Short, habitual, solitary

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“In high-income cities, car commutes tend to be short, habitual, solitary trips in congested traffic.”

That’s the opening sentence of a study by public health researchers about the potential of different policies to increase bicycle commuting.

The string of adjectives — short, habitual, solitary — reminded me of a quote from philosopher Thomas Hobbes, that the life of man is “solitary, poor, brutish, and short.” The ultimate source, Wikipedia, says that Hobbes felt this was particularly true if life in society was not regulated.

Which brings us to different kinds of bicycle infrastructure. What options have the best chance of making life — and particularly getting places — less brutish? 

Noting that commuting by driving gets people to work and school and enables “households to manage competing responsibilities,” the public health article captured (in unusually pithy language) the negative effects of trips made by driving alone. They make “a greater contribution to road traffic injury, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, noise, and stress than other kinds of light vehicle trips.” Switching more trips to “active transport would bring environmental, health, social, and equity benefits,” they said.

So, what options have the best chance of making commutes less brutish?

Interestingly, the article, which focuses on Auckland, New Zealand, is very relevant to recent experience in and plans for the Twin Cities. The researchers compared different approaches to bicycle infrastructure.

The first policy option was to create a Regional Bicycle Network by adding bicycle lanes to about half of all main roads, along with more off-road paths. This approach is similar some of what was achieved by the federally funded Bike Walk Twin Cities project (which was administered by my employer, Transit for Livable Communities). BWTC funding vastly expanded the system of bike lanes in Minneapolis and surrounding communities. One goal of BWTC was to create on-street connections to existing off-road paths along the Mississippi River, around the lakes, and into the suburbs (e.g., the Luce Line Trail or Cedar Lake Trail).

The second policy option matches up with the current push by the City of Minneapolis to install a system of protected bicycle routes. The researchers call this Arterial Segregated Bicycle Lanes.

“We simulated the effect of gradual implementation of a one-way physically segregated lane on each side of every arterial road in the region by 2051,” said the researchers. The City of Minneapolis approved a Climate Action Plan in 2013 recommending implementation of 30 miles of on-street protected bike facilities by 2020.

The third option focused on street design. The researchers simulated a gradual transformation of local “through roads” into low-speed streets using “features such as street narrowing, trees, and art.” They call this approach Self-Explaining Roads. This is a particularly wonky term for street design that naturally makes drivers go slower. Narrower, complicated streets make people slow down, and slower speeds reduce the severity of crashes. As Jeff Speck says in “Walkable City” (to which I turned to try to understand Self-Explaining Roads), “Each and every aspect of the built environment sends its own cue to drivers.” While many (unfortunately) say “speed up,” it is possible to design cues to slow down.

In Minneapolis, examples of these “slow-down” cues include residential traffic circles, such as those along the 5th Street Bicycle Boulevard or along 43rd street from Upton to Xerxes in Linden Hills. The RiverLake Greenway and the Southern Connector Bicycle Boulevard have other features, such as raised crosswalks, curb bump-outs, and diverters or medians that make auto traffic turn. The BWTC program funded many of these routes, with their abundant “self-explaining” features.

So, what works best?

Ta Da! The research found that any one of the policy changes would result in increased bicycling, but a combination of self-explaining roads and arterial segregated bicycle lanes proved the greatest benefit for the buck. Or, as the researchers put it, “transforming urban roads over the next 40 years, using best practice physical separation on main roads and bicycle-friendly speed reduction on local streets, would yield benefits 10–25 times greater than costs.”

They looked specifically at safety, better health from reducing inactivity, and air pollution and emissions. They found that the share of commute trips by bicycling would reach 20-40 percent by 2040. It would take longer to hit Auckland’s target of having more than 80 percent of people considering bicycling safe or mostly safe, but that the combination of protected bike ways and slower streets were the policies to make this happen. 

Healthier commuters, cleaner air, a more widespread feeling of safety on the roads? Definitely better than solitary and brutish.

Hilary Reeves is communications director for Transit for Livable Communities, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to reform the state’s transportation system.