By Sam Hare Steig, CCLR Program Assistant
January 30th, 2018
On November 10th my friend Aidan Bass and I completed a bike tour from Boston to San Francisco. We crossed 16 states in 80 days and biked a total of 4,800 miles. We biked through almost 10 different cities where we experienced firsthand the best and worst of urban planning. From my current perch at the Center for Creative Land Recycling, this experience compelled me to look at the benefits of prioritizing cycling infrastructure and how city planning -- of which land reuse is a critical component -- can improve bikeability, especially for commuters.
Our route: Boston, MA -- Washington D.C. -- Charlottesville, VA -- Colorado Springs, CO -- Las Vegas, NV -- Ventura, CA -- San Francisco, CA.
Investing in cycling infrastructure reduces cities’ environmental impacts. Biking minimizes dependence on cars, which consume large amounts of fossil fuels. The process of manufacturing cars also requires tons of materials, many of which are toxic and difficult to dispose of. Automobile routes are also less efficient, and take up far more physical road than bike routes.
Illustration of greater space efficiency by bus and bike versus car travel (Humantransit.org)
Building wide roads for cars means a loss of valuable urban real estate which has many environmental costs. These include a loss of open space and farmland, elimination of flood drainage, increased impacts to storm water and water quality, and other direct impacts that result from creating, installing, and maintaining paved surfaces.
There are also economic benefits to investing in cycling infrastructure. A report done by the League of American Bicyclists found that biking boosts revenue for local businesses, bolsters the economy of municipalities through bicycle tourism, and has numerous health benefits. When bike infrastructure is in place, people are more likely to not only buy bikes but also shop at local stores and businesses -- all of which support the local economy. When a commuter decides to buy a bike rather than a car, they save money. That capital can then be directed elsewhere such as local shops or restaurants. In fact, a study done by the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium showed that consumers can end up spending more at restaurants, bars and convenience stores each month if they use a bicycle as their main form of transportation rather than a car. Consumers using cars only exceeded cyclists in monthly spending at supermarkets because of their ability to carry more food.
In my own experience, I’ve found that when I’m biking I’m more likely to enter a store than if I was driving. This might be because of easy parking, a greater sense of connection to my surroundings or simply that biking burns calories. On our trip, Aidan and I would eat around 8,100 calories a day, more than three times the average male (my middle school algebra teacher’s son actually did the math). We would often stop at a local restaurant or, if we could find one, a buffet. As a result, we supported many local business along the way.
Biking for leisure offers another economic benefit to cities: people often use bicycling to find pleasure, adventure and autonomy through rides organized by businesses, clubs or charities. This industry bring in millions of dollars to cities and towns across the country. Health benefits from biking also improve the economy. On average, people who bike commute are healthier, taking fewer days off work and saving on health care and insurance costs.
While biking through cities across the U.S., I noticed a correlation between urban sprawl and bike accessibility. The cities that were the most spread out were also the ones that were most difficult to bike through. Aidan and I biked through both Las Vegas and San Francisco. I did not see a single other bicyclist in Las Vegas. In San Francisco, one can rarely look around without seeing someone on a bike. San Francisco is also the second densest city in the U.S, with a sprawl index score of 194.28 out of the 221 cities rated. (The score is created by denoting points for certain aspects of the city that correlate to density, so the higher the score, the less sprawl.) In 2015, Bike Score ranked San Francisco the thirteenth most bikeable city in the country with a rating of 75.1 out of 100. Las Vegas, on the other hand, has a sprawl index score of 121.20 and a bike score of 52.0, making it the 88th most bikeable city in the country out of the 154 cities rated.
Traffic jam in Seattle
The correlation between urban sprawl and poor cycling infrastructure makes sense for two reasons. First, sprawling cities require many roads, which are expensive. It becomes easy to leave out any extra features, like bike lanes, to keep costs low. Ironically, even when certain features are omitted, sprawl still costs more. Second, as the distance between the workplace and home grows, commuters need to move larger distances with greater speed, forcing them to use cars. To move cars quickly, cities build bike-unfriendly roads like major arterials or highways. One example of this are the roads connecting Las Vegas to surrounding towns such as Barstow. On our trip, Aidan and I had to reach Barstow from Las Vegas. The only possible route took us on US-95 and I-40. It was extremely dangerous: shoulders were skinny and littered with broken glass, car parts and roadkill. We simultaneously had to avoid these obstacles while trying not to get squashed by cars going up to seventy miles an hour. We experienced firsthand the consequences of historic engineering decisions that focused on moving large volumes of cars as fast as possible.
Unfortunately, today’s cities aren’t focusing inwards. There has been a steady de-densification of urban settlements by 2% per year. One way to reverse this process and build denser, more sustainable cities is through infill development, such as the redevelopment of vacant land, sometimes called brownfields. The U.S. is littered with brownfields. Along our tour, Aidan and I would often camp at an abandoned house, gas station, or store when we needed a dry place to stay for the night. We saw only a small fraction of the estimated 450,000 brownfields properties in the United States. If cities develop these sites it can save valuable greenfields -- open space, agricultural land, and habitat. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 1 acre of infill development is estimated to save 4-5 acres of greenfields. Infill development utilizes existing infrastructure and amenities that may be within public transportation, walking, or biking distance. If cities focus their development inward by redeveloping underutilized land, it will increase their density and encourage city planners to invest in cycling infrastructure, improving the economy and alleviating environmental impact.
CCLR’s work with local governments and community groups often uses land use as a way to approach mobility. In Oakland, California, CCLR worked with BRIDGE Housing on its MURAL project, which transformed a former parking lot and gas station into 90 units of affordable housing right next to Oakland’s MacArthur BART Station. MURAL is the first phase of what will eventually become the MacArthur Transit Village, which will provide housing at this important transit hub and enhance mobility throughout the surrounding community. Residents at MURAL can already easily walk to trains and buses, or use their bicycles on many of the surrounding bike lanes.
In a separate Vision to Action, is CCLR working with Anacortes, WA and its Parks Department to explore how an underutilized, former industrial waterfront can become a bicycling and walking trail, and how this trail can help bring new uses to several former canneries. Activities from aquaculture to retail are actively being explored.
When city planners do decide to focus their development inward and design an urban center for more than just cars, the results are notable. Rather than strip malls and highways, we see tight knit neighborhoods easily accessible by foot, bike or public transit. It only takes me about an hour to bike across San Francisco and in that time I cross over at least ten different neighborhoods, each with its own unique sense of “place.” In his article entitled “The Place Making Dividend”, Urban Land Institute Fellow Edward T. McMahon defines a place as “more than just a location or a spot on a map. A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, and environmental – that provides meaning to a location.” When city planners stop focusing on moving large amounts of cars fast and start focusing on how people can easily navigate an urban center through walking, biking and public transportation, they create cities with a greater sense of place, and as McMahon points out, that yields its own long-lasting returns.
I hope that when future generations of bicycle tourists venture across the country, they will pass through cities that have invested in cycling infrastructure not only because they value the environmental and economic benefits, but also because they understand the correlation between building for bikes and building a dense, culturally rich, and easily accessible city.