It seems that everywhere I travel, big cities and small towns are embracing active transportation initiatives. This is good. It’s about time. What’s not good is that many of these places have not yet figured out what to do with active transportation. They just can’t let go of car culture, and that’s a problem because until they do they’re not likely to reap the benefits that are there for the taking. Here are three ways some communities unwittingly defeat their own initiatives.
They View Infrastructure Strictly as a Recreational Resource
Imagine leaving work after a hard day at the office. It’s winter, and the sky is already turning dark as you get in your car and head to the freeway. Traffic is bad and you quickly see why. The on ramp is blocked. There’s a new sign informing motorists that the freeway is available for their use only during daylight hours.
As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s quite common when it comes to bicycle infrastructure. I think this is mostly because many officials still view trails strictly as a recreational resource instead of as something that could be used to supplement the existing transportation grid.
This needs to change. Most people view transportation as “essential.” Recreation? Not so much. This difference manifests itself in strange ways.
They Prioritize Motor Vehicles Above Other Modes
When I lived in Minnesota, the state aggressively enforced crosswalk laws. This allowed pedestrians to cross even the busiest streets without having to worry too much about being run down.
This is no small thing. Enforcing these (and other) laws sends a powerful message that bad behavior is not tolerated and this, in turn, encourages more people to get out and walk. I always marveled at just how many Minnesotans walked and biked through the brutal northern winter.
Unfortunately, Minnesota is the exception rather than the rule. Most places give a nod and a wink to the rights of pedestrians and cyclists but when push comes to shove, cars almost always win. This is because officials believe that they can reduce congestion by keeping cars moving. In reality, the only way to really reduce congestion is to keep cars off the road. The best way to accomplish this is to give the non-motorized priority over the motorized.
Parking, Parking Everywhere
I was walking through downtown Indianapolis at lunch the other day and came upon a building that was recently converted into loft apartments. It has that funky urban vibe that is so common these days. Cool, I thought. People who walk instead of drive. Then I had the misfortune to go around to the back of the development. This is what I saw.
When I got back to the office, I pulled the building up on Google Maps. The development has more space allocated to parking than to living. Taking parking off the street and hiding it behind the building may make people feel that they are creating more walkable communities, but in effect it changes nothing. As long as a car is available and convenient, it tends to be used and if people are driving they’re not walking or biking.
Creating bicycle and pedestrian friendly places is about changing mindsets and that is a long, arduous process. Communities that recognize the tangible benefits that come with an “all-in” commitment to active transportation will be the big winners in the not too distant future. Those that don’t will be left behind.