Velointerlude: Can You Bike There? Beyond Suburban Sprawl

IMG_2185So, the $360,000 question is this: can you make car-dependent sprawlcities and suburbs like Oklahoma City bikeable? If so, why bother?

No, really. If a car-dependent infrastructure has already developed, why try to radically disrupt it for the sake of something that’s foreign to the local way of thinking? Make what arguments you will about pollution, global climate change, the geopolitics of oil, the inefficiency of roads, the health benefits of walking and cycling (or anything but driving), the advantages of urban density, the opportunity to develop space wasted because of a need for parking, or just the fact that traffic sucks, those arguments aren’t going to get very far in a culture adapted to low urban density, dependent on oil and natural gas as an economic driver, resigned to crumbling roads and bridges, where there’s always more land to build on just beyond the current suburbs, and where traffic just isn’t usually that bad (all things considered). So long as you can get from an area that was emu farms 15 years ago to downtown in under half an hour (parking notwithstanding), it’s going to be hard to make an argument that the current paradigm isn’t working.

So what are the tangible advantages of bike and pedestrian infrastructure and development for a community that’s Just Fine with its cars? How do we reduce the number of parked vehicles from at least one per person of driving age to one per household? How can this be made to seem advantageous to individuals, rather than something that’s good for “someone” (you know, someone else) to do for the good of the community?

After all, the benefits to the community—diversified businesses, creating synergy between nearby enterprises and uses, effectively using formerly wasted space—are things that are a bit abstract, things you don’t see for years, things you hardly even notice until it’s pointed out or you’re somewhere they don’t exist; meanwhile, the need to get somewhere now is very immediate and very noticeable. Even things like health benefits or Communing With The World are a bit long term, nebulous, and sometimes fuzzy. I’m sure that biking everywhere has added years to my life expectancy or something, but I won’t get to enjoy those extra years for a while; running errands, that’s today.

When it comes down to it, there are lots of reasons to ride or walk for transit (or to ride and walk in general, with transit being your excuse), but if it’s going to take twice as long, feel unsafe, and get you sworn at, you’re not going to do it. Part of the reason I enjoy biking in DC is how freely I can move through the streets; while cars get stuck behind other cars, or somebody backing out, or a car randomly idling in the middle of a one-way road, I can (legally and safely!) slip past and keep going. Rush hour traffic doesn’t affect me, nor do I have to worry about being stuck behind everyone else at a short light for five cycles. Out in the Vast Undifferentiated Suburban Sprawl, however, things are just too diffuse. Without density, you don’t get congestion and traffic; without congestion, there’s no incentive to try anything besides driving. So we’re stuck with a chicken/egg problem: we can’t create density without a diversified transit infrastructure to support it, but the infrastructure isn’t going to magically come into being without density enough to justify its existence. Really, at the end of the day, driving’s the only thing that makes sense in the VUSS.

Of course, the suburbs aren’t really undifferentiated, now are they?

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: where I’m sitting right now, writing this. I live in an old streetcar suburb, created thanks to the City and Suburban Electric Railway. The two-lane road with bike paths I ride on when I go grocery shopping used to be its old railbed, as is the bike path I take going into DC. The route I take to get coffee passes by the old Maryland State Agricultural College, the oldest continuously operating airfield in the world—founded by the Wright Brothers themselves—a glassblowing studio, and the route taken by Confederate cavalry when they raided Fort Lincoln. Go to a friend’s house, and I pass a prehistoric settlement, DC’s most notorious boxing ring, and a goldfish farm.

Bland? Characterless? Rootless? Don’t think so. Oh, and you can bike there.

This is the thing: not all suburbs are VUSSes. Not all low-density areas are characterless. Not all currently carbound, overparked places are single-use dead zones.


Sometimes, simple works

Treating anywhere that’s not a Hip Urban Center as if it’s simply a bland wasteland, a place even New Urbanists advocate parking over streetscaping in the name of “urban triage”, is a mistake. There are neighborhoods—vibrant, diverse, and growing ones—that do not follow the model of Manhattan as Mecca. These are places that may be walkable or bikeable, where parking may be a nightmare, where the carving and dividing forces of highways would mutilate unique neighborhoods. Some of these neighborhoods grew up before the postwar subdivision boom, and may have old transit infrastructure—like streetcar lines or river paths—that pass through places people want to go and can be repurposed. Many of them have short, pedestrian-friendly blocks, relatively narrow streets that encourage calmer driving and allow pedestrians to safely cross, and interesting, diversified architecture and local color, things easily noticed and appreciated by a pedestrian or curious cyclist. Some of them might even be named “The Stroll,” which seems to suggest an avenue for development, no?

And, being from an earlier age, some of these neighborhoods might be better suited to cyclist and pedestrian development than we might think, with their narrower streets, mature shade trees for Okie summers, short blocks, and smaller, denser lots with taller buildings that block the sun and wind. Many of these neighborhoods were spared the right proper Robert Mosesing of postwar white flight development; abandoned and forgotten in favor of the new subdivisions, these older neighborhoods still retain their unfashionable human-scaled features. In these places, a well thought out wayfinding system—a series of signs that point to one another along good, easy routes and note points of interest people might want to go—is sometimes not just enough, but shockingly effective. Why reinvent the wheel? If you already have streets based around a human scale and human needs, letting people know how to navigate them—and that there are places worth navigating to—can be the most efficient improvement of all. Of course, if you’re feeling really ambitious, you could repurpose the old streetcar lines that fell out of use with the automobile age into paths that direct foot and bike traffic right into the hearts of old neighborhood main streets that were bypassed by the highways and car commuters trying to get out of Dodge…

Yet, these places get written off as “lacking the conditions for proper street life,” whatever that means. I suspect it means they don’t look enough like Greenwich Village, but what do I know? I suppose we could instead think of ways to connect neighborhoods, to counteract the tendency—yes, even in bike and pedestrian infrastructure—to make it easier to move away from places than within them, to encourage the flow between districts that comes so very easily on a bike, where one neighborhood transitions into another, as street and scenery merge and flux, of discovering back ways and moving through neighborhoods rather than passing by them, but that would require admitting that this particular urban Zen isn’t unique to a few sorts of urban areas, but to many.

It would require thinking of cities as more than “hub and spokes,” a central district where people went to and left every day, and outlying areas where they slept. It’s the radical notion that the People’s Republics of Greenbelt, Mount Rainer, and Takoma Park have something to offer in their own rights, rather than simply as satellites of The Real City.™ It’d require completing the evolution of Classen, NW 23rd, and Western from places to put sometimes moving cars to places to look for the city’s most interesting neighborhoods. It’d mean we would have to interact with places that were always human scaled, and meant for humans, in ways that best fit their original character, before they were sacrificed to the needs of an automobile they were ill-suited for. It’d mean we’d have to think like humans rather than cars once more, finding and marking routes through neighborhood back roads and around obstacles, finding once more the freedom of the human scale and human needs, of being reunited with your environment, your neighbors, and yourself. It would require getting over our ingrained classism and snobbery, putting aside our yuppie pretensions, and seeing not just the potential but the work already being done in places we wrote off as boring, soulless sprawl.

And it would mean we’d have to look for these places in locations we weren’t used to looking for them, and might wind up seeing things that some of the prevailing orthodoxy says we just shouldn’t see.

Note: at the same time I was publishing this, Kirk Boydston was publishing this. Maybe looking beyond the centers is becoming A Thing.


38 thoughts on “Velointerlude: Can You Bike There? Beyond Suburban Sprawl

  1. Bring it on! A thought your blog post inspired. If we hope to raise another generation of people who are confident at riding rather than having to drive, then those young people need just the sort of infrastructure and communities you’re talking about. Separate bike, car and pedestrian lanes are important for parents to see.

  2. Awesome. Thanks for sharing. Living in Singapore, a small nation city yet we do not have yhe bike friendly culture that you guys have. I love biking and i very much envy the biking spirit and venfits you get from cycling. The evniroment gets to win so does our health 🙂

  3. Ah yes, it takes awhile for low density neighbourhoods on the edges to wrap their minds around helps if transit is already in their area. An existing alternative transportation option. Then join transit and cycling for multi-modal trips.

    Or shall we start just with ensuring there are sidewalks in the neighbourhood first?

  4. Great! I live in an outer suburban suburb of Sydney that is eminently human scale despite being on the fringes. The railway was built here in the late nineteenth century so city slickers could come here for holidays. Sydney is less than an hour away by train and I commute to work by rail, while inner city dwelling friends drive. And pretty much everything is walkable or bikeable including the national parks that surround it on three sides.

  5. Hear, hear! Living in Karlsruhe, Germany, one of the most bike-friendly cities here with a population of just over 300,000, I not only agree with you, but would submit that driving through different neighborhoods and exploring them gives one a deeper understanding of place, history, and people. In short, it makes you belong and proud. And THAT makes you care.

  6. Living in Austin, TX for 5 years and now currently residing in Taiwan, my wife and I are biking more and more. It really helps that here in Taiwan we don’t have to worry about theft of property! (Very bad bike theft problem in Austin)

    We are really enjoying exploring the small town we currently reside in. Like one other commenter said, you really can’t explore from inside of a car. When we eventually move back to The States we will have to figure something out. But for now, we roll on 2 wheels.

    I really enjoyed your post and it makes me want to visit DC! We had bike paths in Austin, but nothing like what you were describing!

  7. If I understand you correctly, one of the possibilities to encourage cycling is to make the “suburbs” a more attractive place to be in, to work, shop, socialize and not just sleep in. In other words, to shorten the commute. I don’t think it takes a lot of effort – come visit a Dutch suburb and you will find all those things already implemented. I doubt Americans will subscibe but you can give it a try.

  8. Pingback: A cycling question for New Zealand - Cycle Lane

  9. I used to bike several years back and forth to work. It was good for my health and less road incidents with surly drivers. Of course I flipped one morning because some state worker didn’t put a warning around the work area and then the heavy rains. Otherwise it was a good thing for my health, among other things.

  10. Pingback: Velointerlude: Can You Bike There? Urban Progress Goes “Boink” | Intentio Lectoris

  11. There is a certain level of escapism associated with the bicycle. On the one hand, the pleasure of seeing the seething rush hour queuing faces in their traffic jam as you whoopee by them at 10 miles per hour, the insight and intellect it requires to be willing to give up a car for the bicycle in suburbia, overcoming and seeing beyond the snobbery, classism and idiotic attitudes connected with owning an automobile, and not to mention the freedom compared with car insurance, driving licence, taxes, fuel, general maintenance and running costs.

  12. Good post. I bike everywhere I can in London. Outside of London, I’ve biked a good distance, the roads however seem to not support it. So while those beautiful country lanes are ideal cycling, they also make good recreational driving – Sunday drivers. I’m always waiting for that one speedy demon to fly by, not see me, and splat. Not sure if I am contributing here or not, but it does cross my mind when I am not in the city, do drivers anticipate cyclists and are they aware enough to keep the roads safe?

    • In my experience, it depends where you are, and how many cyclists there are/if drivers are aware there may be cyclists. In the heart of DC, drivers expect large numbers of cyclists; move out towards more suburban parts, even within the oddly constrained District limits, and they turn less friendly. Beyond that, it’s place-by-place, street-by-street; I’ve found drivers to be more courteous if you’re in something that has a “neighborhood” look and feel, if there’s something that looks like bike infrastructure (even if it’s just wayfinding signs or painted lanes), and if there’s another cyclist with me. If cycling is normalized, people expect it and work with it; if pedestrians and cyclists are seen as interlopers, not so much.

      • Exactly my experience. But oddly in the UK (perhaps because the country is so much more condensed) they are a bit more courteous generally speaking, especially for having such narrow roads. I was in Tampa about a year ago and noticed that bike lanes had been added. Big, wide lanes – but sadly no one used them. Outside of children biking around their neighborhoods I did not see anyone on a bike. Really does speak to your article.

  13. Those that argue against your logic apparently have never lived in oklahoma never the less OKC. Part of the problems that exist are that some bikes do not follow all the traffic rules then get mad that a car came anywhere close to them.
    I’ve been to bike friendly cities like DC and New York. They understand where there place is. But I live in the out skirts of KC Missouri. Not so much. We have bike trails and bike routes. But yet the pedellers refuse to use them. They want to ride on the major thoroughfares. Which during rush is dangerous.

  14. Interesting “article”. I am a bike rider. I moved to the country two years ago and MISS the wonderful bike trails St George, UT has meticulously laid out with plans to expand and connect to destinations a long ways away from one another. I’m retired so I ride for pleasure and exercise. I had some routine routes I would take daily, my favorite ran alongside the Virgin River running through St George. My neighborhood was situated on a hillside so there were some rough patches up uphill biking that I would actually have to weave back and forth across the road (after leaving the trails) to make it. I have more to say on this but this text box is hard to write in! Suffice it to say, I enjoyed your post and am fascinated with the few movies I’ve seen of bike carriers they use in the big cities!

  15. I think about this *all the time* – urban density is great, but a lot of us would be truly miserable in an urban environment. I live in a suburb of Philadelphia that was a town in it’s own right long before Philadelphia’s gradual expansion to the point of bumping up against it. Beautiful old buildings, old trees, narrow streets, two town centers, very walkable – and generally people are courteous and friendly. I skate (inline skates) all the time, but I stick to the residential streets. On a bike it gets more awkward – the main roads are wider, faster, and more dangerous, the drivers grumpier and scarier. And a lot of the less-traffic-filled roads that move directly from place to place are still high speed roads, but with no shoulder. Like one of the other commenters, I worry about that one inattentive cell-phone wielding average driver – and then SPLAT. But still – there’s a lot of possibility here. Just a few bike lanes in the *right* places would make a world of difference. But the thing that keeps me, and so many others, driving when we’d *like* to bike is the sheer distance we have to travel to get to where we work. I feel very attached to the community I live in, both my neighborhood and my neighbors. And with the economy as it’s been, there’s less leeway to change jobs or to sell my house and move to a different neighborhood (even if I wanted to move). It’s a goal of mine, to try to find a good job I can bike to. It would help if public transportation was faster. We have trains and buses – not a great system, but workable. Simply offering more frequent service would make a world of difference. But – supply and demand, demand and supply. It takes me 40 minutes each way to drive to work, which is already on the very outer edge of what I consider a “doable” commute. If I combined biking or skating with the train, it would take at least an hour and a half each way, with no wiggle room for having to stay a few minutes late or leave a few minutes early. I’m convinced there is a way to shift things here, both the infrastructure and the culture, to make life more bikeable – but I don’t quite know what it is.

  16. Thank you for you post! I’m a german who chose to live without a car. It wS very easy in Germany and also traveling the world was fun. Now I’m living in the US and it feels a bit awkward. For heavens sake Santa Fe, NM is a wonderful cycling city. They built beautiful trails far away from cars along mainly dry rivers. So my 10-15 mile commutes are beautiful trips here. Also we have really good side walks in most areas. But I think the city invested already for decades into building up this system:).

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