Bicycling and the New Urbanism
Last week, Bikes Belong President Tim Blumenthal presented at the 19th Congress for the New Urbanism in Madison, Wisconsin. The New Urbanism is a highly influential movement among urban planners, architects, real estate developers, and others that promotes walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and sustainable communities.
Tim's session was about the role of bicycling in the New Urbanism, and in particular the 5% area where the two movements aren't always perfectly aligned (it was accepted that goals of New Urbanists and bicycle advocates are 95% in agreement.)
One panelist suggested (a sentiment I tend to agree with) that the New Urbanists are about 10 years behind when it comes to understanding the rich array of tools available to cities to make bicycling a convenient, comfortable and everyday transportation choice.
Countering that position, another panelist argued that if you build streets properly according to New Urbanist principles (narrow, slow and traffic-calmed), no bike facilities are necessary because cars and bikes move at roughly the same speed and can easily share space. Adding modern facilities like buffered bike lanes and cycle tracks requires wider roadways, which can negatively impact the sense of enclosure on the street, types of trees, sidewalk dimensions, colors, textures and other critical design details that make great places great.
The "bike facilities aren't necessary on well-designed streets" panelist gently criticized (another sentiment I agree with) bicycle advocates who sometimes become too narrowly focused on bike facilities in the roadway and fail to appreciate the impact they have on sense of place and good urbanism.
However, simply building it right from the beginning isn't particularly relevant or realistic in the context of urban America. Nor is 100% shared space a successful strategy for attracting new people to bicycling. Even with patient, slow cars and idyllic, narrow streets, there is simply a large portion of the population (disproportionately comprised of women, children and the elderly) who will think twice about riding a bike when it means they must compete for space with 4,000 pound cars. We must recognize that bicycles are not simply small cars, nor are they pedestrians with wheels.
This is a healthy debate. I think it's true that the New Urbanism has an outdated understanding of bicycling, but it's equally true that bicycling advocacy doesn't always have a strong understanding of good urbanism. We have the same vision: safer, healthier, more beautiful, and more just communities.