Major Cities Highlight Biking and Walking as Key Mobility Strategies

By Carolyn S on January 24, 2012

imageThis week, more than 11,000 researchers, engineers, advocates and government officials are gathered here in Washington, DC, for the annual Transportation Research Board meeting. Glancing through the 328-page program this weekend, I had to admit that much of the content looked like a foreign language: I can’t say I’m familiar with the Mechanistic-Empirical Pavement Design Guide or well-versed on Inland Waterway Infrastructure. But being at the conference, I’ve discovered there’s a lot of buzz around biking and walking — even in the sessions that don’t have active transportation in the title.

Yesterday, for instance, I elbowed my way into a packed session on “Mobility Strategies for the 21st Century.” The panel included transportation commissioners from Chicago, San Francisco and New York City and, despite their diverse cities and populations, each of their presentations focused largely on their efforts to boost biking and walking.

“We’ve made lots of significant changes to the streetscape in the past four years,” Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City’s visionary transportation commissioner said. “Prior to 2007, we looked at everything with the planning ethos of 1950. We looked at streets through the eyes of a car. But simply adapting cities to pick up more and more vehicles, more and more traffic, is not a great strategy… So we’re rethinking how we use our streets and realized they weren’t really designed to meet the demands of the population.”

So, since Sadik-Khan took the reins, NYC has started thinking about streets as places, where limited space needs to be allocated to the safety and benefit of all users. Perhaps the first and most visible evidence of this paradigm shift, Sadik-Khan said, was turning Times Square into a pedestrian plaza. In very short order, the city realized massive economic benefits. “Since we closed Broadway [to cars], major flagship stores have moved in,” she said. “Retail rents have doubled in two years and Times Square has turned into one of the top 10 retail locations on the planet.”

Sadik-Khan also highlighted the city’s success in building out its bicycle network and the imminent debut of the Big Apple’s bike share, which will be the largest in the United States. And she wasn’t alone in showcasing bike-ped improvements as the top mobility strategies in her nation-leading city. Edward Reiskin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, also touted the Bay City’s upcoming bike share system. He shared that, at any given time, s staggering 30 percent of the congestion in downtown San Francisco is motorists simply looking for parking, and the city’s effort to boost other modes of travel, including biking and walking. He highlighted his agency’s successful and growing use of parklets — re-appropriating parking spots and turning them into pedestrian parks and cafe patios — and raved about the power of people “taking back the streets” during the city’s recurring Sunday Streets ciclovia initiative.

And Gabe Klein, the new commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, added to the chorus of bike-ped enthusiasm. Known for his role in bringing bike share to Washington, DC, when he served as the transportation director in the nation’s capital, Klein shared a funny story that summed up the Windy City’s trajectory. Yes, Chicago is getting bike share, too, but that’s just the beginning of an ambitious plan to make the city more bicycle-friendly. On the day that Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced his new DOT director, Klein was reading through the Mayor’s remarks. When he saw that Emanuel’s speech promised 100 miles of protected bike lanes, Klein got a bit anxious. Was there really the political will and public support to add such significant lengths of cycletracks? Trying to hedge his bets, Klein crossed out the word “protected.” But when the Mayor read his speech he barely stumbled before reinstating that significant distinction. And guess what? The first protected bike lane on Kinzie Street has been phenomenally successful, boosting bicycle mode share on that stretch from 22 to more than 50 percent.

Listening to those inspired transportation officials, all fired up about biking and walking as critical and integral transportation solutions for the 21st Century, I couldn’t help but think of the incredible advocates in those cities who have made that shift possible. From the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition to the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago to Transportation Alternatives in NYC, advocates have laid the foundation for this groundswell by doing the tough, long-term work of elevating the voices and need of people who walk and bike in their communities.

Stay tuned for more from TRB…

PHOTO: Transportation officials in major U.S. cities are excited about bike share as a mobility solution.

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