Dom Nozzi: To be bicycle friendly, first improve walking conditions

Published: Monday, January 18, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 6:06 p.m.

As a lifelong bike commuter, I am generally supportive of much of what is being promoted by bicycle advocates.

Yet despite Gainesville and its cycling advocates paying a lot of lip service to fighting sprawl or increasing the number of bike commuters or reviving our downtown, much bike advocacy has been detrimental to such objectives.

The problem, as I see it, is that bike advocates tend to be mostly recreational bicyclists, have little understanding of the needs of a bike commuter, and have even less of an awareness of quality urban design.

The result is that they tend to sub-optimize on the needs of recreational bicycling. That is, they overemphasize such needs to the detriment of other crucial community needs.

How so? First and foremost, bike advocates will often fight against on-street parking, because it is argued that on-street parking is dangerous to the bicyclist (mostly due to the fear of the "opening car door"). In my opinion, such a fight is terribly counterproductive to not only quality of life, but the interests of bicyclists.

In my years as a city planner, the most important lesson I've learned is that in a low-speed town center, the pedestrian is the design imperative. Not bicyclists. Not transit users. Not motorists. Not Bambi. Not even the disabled.

Getting it right for the pedestrian is the most effective, efficient way to create and promote a community quality of life for all of us. And one of the most important ways to design for the pedestrian is to have on-street parking.

A second way in which many bicycling advocates undercut both a healthy downtown and their own best interest is to advocate in-street bicycle lanes in low-speed town centers (a mistake Gainesville is making in its Main Street project).

Even though I have strongly advocated for bicycle facilities throughout my academic and professional life, I believe bike lanes on low-speed streets such as Main Street are detrimental.

In a low-speed town center, bike lanes will increase motor vehicle speeds, increase motorist inattentiveness, increase crossing distance for pedestrians, and degrade the ability to create a charming ambience.

Bike lanes are important for higher speed suburban streets. But they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. They must fit the context. In some places, such as a town center, bike lanes are inappropriate. In other places, they are essential.

Bike lanes are also unnecessary and counterproductive because a properly designed Main Street will result in low-speed car travel that makes sharing the lane with cars a comfortable experience. For those who feel it is uncomfortable, there are suitable parallel routes nearby.

A healthy downtown depends on a healthy pedestrian environment, as even the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials recognizes. And a healthy downtown is an important way to protect or promote a compact city (an unhealthy downtown accelerates the abandonment of downtown and dispersal of important community destinations to destinations that are too remote to get to by bike, by bus, or by wheelchair).

This is an important reason why bike advocates should be advocates for pedestrian design, particularly for features such as on-street parking. A quality pedestrian design promotes the continuation of a healthy, compact city. A compact city reduces travel distances. Modest travel distances are, of course, crucial in making bike commuting more feasible.

Much more than bike lanes, bike parking, or bike commuter showers in offices, a healthy, compact city is the most effective way to promote more bicycling.

Dom Nozzi was a senior planner for the city of Gainesville for 20 years. He lives in Boulder, Colo.

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