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The coronavirus pandemic forced cities across the U.S. this year to remold their streets to create more space for pedestrians and bicyclists, which previously belonged to cars. Taking advantage of the sudden drop-off in car traffic, transportation departments began closing streets to give people more space to roam while designating temporary bike lanes to accommodate a pandemic-era surge in cycling.
And while the pandemic highlighted some cities’ ability to innovate, it also ultimately thrust the country’s long standing lack of good biking infrastructure into the spotlight. Though some cities in the U.S. have decent bike lanes, they pale in comparison to the ones found in European metropolises like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, which have spent decades building out highly developed and widely utilized biking networks.
Sadly, the same can’t be said about our country. Why haven’t those ways of thinking haven’t taken hold here? Why did it take a global pandemic to force major cities to step up their efforts and remold themselves in a few months instead of over the course of many decades?
As explained on a Business Insider article, mobility and urban planning experts have said that cycling’s relatively brief periods of popularity, transportation departments’ reactionary and car-centric planning habits, and the auto industry’s war to cement cars as the primary way of getting around — both on streets and in the American cultural consciousness — ultimately made the country fall behind many of its European counterparts.
Evan Friss, a historian at James Madison University, told Business Insider that the current obsession with biking is simply the latest in a more than two-centuries-long boom and bust cycle. He explained that as biking saw brief surges in popularity followed by decades-long drops in public interest, there was rarely enough sustained enthusiasm and momentum for lasting infrastructure improvements to take hold.
Friss said the first major boom came in the 1890’s, when the modern bicycle as we know it hit the streets: “Americans in cities across the country began dreaming up these cycling cities and thinking about how their lives, their culture, their society [would] be altered by having an affordable — eventually — private form of transportation, which never really existed before.”
But interest faded around the turn of the century — a trend that would repeat itself numerous times. By the Great Depression, when people flocked to bikes in large numbers again, the infrastructure of the 1890’s was gone. During the oil crisis in the early 1970’s, car owners opted for bicycles yet again, which spurred a new emphasis on building bike lanes and bike-safety publicity campaigns. But, as Friss said, that all eventually died out too.
He explained that when bicycles experience popularity they do so, not because, but in spite of the lack of infrastructure. “[Cities] start to build infrastructure, but usually the periods of popularity are so brief that there’s not much staying power to them.”
Tabitha Combs, a researcher of transportation planning and policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Business Insider that many European cities famous for their strong cycling networks were able to develop them because their transportation departments think top-down rather than bottom-up.
This is not the case here, though. U.S. transportation departments take into account anticipated demand when planning and funding new roadways, but they’re much more reactionary when it comes to pedestrian and bike projects, according to Combs. “When it comes to walking and bicycling, most state DOTs and most local DOTs wait until there is a demonstrated demand, meaning there’s a worn path on the side of the road where people are walking, or — as dark and morbid as it sounds — enough people are killed crossing a multi-lane road that eventually action is warranted,” she told BI.
As multiple experts have explained, many cities that have succeeded in building out biking infrastructure overseas did so as part of a concerted move to get people on bikes and push their cities in a more sustainable direction and not just to meet existing demand. And as Combs explained, European transportation officials understood the negative environmental impact of car dependence much earlier than their U.S. counterparts, and they began shaping city streets accordingly.
But while previous biking booms in the U.S. tended to fizzle out in a few years, the latest one — which began in the mid 2000s — continues to this day. This is partially because it has seen a substantial push for initiatives that don’t just meet demand, but also promote sustainability and get more people to ride.
Sam Schwartz, a transportation consultant and former New York City traffic commissioner, told BI that the general attitude within the government that road projects take precedence over biking or pedestrian initiatives persists.
“We have a budget in New York State and New York City over the next 10 years of about $25 billion for roads and bridges. The Queens Ribbon [Schwartz’ proposed pedestrian and cycling bridge going into lower Manhattan] would be about $100 million. And I can’t find anyone in government willing to take it seriously.”