Do Bike Paths Promote Bike Riding?

The answer is both yes and no — it would seem that the devil is in the details. And how do you define “bike path” and “bike lane” exactly? Some new studies have come out recently with somewhat conflicting findings:

A recent study of Seattle residents found that those living near bike paths had an increased likelihood of riding, but saw no effect for bike lanes. Then again, a study in Minneapolis reached the opposite conclusion. Some recent work has found no connection between bike lanes and ridership levels at all. In short, the research picture is far from settled.

A third study finds that bike lanes and bike paths are about equal in their correlation to higher levels of bike commuting, but note that “bike lane” covers ANY facility that’s on-road, which makes it hard to determine anything more specific about the different kinds of on-road facilities (i.e. are bike boulevards better at encouraging ridership than 6 foot bike lanes on busy arterials? This study makes no distinction between wildly different facilities). Another recent study from Oxford found that it’s “traffic-free paths in urban areas separated from motor cars that are the most popular, carrying two thirds of all the network’s bike trips.” But the study concluded that while traffic-free paths encouraged recreational riding, that didn’t correlate to an increase in the use of bicycling for everyday trips to the store or to work, etc. This one study’s final conclusion:

More specifically, provision of good quality separate cycling facilities alongside heavily travelled roads and linking to everyday facilities that people need to use, self-enforcing speed restrictions using traffic calming and more intelligent design across residential neighbourhoods, coupled with making driving expensive and inconvenient in central urban areas through various restrictions on car use and car parking. Encouraging the public on to the ‘nursery slopes’ of Sustrans style traffic-free paths in order to acquire the skills for cycling on the road network for everyday purposes seems unlikely to create a mass modal shift away from journeys by car.

But how does this apply to Tucson with our network of neighborhood streets and our Urban Loop car-free path? It’s hard to tell. These studies show that it’s not as simple as just mapping what works in other places onto our own region. What makes sense to me, though, is that if you create the opportunity for people to be able to ride their bikes to places they want to go — and make it so they’re not scared of getting hit by a car while they’re doing it — they’re more likely to start riding. And the more people start riding, the more engrained in the culture bike riding can become, so that cars are more used to seeing people on bikes and know how to behave around them.

But even more interesting is the “stick” part of the carrot and the stick model: making parking and driving in urban areas more difficult and expensive. The University of Arizona has done an excellent job of this (both by necessity and choice), and it’s been really effective: ridership rates in some districts around the U of A are in the double digits (as opposed to 2.9% regionally). But this is also a lot more controversial, especially when it comes to businesses that believe that a lack of parking is a real threat to economic viability. I think the missing link here is that an increased rate of housing and residency in the downtown core makes the parking unnecessary. You don’t need to sacrifice our streets (and your sidewalk space!) to car storage when your customers live two blocks away. The UA campus is one of the densest employment centers in the city, and it’s also one of the most pleasant places in town to walk and bike.

But back to bike paths: I would love to see a study that interviews riders on various facilities in town to determine how many are recreational riders, and how many of those are also commuters. And for those who aren’t, why aren’t they? And how about everyday people who live near enough to school and work to bicycle, but don’t — what’s holding them back? With any luck the upcoming results from the U of A bicycle/pedestrian plan may have some answers for us.

Read the full story at The Atlantic:

2 Responses to Do Bike Paths Promote Bike Riding?

  1. Interesting article. Thanks for posting.

  2. Eric Jenkins says:

    I only have my first-hand knowledge. As bike paths have increased in my city (Edmonton, Alberta) over the last 20 years, I have seen more people using them. As I commute to work, I see more regular commuters every year.
    Talking to people who might potentially ride their bikes as a form of transport, the number 1 concern I hear is that people are afraid of riding on the road with traffic.