Should Cycle Paths Look More Like Automobile Freeways?

Traffic In Copenhagen

Photo Courtesy Of The Cycling Embassy of Denmark


In many parts of the world, city planners are looking for ways to get more people on bicycles. Each country has specific reasons for wanting to increase bicycle use, but most share certain things in common.

Traffic congestion is a fact of modern life. It brings cities to a standstill. And the unforgivingly fast pace of 21st century life aggravates the problem by bringing more cars onto the roads.

Congested cities harbor pollution, which can lead to numerous illnesses. And the inability to freely move from one place to the next causes stress and frustration.

These things, along with the promotion of good health, fuel the move towards reducing the number of cars on the roads.

Bicycling is a natural choice for motor vehicle replacement. It’s faster than walking, and can even be faster than driving, when traffic is at its peak.

So far, most countries have implemented a piecemeal approach to providing cycling accommodations. Bike lanes are placed on roads where bicycle traffic is highest, with little thought to continuity.

In response to this problem, Denmark, a country known for its high number of cyclists, has recently opened a cycle superhighway. It is the first of 26 routes scheduled to be built. The goal is to encourage more people to commute by bicycle to and from Copenhagen.

The superhighway, a glorified bike path, was built despite the fact that 50 percent of the people in that area already commute by bike. Many countries would be satisfied with such numbers, but Copenhagen wanted to be better, so they turned their sights on suburban commuters because this group was the one most likely to commute by car or public transportation.

Most cyclists in that area ride within a three mile radius. Getting people to take longer rides was the only way they could entice suburban commuters to ride to work by bike.

Finding a way to do this was not easy. But they found a way — making the cycle paths look like automobile freeways.

An idea of this sort might be expected in a country like the U.S., where cars are the dominant source of transportation and cyclists constitute a small minority. But it seems odd in a country where bicycle ridership is so high.

Although the idea could be implemented in both countries, culturally, the concept would have different meanings. In Denmark, a bicycle freeway represents continuity.

With a history of different standards among municipalities, bicycle paths can have stretches of subpar pavement, inadequate lighting or maintenance problems.

U.S. bike paths have similar problems. Yet  a bicycle freeway would have a different connotation. It would conjure up images of speed, just like its automobile counterparts. Continuity, while nice to have, would be secondary.

The concept of a bicycle freeway might appeal to Americans who want to get cyclists off of the roads. But the idea could backfire, since it could result in a “separate but equal” mentality whereby cyclists would be relegated to separate bike paths and prohibited on the roads.

Introducing such a concept into American culture might prove difficult because allocating space for a bicycle freeway, in areas of high traffic, might be perceived as encroaching on automobile territory.

Copenhagen is also proposing bicycle superhighway features which would never fly in the U.S., such as timing traffic lights during rush hour to benefit cyclists. In addition, they are considering “conversation” lanes to allow cyclists to ride two abreast for the purpose of socializing. With the amount of hostility towards cyclists riding side by side on the roads, a proposal of this type could generate a lot of motorist and cyclist conflict.

It’s not hard to understand why the citizens of Denmark are purported to be happier than Americans. Among other measures they have instituted in Copenhagen is a “karma campaign,” whereby city employees take to the streets with boxes of chocolate to reward cyclists who adhere to the rules of cycling.

The rules  cyclists are expected to abide by are similar to those in the U.S except for the one about being nice. Americans are rarely nice on the roads —  and even a good box of chocolate won’t fix that.

In previous centuries, cities were more compact. Rather than being jammed up with cars, they were filled with people milling about. A city’s hustle and bustle came from a sea of humans, not an ocean of cars. Then, mass flight to the suburbs created the freeway mindset. A hop onto the freeway meant avoiding the din of a city by living farther away, while still allowing easy access to it.

Maybe capitalizing on the idea of freeways for bicycles would alter perceptions about traveling by bicycle. On the other hand, using this approach, bicycles might be too closely equated with cars.

For the time being, the U.S. should stick to the concept of bicycle paths as something unique to bicycles. Americans aren’t ready for drastic cultural changes. But if things go well when other countries experiment with these things, they could become more palatable to the average American, even if they have to go by a different name to be accepted.

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