfunctional neighborhood and another hidden cost.

Take roads, for example.  Many motorists believe that the gas tax provides enough revenue to pay for the roads they drive on.  It doesn’t…not even close.   Wasteful development patterns exacerbate the problem.  There’s this popular misconception that states expropriate gas tax revenues to pay for social programs, but in reality more money is moved out of the general fund to pay for roads than the other way around.

Over the last few years, the price of oil has come down dramatically.  Such is the nature of oil and gas.  It’s a commodity and like all commodities it goes through wild price fluctuations.   The last price fluctuation was down.   The next fluctuation will be up.  It may be shock and awe.

A big part of the problem with oil and gas is that supply is always vulnerable to geopolitical risk.  In round numbers, motorists in the United States use just under ten million barrels of oil per day.  Approximately 4.5 million of that is home grown.  Two million additional comes from Canada and Mexico.  The rest (3.5 million barrels each and every day) comes from other parts of the world, many with hostile actors.  US troops and bases are required to protect those supply lines.   In fact, much of our defense budget (approximately $1 trillion/year) is spent on protection relating to the supply of minerals required to sustain our way of life….minerals like oil and gas.

Cars exact a horrible price on our environment as well.  We spend billions of dollars per year trying to reverse the damage our automobiles do to the air and water.  Thirty thousand of us will die in car crashes this year.  The healthcare costs associated with this carnage never make it into the equation but they’re very real.  So are the social costs.  Cars destroy neighborhoods and this contributes to crime and a breakdown in social cohesion.  There are costs here, too.

Then there’s out of pocket cost.  Most people don’t know that it costs close to $9,000 per year to own and operate a motor vehicle.   Most of this is in the form of drip, drip, drip torture.  You pay $30 for a tank of gas, $40 for an oil change, $100 for a new battery and so on.  It all adds up.

I didn’t know all of this when I started cycling.  Now I do.   It’s a heavy burden to carry because once you know this you are confronted with a simple reality.  Am I part of the solution or am I part of the problem?   For me (and for you, too, I suspect) it’s an easy choice.   The simple truth is that every time we reach for our bicycle helmets instead of our car keys, we make a  huge difference in our communities and our world.

Just a Quick Note: State Bicycle Laws

I’ve had a number of questions pop up recently regarding bicycle laws and safety.  Some have been from non-cyclists who are genuinely unsure of how they’re supposed to drive around us.  As a result, I’ve decided to add a page containing links to official state bicycling resources to this site.  At present, only the states in which I’ve cycled are included, but over the next several days I will expand it to include all 50 states.

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You can view the page here or from the menu link above.   Please share with friends and family, cyclist and non-cyclist alike.  Please let me know if you know of better resources or other links that should be added.  Thank you.  Have a great weekend.  Be safe and have fun!

Musings…and Questions…

Spring has finally come to Ogden and it looks like it might be here to stay.  Temperatures are breaking the 70 degree mark fairly regularly now and after being bundled up through January and February, it feels good to cut loose and wear shorts.  The Ogden River Parkway is under water at about five different locations, but the trails on the flank of the Wasatch are dry and firm, if a little rutted.

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The local mountain biking resource is in great shape for mid-March.  It’s hard to believe how quickly it went from buried in snow to high and dry.

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It’s a different story in town.   All that snow has to go somewhere and local rivers are raging.

I rode my first century of the year this past Sunday.  If this year is like other years, it will also be my last century of the year.  I don’t ride many and I always ride them alone.  I typically feel really good through about 70 miles and then it’s just drudgery coming in. Metric centuries are more my thing.  Sixty miles or so just feels right.

Jan and I decided that we’re going to Iowa and maybe up into Minnesota this June.  We want to explore some of the trails to the north of Des Moines including the famed Raccoon River Trail.  As it turns out, there’s a 71 mile RAGBRAI training ride while we’re there.   It also has an interesting twist….bacon.  Who doesn’t like bacon?  I’m all in.

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Bacon and bicycles?  Yeah, why not!

Last, but not least, I’m questioning whether to continue on with this blog.  I don’t much feel like I’m changing anything, and all I really want to do is ride.  I’m going to ride regardless, even if I’m the last person on the planet to do so, and so  I’m curious to know what you all think.  Is there anything in particular you’d like to see here, or see more of, or even less of?  Let me know by leaving a comment or sending me an email message.   Enjoy your weekend.  Ride lots.

 

 

 

Montana Gives Motorists the Green Light to Buzz Cyclists

Awhile back I posted a link to an article on the Bike5 Facebook page about a new law in Iowa that requires motorists to completely relinquish the lane to cyclists.   I think it’s a good law, much better than the ubiquitous three foot law that no motorist anywhere seems to know about and no law enforcement officer seems willing to enforce.  That said, 3′ laws are better than nothing, especially if they bring awareness to motorists of our right to use the road, right up to and including the full lane.

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Not much traffic…how hard is it to move over three feet?  Really… By Sebastian Bergmann  [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

So I was disappointed to read this morning that Montana is taking a different approach to cyclist safety.  They’re ignoring it. In fact, the president of the Montana Senate wants us to leave his state completely because there’s already too many of us and we’re “rude.”  Here’s the exact quote from Montana Public Radio:

“They’re some of the rudest people I’ve ever. I hate to say it, but I’m just going to be bold — they’re some of the most self-centered people navigating on highways, or on county roads I’ve ever seen. They won’t move over. You can honk at them; they think they own the highway.”

So Senator Sales actually talked into a microphone and said that he comes up on cyclists and honks in an effort to intimidate us. That’s different.   Most politicians have the good sense to play the old “it’s for our own good” card.  Rob Ford comes to mind. Never mind that we’ve heard it all before.

There are so many questions I’d like to ask Senator Sales.  How does he feel about Mack trucks?  What about farmers on tractors?   How about school buses?  What if there’s a bunch of rude kids on a school bus?   Does he advocate playing fast and loose with their safety, too, or is his contempt reserved only for cyclists?

Montana is one of the worst states in America when it comes to traffic mortality and highway safety.  Part of it is geography and part of it is climate, but more than a little of it is cultural.  One thing it isn’t is too many bicyclists.  They sure like to blame us, though.  A while back they advanced another bill that would have banned us from most of the two lane roads in the state.

If you’re wondering, my concern in this is that Senator Sales spoke in such a way that will encourage the lowest common denominator to play fast and loose with cyclist safety.  They’ll buzz us and they’ll probably end up killing some of us.  They know that their lawmakers are on their side.  That’s reckless and irresponsible and heaven forbid if it happens it’s on Scott Sales and his ignorant colleagues.

As for me, well,  Jan and I had already abandoned plans to visit Glacier Park this summer due to earlier shenanigans in the Montana statehouse.  This is just the icing on the cake. I don’t go where I’m not welcome.  Besides, there are plenty of places that genuinely care about our safety.  Those are the places I’m going to visit.

Speaking of which, I almost feel sorry for these pathetic little self-absorbed bullies.   The world they’re clinging to is fading away and I’m not sure they see it.  The reason there are so many of us is because bicycles are the future.  There’s going to be more of us tomorrow, too.   Lots of people have a problem with that but the future doesn’t much care.

Is Bikeshare Really Viable?

I want to talk about bikeshare today.  An article from Streetsblog USA came across my feed this morning that made me think about it again.   The article explains how bikeshare is growing but that the growth is limited to just a handful of cities.  When I look at the chart that accompanies it, the growth appears to be limited to one city, in fact, and that city is New York.

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If that is indeed the case, it begs the question…  Is bikeshare something most cities should be pursuing?  More on that in a minute.

I’ve used bikeshare in two cities (Boise and Indianapolis) and have observed it in many others including Chicago, Nashville, Omaha, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Toronto.  These comments are based on what I have seen for myself and as always I might be wrong.

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Pretty bikes, all in a row.  Not many people were riding in Chicago on Christmas Eve.  Those that were meant business.

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Bikeshare touristas in the Strand, PGH

The bikeshare bikes I used were comfortable.  They were durable and somewhat clunky, but relatively easy to ride.  The Indianapolis bike had some deferred maintenance.  It pulled to the right a little.

The two systems were completely different.  Boise used a traditional lock that you carried with the bike.  Indianapolis required you to dock the bike to lock it.  As a practical matter, either way is fine and it only took a minute to figure out each system.

In the places where I’ve ridden and also the places where I’ve just observed,  bikeshare strikes me as more of a tourist amenity than a practical tool for commuters or people who might otherwise rely on bicycles for transportation.  The exception was Chicago.  People in Chicago were taking care of business on their Divvy bikes.

Everywhere else, they were either riding for pleasure or they weren’t riding at all.   We were in Pittsburgh on the first nice day of spring and there were hundreds of people on bikeshare bikes.  We visited  Toronto in late summer and although bikes were everywhere in the urban core, I didn’t see one person on a bikeshare bike.  The same was true of Nashville  and Omaha…no takers.

My takeaway from the Streetsblog article is that bikeshare is only growing in one US metro, and that metro is completely different than every other city across the land.  It’s far more dense, population-wise.  People there are pre-disposed to share transportation where in most other places they are not.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t embrace it.  What I’m saying is that most cities should think long and hard before they invest in a bikeshare scheme that will be either underutilized or used primarily by tourists.  It sends the wrong message either way.  Bicycles are transportation, not a toy, thrill ride or gimmick.  That’s what we have to move towards if we’re ever going to change broader conceptions of who we are and what we do.

Back to the Twin Cities

Jan and I are planning a return trip to the Upper Midwest later this summer and so I’ve been online doing a little reconnaissance.  We plan to bring the bikes and explore because Minnesota and Wisconsin are pretty special places for cyclists, especially in the summer.

Some of you may already know that Minneapolis is the only US city that consistently makes Copenhagenize.EU’s list of the world’s best cities for cyclists.  Back in the 1990s when we lived there it was all about the Grand Rounds in Minneapolis and paths along both sides of the Mississippi River including the iconic Stone Arch Bridge.  These days there’s the Midtown Greenway and the Martin Olaf Sabo Bridge over Hiawatha Avenue.  There’s also NiceRide Minnesota, one of America’s largest and most encompassing bikeshare programs.

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The Twin Cities are a Midwestern bicycling Mecca.  You can get everywhere by bicycle here.

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Sabo Bridge and downtown Minneapolis from Hiawatha Avenue light rail train. Photo by Runner1928 [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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No streets to cross along the Midtown Greenway. Photo by Michael Hicks [CC BY 2.0 ]

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The Stone Arch Bridge crosses the Mississippi River and offers a dramatic entry into downtown Minneapolis. Photo by mjdemay [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

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Bikes only on this section of the Grand Rounds near Lake Calhoun.  The pedestrian trail is visible to the right. Photo by Tony Webster from San Francisco, California [CC BY 2.0]

Mostly, though, it’s about people who ride year round in what most folks from points south (and that’s pretty much everyone who doesn’t live there) would consider pretty harsh weather.  It’s about the little things done amazingly well.  Little things like what?  I’m so glad you asked.

Let’s start with the trail system.  They plow it.  They don’t do that in Ogden or Colorado or anywhere else I’ve ever lived, but they do it in Minneapolis.  That’s good.  If you want people to use bicycles instead of cars for getting around town,  you have to make it easy and nothing makes it harder than 12 inches of crusty snow and -50 degree wind chills.  Plowing helps.

Minneapolitans love their trails, and the most popular ones around the city lakes (Calhoun, Harriet, Lake of the Isles and Nokomis) can get quite crowded.  So in those places there are separate trails for walking and cycling.  That avoids the type of problems that are becoming more common in other more coastal areas like Boston.

What I especially like about the Twin Cities, though, is how they are integrating bicycling and transit into virtually all road projects now.  I know they’re starting to do this everywhere, but the Cities are decades ahead of everywhere else.  Most of it is functional as opposed to spectacular, but it works.  Call it Midwestern pragmatism or whatever you like.

When the Wakota Bridge on Interstate 494 across the Mississippi River was expanded in 2006, they put a bike/pedestrian crossing in.  There are three primary rivers (Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix) in the Twin Cities metro and virtually dozens of major highway crossings.  Most of them have bicycle and pedestrian sidepaths or lanes.   No other US urban region I’ve been to comes close (Sorry Denver.  Sorry Portland) to this kind of coverage.  It makes all the difference in the world in terms of getting from here to there.

One especially exciting project currently under construction is the St. Croix Crossing bridge on US 36 just south of Stillwater.   As part of the project, state officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin are building a bicycle loop that includes a sidepath on the new bridge as well as bike lanes on the old Stillwater lift bridge a few miles north. There will be separate sections for pedestrians and cyclists at the chokepoints.  I’m guessing they’ll plow it, too.  I’ll have to go back in the winter and verify that.