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Commentary: How St. Louis can invest in its future, one street at a time

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 13, 2013: Ask a Biker: We have all these bike lanes, so why do I rarely see people using them?

The benefits of cycling for transportation are relatively obvious. Most people support improved air quality, increased levels of physical activity, reduced carbon emissions, saving money, and just plain having fun on a bike.

Without a doubt, bicycle ridership in St. Louis has gone up over the past 10 years. On National Bike to Work Day 2013 alone, Trailnet recorded a 200 percent increase in riders since 2005. St. Louis is on the right track through

All of this momentum is great, but it’s time for a serious look at innovative infrastructure to support bicycling as a safe, comfortable option for all types of riders. While bicycle ridership in St. Louis has increased, it hovers at 1 percent of overall trips, which is well behind other U.S. cities like Minneapolis and Madison — even our neighbors in Columbia, Mo., (check out this interactive map of bicycling rates across the U.S.).

Bicycle infrastructure in the United States has mainly focused on integrating bicycles with car and freight traffic. This means that getting places by bicycle frequently boils down to riding alongside numerous, fast motor vehicles. The small fraction of the U.S. population who ride in such conditions are known, in the urban planning world, as the “traffic tolerant.” While many people are very interested in reaping the benefits of active transportation, they’re just too scared to ride on large arterial roads with speeds in the 30 to 45 mph range. The intimidation factor is widespread in the U.S. Upon closer inspection it affects women more than men; among the traffic tolerant, men outnumber women three to one.

This is not to say that to become traffic tolerant you need to possess nerves of steel, or be an invincible, aggressive, adrenaline junkie. Building the confidence to ride in U.S. traffic is a process that involves ample practice, a heightened awareness of surroundings, and thoughtful route planning. Add to that a close, hard look at the social, psychological and physical barriers between you and your destination, and biking for transportation can seem like an arduous, complicated endeavor — even though growing evidence shows that the benefits outweigh the risks, and deep down, we know it’s good for us, and most of us would like to spend significantly less time in our cars.

Take a step back from the U.S. and zero-in on Europe, where travel by bicycle make up more than 10 percent of overall trips.

It’s easy to assume that due to more trips taken, European countries would face more bicycle crash fatalities, but the opposite is true. An individual biking in the Netherlands is five times less likely to experience a fatal crash than in the U.S.; in Germany, three to four times less likely. Women, ever the “indicator species,” are just as likely to bike to destinations as men. Children and adolescents bike to school safely each day; and in Northern Europe, even the elderly show high rates of cycling.

The differences in bicycling conditions between the U.S. and Europe are striking. Because many U.S. cities (including St. Louis) have focused on incorporating bicycles into motor vehicle traffic through painted bike lanes or sharrows, only a small fraction of the population is willing to participate.

While bicycles are (rightly so!) considered vehicles under the law, people riding bicycles have unique needs compared to those driving cars, and this is reflected in many European cities’ infrastructure. In Europe and several U.S. cities, it is not uncommon to find protected bike lanes, cycletracks, or standalone paths, which are all options that physically separate bicycles from heavy car traffic. Lower-traffic residential streets typically have speed limits of 20 mph or less and traffic calming designs that keep the streets safe and comfortable for people on bicycles to share the road. This allows riders of all confidence levels, experience and ages to transform how they reach their destinations. They can gain the health and economic benefits of bicycling not just for weekend leisure, but for transportation as well.

Innovative, low-stress street treatments cost more than painted bike lanes and sharrows. But while the upfront cost may be high, separated bicycle infrastructure can be viewed as an investment in the health, economic vitality and safety of a region that will ultimately pay off. Car culture has reached its peak, and our country’s Millennials are establishing a pattern of driving less.

For the St. Louis region to attract and retain future generations of residents, our infrastructure must support the safety and comfort of all users, regardless of their mode of transportation, age, ability, confidence level or experience. Bicycling and walking can be a delightful way to experience St. Louis and should be encouraged — not just be something we tolerate.

Molly Pearson is an American League of Bicyclists’ certified instructor, and serves as TravelGreen Program Coordinator at Trailnet. The mission of Trailnet is to lead in fostering healthy, active, and vibrant communities where walking, bicycling, and the use of public transit are a way of life. She will be writing Voices articles to raise awareness and understanding of bicycling conditions in St. Louis, and how such conditions affect all roadway users.

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