Tuesday, April 2, 2013



Americans know first hand cars still dominate urban transportation—and anyone who travels to other advanced nations, particularly Western Europe, experiences what our transportation system could offer—sensible and safe walking, bicycling and public transportation along with supporting infrastructure for each mode.  

While ten percent of urban trips here are walking (nine percent) and bicycling (one percent), European urban trip shares typically amount to double digits for each non-car mode.  Public transit share of urban trips here?  Just three percent.  Even Canada with similar walking and bicycling shares reaches 13 percent public transit share and almost double the U.S. total of walking, bicycling and public transit share of urban trips of 13 percent.  America today truly presents a picture of un-transportation.

The solution to the urban U.S. un-transportation can, thankfully, follow the discoveries and applications of treatments now decades old in Europe.  Europe always did have an excellent rail passenger train network now featuring a new plateau of service provided by high speed rail lines which criss-cross the continent and extend to the British Isles through the Chunnel.  (The Europeans actually copied the first major high speed rail line, built in Japan, which has yet to experience a single fatality in more than a half century of operation.) 

There exist three major walking and bicycling innovations in Europe which provide both mobility and safety even on busy streets and thoroughfares.  For street sections sidewalks remain the key to the walking mode.  But for bicycles the invention of the cycle track—bicycle lanes protected from parked vehicles and travel lanes by curbs, cones or planters—provide an equality of the bicycle enjoyed by only cars and walkers in the past.   Cycle tracks emerged towards the end of the last century as a solution to the growth of car travel in Europe which caused ever increasing fatalities to bicyclists and in many cases crowding the bicycle off busy streets altogether.  (The story of cycle track in the Netherlands at UTube  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuBdf9jYj7o  provides an excellent history of cycle track emergence and applications.)

The second innovation dates from 1966 in the U.K.—the modern roundabout.   With over 3,000 roundabouts in the U.S. and Canada now this intersection device performs magic—it cuts serious injuries and fatalities upwards of 90 percent, reduces delay for all users and cuts both gasoline consumption and pollutants by sizeable amounts.  While walkers and car occupant injury studies found indisputable benefits for both, bicyclist safety impacts were mixed.  For bicyclists smaller roundabouts do provide a modest safety gain—and now on/off ramps are being introduced, a treatment aimed at less expert bicyclists.  Further, the provision of a separate bicycle path or multi-use path at intersections assures a definite increment of safety for bicyclists at single lane roundabouts and likely one at multi-lane roundabouts.  A pathway for bicyclists at roundabouts needs to become standard practice.  For bicyclists, cycle track along street segments combined with roundabouts with a separated pathway present an infrastructure improvement unlocking the bicycling mode in urban America.

The overall category “traffic calming” represents the third innovation in bicycling and walking infrastructure, again a set of evolving treatments first developed in Europe and quickly adopted in the United States starting in the 1990s with the first emphasis  here their use on local streets.   Speed humps/tables/bumps, bulb-outs, median diverters, and also roundabouts are just examples of literally dozens of traffic calming designs.  Speed constraints on traffic provide a safer and more comfortable environment for walking and bicycling.   Traffic calming provides that environment.   For example, vehicle yielding to walkers reaches 100% when speeds at intersections are in the range of 0-10 mph.  The safest environment for walking and bicycling—again, a European innovation—is “shared space” where a number of traffic calming treatments are applied in a defined area where walkers and bicyclists retain the right of way over vehicles.

The three innovations—cycle track, roundabouts and traffic calming—apply to the walking and bicycling modes.  But efficient and effective public transit depends on a walkable, bikable community.  U.S. urban designer Peter Calthorpe emphasizes a walkable community must be in place for successful public transportation services.

Making a transportation system in the United States means investing heavily for the first time in the infrastructure for walking and bicycling at a rate of tens of billions of dollars yearly for a decade or so—that is just the federal level of funding required.  That level of funding leads to lower support costs for existing public transportation but also a much greater demand for new public transportation routes and services, particularly commuter rail and light rail. 

The payoff for these investments is clear.  First these investments promise reduced injury and fatality rates for all modes.   Car dependency declines along with associated urban congestion, improved air quality, and reduced energy consumption.  Health benefits from more walking and bicycling occur.  And perhaps most important, higher levels of urban density arise which in turn reduces car travel and fosters greater use of public transportation and the “active modes” of walking and bicycling.  The American economy benefits from the presence of an efficient transportation system and the disappearance of our current urban carcentric “un-transportation.”

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