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How Can Suburbs Join The Bicycling Boom?

| Friday September 9th, 2011 | 2 Comments

It’s finally happening. Circumstances, public opinion and political will have aligned to create massive increases in biking infrastructure and bike sharing across the world. Bike businesses are seeing massive, sustained increases in demand, despite the troubled economic times.

I must admit that with all the rosy reporting on global bike sharing companies and city schemes, I’ve wondered how actual people – potential users of such sophisticated systems – were reacting to them. That goes double for the US, where people often behave in ways contrary to the rest of the world. Especially those less accustomed to the idea of biking.

The bicycling mecca of Portland, Oregon may seem an unlikely place for such insight, but there it was, in a piece BikePortland wrote about last week’s demonstration of two potential bike share systems, B-Cycle and Bixi:

 “I like riding bikes,” said one well-dressed professional prior to a test ride, “but I don’t want to own one. It just seems like such a hassle.”

Bike sharing systems are perfect for professionals. They’ve got an interest in the activity but their perception of bicycle ownership and the responsibilities it entails has kept them from actually using one. Reducing shorter in town trips that they might otherwise use their car for could, collectively, have a substantial impact on noise, pollution, traffic, and their health.

However, another quote from the same article points to an issue that bike sharing has yet to completely address: bicycling in and from the suburbs to cities.

“I heard about this in the newspaper,” said another man on his lunch break, “and it sounded cool. I live in Gresham and would never think about riding all the way into town. But this… yeah.”

This is a point that should not be ignored. While a substantial percentage of the world’s population lives in or are moving to cities, suburbs still exist. In the U.S., 50 percent of the population lives in the suburbs compared to the 30 percent who are city dwellers. Bicycling has not taken off in the suburbs, despite great interest in the activity among suburbanites. According to a recent People For Bikes article:

 “…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.”

Some suburbanites have had such a passion for increased bike access/safety they’ve taken to painting their own bike lanes.

While such temporary solutions are heartening, it’s indicative that more needs to be done to accommodate people’s burgeoning interest in pedal powered transportation. With most suburbs having been designed with cars as the primary mode of transportation, it’s going to take a concerted, sustained effort to see a substantial increase in suburban biking. Road orientation must change, driver education must increase, and a shift perception of the bike (from a recreational device to a serious mode of daily transportation) needs to occur.

However challenging, it must happen.

Readers: How do you see bicycling use in suburbs increasing? Who needs to be involved? Where is it succeeding? 

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Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing.

 

 Image credit: BikePortland.org


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  • Katie M

    I just recently joined our local bike-sharing program, and I love it. However, there is a slight problem with the program as it applies to suburbs.

    At least with B-cycle (the bike sharing program in my city), the entire premise is that you can make most trips in 30 minutes or less. And so, to encourage swift returns of bicycles to a station, they fine you if a single trip takes longer than 30 minutes.

    Within the city, this is not (usually) a problem (unless you get lost). Even if you can’t make it all the way from one side of town to the other inside of 30 minutes, you can always at least make it to another B-cycle station that’s on your route, return the bike, and then check out another and continue on your way. I kind of doubt the same is true for a trip from the suburbs.

    Also, it should be noted that a key component to the success of any bike-sharing program, is that the city already be bike-friendly. I’m fortunate in that I can practically get all the way from my nearest B-cycle station, all the way downtown, and return the bike to the station, without ever leaving the bike paths. Except for a couple of blocks on streets with biking lanes, I never have to ride on the street. This is good, because while I’m a decent bicyclist, I’m certainly not confident riding on busy streets… let alone a highway. I think most people who would be confident riding from suburbs to downtown on main thoroughfares… already own bikes. And in my experience, there are usually just a few really busy roads between suburbs and main cities; bike-friendly ways are a little rarer.

    • Paul Arthur Smith

      That’s good to know Katie. I can see that B Cycle might do that to maintain a high level of inventory availability, but for those that want to take it out for the day or for longer distances, that would I imagine be discouraging, and deter them from regularly/more frequently choosing bike over car. The barriers to that choice need to be removed, not added to!