Friday, February 2, 2007

Transportation <> Recreation

One comment I see over and over as I'm looking around on the various forums and blogs that deal with cycling is an ongoing misunderstanding between city leaders (not just in Columbus, but elsewhere, too) about the purpose of bikes.

Frequently I read articles about city leaders talking about how they're doing great things for the city (whatever city that may be) and the cycling community within their cities by putting in scenic bike trails and the like. To be sure, many of these trails are beautiful places to safely ride a bike and enjoy the outdoors, without the danger of being hit by motorists who are too busy trying to push the traffic laws to the limit. And in many cases, they can be used for commuting to and from one's place of work. As you read in my initial post, I did so for a few weeks before my office was moved.

But more often than not, such trails don't seem to actually GO anywhere useful. And this reflects on the attitude that many people have toward bikes: they're for recreation.

Many things about cycling contribute to this. I recently was listening to the bikescape podcast, which is done by Jon Winston out in San Francisco. Jon was interviewing Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bicycle Works and discussing clothing in the cycling world. When I talk about bike clothing, you invariably think of Lance-Armstrong-like skintight jerseys and shorts and bike helmets and tights and the whole nine yards there. And if you shop around much for bicycle clothing, you'll be inundated with all sorts of clothing that looks like it was designed for characters in the comic books, with flashy multicolored skintight things that are covered with logos and such.

It's all a little bit off-putting, if you're a newbie to this and are just starting to get into cycling. Grant seemed to think that many people were frightened off from starting to cycle just by the clothing.

Now there's no doubt in my mind that there's a purpose to everything that cyclists wear. Skintight clothing keeps you streamlined and you have less wind resistance and use less energy to get to where you're going. The flashy jerseys of professional racers are covered with the logos of all the sponsors that support the various cycling teams. And bright colors are good for helping cyclists stand out when they're in traffic.

My point here is that I think that cycling culture, with the aerodynamic look and wildly decorated jerseys, not only puts possible new cyclists off, but also leads folks to think of cycling as recreation. And that makes them not take it nearly as seriously. Heck, before I started bike commuting, those folks always just looked like they were out having fun.

But what about the folks who are just on their bikes to get from here to there?

If you look at pictures of China's streets, you'll see hundreds of people on their bikes on the streets, all pedalling their way along as they go to work, go shopping, run errands, and basically just go about their lives. I've read accounts of Chinese people in the West who find cycling for exercise to be absolutely ridiculous. They see bikes the same way you or I might see cars - they're just a way to get around.

There's the mindset difference that we, as commuters, need to instill in those who are writing the traffic laws, planning the new roads and infrastructure, and enforcing the laws on the streets: bikes aren't just recreational, they're a perfectly valid form of transportation that needs to be considered.

Let's go back to the bike trails. Columbus has the Olentangy Trail, that runs along the Olentangy River from Worthington to downtown. There's the Scioto Trail, that currently runs along the Scioto River from just upstream of Confluence Park down to south of Parsons Ave. These are both very nice trails, and recreational cyclists enjoy them greatly.

But what about trails going from the East to West side of town? They're not even considered.

And let's take this one step further - away from designated "bike trails." Are the streets we ride on every day optimally designed for bicycle traffic? Not even close. Ideally, we'd have lanes that are set up like the lanes that are currently being built and improved upon in New York, as seen in this video:



Even "sharrows" - sections of existing streets that have bike-friendly insignia painted on them to remind drivers that bikes are using the road as well as showing bikes where to travel are an improvement over that which we have now... NOTHING.

Until bicycles are considered in the construction plans for our city's streets, it's going to be hard to convince the most important group of all that bicycles do actually belong on the streets - motorists.

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