The Chainlink

Sex columnist Dan Savage, fresh back from a cycling trip to Munich, decides that European cycling speeds are far too slow to be accepted by speedy American cyclists:

"To most European cyclists the pace being set by the woman in pink was just fine; this wasn't a race, we were all gonna get where we need to go, why not take it slow and enjoy the view. But to most American cyclists—to cyclists used to bombing along on city streets or being one of the small handful of cyclists using one of our small handful of dedicated bike paths—the pace set by the woman in pink would've felt deadly. The woman in the pink dress would've been an obstacle to blow past... and so would the little old lady setting the pace two blocks in front of her and so would the drunk old pensioner setting the pace two blocks in front of the little old lady.  I sometimes wonder if most cyclists realize the bike future we all hope to build—dedicated bike lanes and a lot more people commuting by bike—looks an awful lot like the car driver's present: crawling along in traffic."

Savage's article here

On the "Streetfilms" Facebook group, Clarence Eckerson Jr. and others offer some pushback to Savage:

"Mikael Colville-Andersen: We're not planning cities for "cyclists". We're planning for citizens who could be cycling."

Would you be willing to ride slower to accommodate everyday people on bikes?

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The reactions to Savage's article (which I actually read as suggesting he liked/preferred the Munich system) in that facebook group kind of highlight some of the very points that Savage is hinting at about American culture.  We're culturally so overly-opinionated, self-focused, and quick to judge at times that we often can't see beyond how things impact us vs. how they benefit society as a whole.  

I think Savage is pretty spot-on in the end---european-style infrastructure would be great in the U.S., and it'll get (and has already gotten) people using bicycles as transportation that to date haven't.  That said, there WILL be a vocal minority that hate the new system, and many of those people are the ones you see bombing down streets like Milwaukee (and sometimes passing in not the gentlest manner) right now.      

The average bike trip in Amsterdam is about 2 miles @ 10 mph moving speed.   The layout of Amsterdam is roughly a circle with a 3 mile radius.  You would almost never see a direct trip between two points in Amsterdam exceed 6 miles.  Therefor, the biking culture reflects local conditions.   If you're traveling tiny distances on flat ground, you can cruise around on your 40# bike without increasing your heart rate.

Now, draw a 3 mile radius circle centered on the Loop.  See how much of Chicago lies outside of it?   The people there are those who are likely to have 3+ mile commutes.  Since the commute is a trip most everyone makes 5 days a week, getting people to commute is one of the most important parts of increasing bike transportation share.  Do you really think building some Amsterdam-style bike infra that is designed for 10 mph is going to appeal to someone who has to travel 6 miles to work?  No, because most people who travel longer distances want to go faster, because otherwise biking becomes too time-inefficient compared to driving or even the CTA.   Remember, most people will not take up biking for the joy of biking (not even the Dutch), but when it becomes practical.  In other words, throwing down some 10 mph PBLs so that you can live your eurotrash fantasies is fucking it up for everyone else.

And by the way, for trips exceeding 2.5 miles, the majority of the so-enlightened Dutch prefer driving.

Aren't you saying, in effect, that biking in Chicago (or anywhere else) is essentially limited to no more than neighborhood-to-neighborhood travel? The amount of money and space required to facilitate high-speed, long-distance bike commutes simply isn't going to happen unless the usage is there and the usage won't be there if people aren't already on bikes. It all starts locally and "Euro-trash fantasy" or not there's a reason that even bike intense cultures like the Dutch don't ride long distances.

What I am saying is that as trip distance increases, inevitably less people will opt to bike the trip if they have faster and lazier options.  As trip distance increases, people's motivation to keep riding will increasingly depend on personal factors such as love of riding, desire to exercise, wanting to save the Earth, hatred of public trans, or most commonly, being poor or DUI.    This is why the Dutch bike % drops off quickly as mileage increases.  There is not much that planners can do to induce people to ride longer distances (other than eliminating other options.)  You have this idea that if you lure all these chickenshits too scared of Chicago streets onto PBL's then BAM! they're going to fall in love with cycling and become 5/52 commuters with a 12 mile r/t commute - nope.

Therefore: 1)  Accept that Chicago will never have the bike % of Amsterdam for structural reasons 2) Biking infrastructure should be aimed for the most common type of functional riding in Chicago: moderate distance rides (4-8 miles) at moderate speeds (12-18 mph).

Given that the Dutch experience shows that riding drops off quickly at distances of two miles, how do you justify the idea that 2X to 4X that distance is attainable (let alone "most common") in Chicago?

2) Biking infrastructure should be aimed for the most common type of functional riding in Chicago: moderate distance rides (4-8 miles) at moderate speeds (12-18 mph).

Don't confuse your wants and needs with those of the community.

Whether you're talking about foot paths through the Cumberland Gap or bike lanes on Cumberland Avenue, expanding infrastructure requires broader support than the hardcore but small group of extremists who blazed a trail can muster. The more resources you would like to see devoted to a public project the greater and broader the public support must be. In other words, you aren't going to get your bicycle superhighways unless and until you have busy bicycle sidestreets to feed them. You're trying to build infrastructure using a top-down model and in the long run that never works, you gotta start with solid base and expand that so that the higher levels of the pyramid happen organically.

As an aside, calling those who aren't drowning in your Kool-Aid "chickenshits" and deriding their "Euro-trash fantasy" isn't the optimal way to build support for your dream. The same rules apply to life as an adult that you should have learned as a tot: if you can't play nice with the other kids, sooner or later they're  going to get tired of your shit and kick you out of the sandbox.

I agree with many of your points, and some European-designed infrastructure is worth building to make a base for short distance riders, but the simple reality is that American cities are sprawling.  

While many Divvy users may only do the sub-2 mile trip, Milwaukee is amazingly busy with riders, and the majority of those riders are going to WP, Logan Square, etc.  That's a distance that falls over 3 miles at least, and likely 4 and above as the younger set expands into Avondale and Irving Park.  

4 to 8 mile trips in Chicago for commuters IS entirely common, and very likely the norm for current users. If you do not build infrastructure designed to get those people to be able to ride 4 to 8 relatively quickly, you're essentially saying no one that lives outside of the West Loop, River North, Gold Coast, etc are ever going to ride to work.     

Red circle is R = 3 miles centered on the Loop.   I realize that not everyone works in the Loop (I don't myself) but this gives a good idea of the size of Chicago vs. Amstedam (which can mostly be fit inside the red circle) and the likely distances current commuters ride.

I mostly agree, but to your argument #1 I'd say that you assume that Chicago will not change. I have seen much change since I moved here in 1992. What if people fed up with (soon to be high again) gas prices and congestion move to the center? They're preparing for it in the South Loop I'd think. In #2 you make a good case for Bike Highways—sign me up! Last—my one-way commute is about 12 miles, and, being Dutch, do so by bike. Even at my 12-14 Mph speed I beat motorized traffic & CTA both in the morning and afternoon, usually without too much sweating.

Yes. I may already be that person "holding up" everyone else. I already experience small bike-traffic "jams" on Wells, Kinzie and Dearborn, and love them because they prove there are lots of people out there riding bikes, increasing our visibility and getting closer to that critical mass we need.

Yes, the current type of cycling in European countries is too slow for the current type of U.S. cyclists. But things here are never the same as in other countries. After all, we are the big bad United States. Things always evolve in life, and the future of cycling here will evolve as well.

We will not hate the 'bike future', but we will adapt and evolve along with it, and all the changes to our infrastructure. We will not hate the future of cycling when at times it seems that we are crawling along in traffic with cars (who's future is also bound for change), if we are traveling at a similar or slower speed as they are; then we will be doing just fine.

I think that trip distance is a big factor in this.  If I'm doing a commute ride (14-15 miles each way, depending on exact route), I don't want to go slow because it would take 2 hours. I use my road bike for that trip and go fast when conditions allow.   For a lot of neighborhood trips, or jaunts outside the neighborhood where I'm going 5 miles or less, I don't have a problem with going 8-12 mph.

In congested areas, I ride slower for safety. I don't have a problem with riding slower on Dearborn or other places with lots of bike traffic because it's safer for all of us that way.

I strongly dislike this dichotomy between "cyclists" and "everyday people." I mean, yes I am a flaming bike dork, but I also have a job and stuff, and this is how I get to it. I know darned well it's not a race, and I hate racing anyway. (Too much like work.)


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