Smarter Living: Getting About

biking in the city

Photo: Julien Hery

Being able to walk and bike safely and conveniently in your city means more than having a pleasant way to get around. It also indicates what your city is doing to become smarter and more environmentally friendly: encouraging alternative modes of transit, developing more densely to avoid urban sprawl, and creating attractive public spaces with a purpose. While it’s great that the government has purchased clunkers and offered cash for higher-mileage cars, it’s even more important to create spaces that allow people to leave their cars at home.

Of course, a car-centric city can’t turn into Amsterdam overnight. (In Amsterdam, trips by bicycle actually surpass those taken by car, and the number is rising.) Bike- and pedestrian-friendly changes often require new engineering (safe paths and bridges) or a change in urban planning (spurning urban sprawl and encouraging denser development for more feasible car-free commutes). But sometimes, all it takes is education on the topic and a little encouragement from the city.

Biking

From large cities to small, safe bicycling is being made a transportation priority. Cities with sizes and issues as different as New York; Minneapolis; Irvine, California; and Columbus, Ohio, have implemented dedicated bicycle lanes on city streets, giving cyclists a safe place to commute alongside cars. Portland, Oregon, which may very well be the country’s most bike-friendly city, has gone so far as to create “bike boxes” at intersections, which extend on-road bike lanes to a designated spot in front of car traffic at stoplights and make cyclists more visible to drivers.

Installations of bike racks throughout a city can also encourage cycling as a mode of transport. Denver’s bike-friendly 2008 Democratic National Convention prompted the city to install new racks that have remained in place, and the success of the convention’s bike-sharing program has inspired Denver to become one of the first U.S. cities to implement the program for daily use, allowing residents to check out bikes for travel and return them to another station. Even smaller cities, like Nashua, New Hampshire, are installing bike racks on city buses for a multi-modal commute. Other cities host bicycle safety classes or have increased signage to remind drivers to be aware of their two-wheeled companions on the road.

Often, it is schools and employers that do the most to encourage safe cycling. They promote Bike to School and Bike to Work days (as do many cities, like San Francisco, which saw 200,000 commuters opt for bikes during the 15th annual Bike to Work day in 2009) and often provide maps of bike path networks. Encourage your employer or your child’s school to do the same. Not only will it reduce your carbon footprint, but it will promote exercise and good health.

Walking

When it comes to walkability, certain cities and communities have an advantage over others, based on the density of their development. It is no surprise that the top-ranking cities on the walkability Web site WalkScore.com are San Francisco and New York. Because these high-population cities grew up within natural boundaries (the peninsula of San Francisco and the island of Manhattan) and maintained their public transportation infrastructure, they did not face the low-density, car-dependent sprawl that has spawned the transportation issues of so many American cities.

Density alone, however, is not enough. Sidewalks are an obvious necessity, and they must be maintained and attractive, with enough space for people to walk together and pass other pedestrians without stepping into the street. Trees and landscaping between sidewalk and the street not only help maintain a comfortable distance from traffic but also provide shade and absorb some of the contaminants from exhaust. When paths, trails and sidewalks are linked (avoiding interstates and highways), cities open up to pedestrian exploration, allowing residents to make trips by foot that they might otherwise take by car. Attractive public spaces such as plazas, squares, parks, fountains, community gardens and places for public art provide gathering points and give neighborhoods a focus that both sprawling suburbs and poorly planned business districts sorely lack.

Because the car is so deeply entrenched in American culture, and an exhaust-spewing four-wheeled vehicle often seems the only way to get from point A to point B, it’s important that, for our health and the health of the planet, our streets be created for all kinds of travelers, from cyclists to pedestrians to bus riders. For more on how to make your city streets more livable and encourage development of alternative transportation, see Smarter Cities, an NRDC Web site that spotlights cities to watch for their best practices and innovative solutions to today's most critical urban livability challenges. Also take a look at CompleteStreets.org; Kaid Benfield’s smart-growth blog on NRDC's Switchboard; StreetsBlog.org, which outlines news like car-free summer Saturdays in New York and Los Angeles’s transit updates; and The City Fix, a site dedicated to solutions to America’s urban mobility problems.

last revised 4/26/2011

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