Want a bikeable city? Get people to try biking
June 22, 2017
When a coworker told Holly Lattin that he biked from Grand Central Station to Arup’s Lower Manhattan office every day, “I thought that was crazy,” she said. But out of curiosity, she bought a Citi Bike day pass and gave the route a try — and found herself pleasantly surprised. “It was such a good feeling to be able to get some exercise and see the city in a whole new way, as opposed to my regular commute on the subway.”
This trial ride coincided with the start of the New York Bike to Work Challenge, providing Lattin with motivation to keep at it. She now rides to work several times a week.
Sponsored by advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, the competition dangled the ever-powerful carrots of prizes and peer recognition to rally workplaces around cycling. Its website boasts of convincing thousands of New Yorkers from more than 600 organizations to commute by bike, logging over 180,000 miles in total.
Jeff Schwane, who organized Arup’s team, said that people at a wide range of experience levels participated, from regular riders to novices like Lattin. “There were actually a fair number of people that said they biked [to work] for the first time because of the challenge,” he said.
From passive to active
For James Francisco, an urban planner in Arup’s New York office, this uptick of interest in cycling affirms that initiatives like the Bike to Work Challenge offer value beyond feel-good corporate team building.
Francisco recently dedicated a year to researching the benefits of active transportation (i.e., mobility powered by the human body), leading to the publication of a report on urban walkability. Initially, his architectural training led him to gravitate toward considerations like spatial geometry and street design. But he and his team soon realized that the physical environment was only part of the story.
“What was really interesting that we didn’t really expect are all the co-benefits that an active lifestyle has for [individuals], beyond the bigger city themes,” he said. Studies indicate that people who use active transportation are likely to be healthier, happier, and more connected to their communities.
Extended to the city scale, this is a convincing argument for municipal agencies to think hard about active mobility. But recognizing the need for active transportation is one thing; filling the streets with cyclists and pedestrians is another. To achieve this goal, cities need to provide robust, connected infrastructure for biking and walking — thereby convincing everyday citizens that self-powered mobility can be convenient, safe, and even fun.
Until we reach this tipping point, programs like the Bike to Work Challenge serve an important function: educating the public about active transportation and creating new advocates for bikeable and walkable streets.
“Initiatives like this are absolutely brilliant,” Francisco said. “It starts people thinking about more active alternatives, and therefore healthier alternatives, for how they can get themselves from point A to point B.”
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