Sunday, April 21, 2013


Many U.S. and Canadian major cities and population centers make promotional efforts to potential visitors describing walker and bicycling friendliness, touting particular promenades and bikepaths, and suggesting these “active modes” make up niche in the community.   In just the last four years led by Montreal seasonal bike-sharing networks starting with rental bicycle kiosks sprung up in many metropolitan with surprisingly huge trip numbers and positive public response.  A new stream of initiatives arises from transportation and community efforts advocating walking, bicycling and public transit as a means of addressing among other concerns better health, global climate change and traffic congestion.
From another entirely different direction comes a wave of economic change driven by workers and employers alike which takes the form of locating work and residency in compact communities—we used to call them cities—where all services are available without a car and home-to-work trips occur primarily through one or more of the three non-car modes—walking, bicycling, and public transit.  The new trend involves living and working without the expense of car ownership.  Car share programs quickly arose to support a primarily non-car lifestyle.
This transition from the auto age—the millennium represents a nice reference point—to the new urban “community transportation age” forces a look as to where we are now heading and those nations—principally Western Europe—where the three key modes already account for 40-50 percent of urban trips, about four times the U.S. 13 percent share of U.S. urban total trips by foot, bicycle and public transit.  By knowing the comparative modal shares, the infrastructure required to support larger shares for non-car trips quickly becomes apparent.
Since a growing segment U.S. urban transportation “consumer” already abandoned the car for other modes, the needs for alternative mode infrastructure—equality with that of the car—can not longer be ignored.   And, a look at the comparison of the U.S. and Canada urban travel by mode to those nations with well established and continuing modal share reveals a truly momentous gap.  
First let’s look at the modals shares for urban trips using the median number of seven Western European countries:
Walking           29%
Bicycling          12%
Public Transit   12%
Median Total Walking, Bicycling and Public Transit:  53%
The U.S. and Canada walking and bicycling urban trip shares are very similar: 
    Walking: Canada 10%  U.S. 9%.
    Bicycling:  Canada 1%   U.S. 1%
    Public Transit: Canada 14%  U.S. 3%
These numbers for the European group versus the U.S. are clear:  European group walking mode shares three times the U.S., and bicycle mode share ten times the U. S.  Ditto for the European group versus Canada.  For public transit modal share, again the European group, 12%, four times the U.S. share, 3%.  The U.S. and Canada similarity in walking and bicycling shares are noteworthy as Canadian gasoline prices are about $2.00 more a gallon and incomes somewhat below U.S. levels.  The point is that modal shares for walking and bicycling are not just a product of gas prices and income—though they do a play a role—but also infrastructure to support those modes.  Note that European gas prices are four to five dollars more a gallon than the U.S. and incomes in some of the nations in the European group (Germany and some of Scandinavia for examples) are higher than the U.S.
The public transit comparison does present a surprise.  The U.S. number, 3% urban trip modal share for public transit is dwarfed by a number four times as large, 12%, for the European group.  But in the case of Canada, 14% of the urban trips are by public transit, two percent above the European group median.  Suffice to say the three major Canadian metropolitan areas—Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver—all feature extensive public transit systems with both Montreal and Toronto possessing subway and commuter rail as well as miles of walker undergrounds.
Clearly North American laws, education, and encouragement related to bicycling and walking modes require advancement.  But regardless of those three areas, without modern infrastructure little change in the modal shares can be attained.  One cannot get to half the West European modal shares—five times the current bicycle modal share here now and half again the walking mode share—through simply cheerleading, better transportation law, and more traffic tickets.  This target, for example, represents shifting more than one in seven urban trips to walking and bicycling.
The infrastructure barriers to more U.S. walking and       bicycling:  cycle track, roundabouts and shared space
The major barrier to increased bicycling and walking numbers in urban North America can easily be identified as Europe which came into the auto age late, had to react to protect a once dominant and safe walking and bicycling increasingly unsafe and repressed by cars.  The reaction came in two forms—traffic calming (increasingly in the form of roundabouts) and cycle track, both developments coming into their own in the last quarter of the 20th century.  Roundabouts literally invented in the U.K. in 1966 began to find its way into North America in the 1990s and today there about 14,000 roundabouts here—and Americans now have at least occasional first-hand experience with this technology.  And traffic calming in one form or another has become widespread.  Cycle track—protected onstreet bike lanes using curbing or planters--only now is beginning to be recognized with Chicago in the process of installing 100 miles of cycle track and Montreal with several curb separated miles of cycle track dating from early in the last decade.  Shared space—a no signs, no signals, no curbs—represents a fusion of roundabouts and traffic calming elements taking advantage of the fact that drivers operating at a few miles and hour will, essentially, interact with human traffic in a friendly way and yield to walkers and bicyclists.  Shared space gets employed primarily in busy retail and tourist contexts. 
If U.S. urban areas aim to multiply their walking and bicycling modal shares, then extensive investments in cycle track, roundabouts (with walker crossings and for bicyclists multi-use paths or bikepath crossings) and shared space infrastructure holds the key. 
How this infrastructure works with the other key mode, public transit, gets addressed in the next post.

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