More good news about bicycling in big cities—but what about the rest of the country?
Positive stories about the growth of urban bicycling continue to pour in. A month ago New York City released its annual bike counts, which found a 14% increase in bicycling. The same week, Boston opened its bike sharing program, New Balance Hubway, while Minnesota expanded its bike share because of its success. This week, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a campaign to build 25 miles of new bike lanes every year—a total of 100 miles by the time his first term ends; and PFB's Bruno Maier was quoted in a story about U.S. cities embracing bicycling.
It’s true, bicycling is booming in many U.S. cities, especially those that are working hard to become more bike-friendly. From 2000 to 2009, bike commuting grew 62% in the 70 largest U.S. cities and 71% in the 31 largest Bicycle Friendly Community-designated cities. That’s compared to 44% for the U.S. as a whole. It’s a great time to ride a bike if you are one of the 30% of Americans who live in the heart of a city, but what about the rest of us? One-fifth of Americans live in a rural area, and 50% live in a metropolitan area but outside of the central city (a.k.a. the suburbs.) How is bicycling faring there?
Not so well, concludes Rutgers University professor John Pucher. “A bicycling renaissance is indeed underway in many cities of North America, but they are islands in a sea of car-dominance,” he writes in a 2011 Transportation Research Journal paper. Lower bicycling levels in suburban and rural areas is due in large part to the urban form and land use that make bicycling for short trips a less attractive option than it is in a city. Roads are less connected and destinations are farther apart. This may be fine for recreational bicycling—open roads with few stoplights are what you want on a 30-mile road bike ride—but not for using the bicycle as an everyday way of getting around (which is the kind of bicycling that is driving its growth, according to Pucher.)
That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to bike for transportation in suburban or rural areas; many people still do. It just means that we’ll have to work harder to grow bicycling outside of cities. The demand is certainly there. Actually, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, rural (75%) and suburban (77%) residents are more likely than urban residents (55%) to say bike lanes are important to them. And even in rural areas, 30% of all trips are two miles or less—an easy biking distance.
The success of bicycling in American cities is inspiring, but our true test will be transforming this entire country, with its widely varying landscape and land use, into a bicycling nation.
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