Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Are We Just Too Big To Be A Cycling Nation?

Last week I had an interesting conversation with Dan, one of the fantastic reps we have come in to the shop where I work. We talked about a lot of things, but it was the subject of commuting that grabbed my attention.
It's a big, big country!
Dan has a territory to cover with his job that doesn't allow for "commuting by bicycle" much. And obviously, doing work in a multi-state territory is going to require an expedient way to get from one retail shop to another. At least for face-to-face relations.

But what about folks that live in cities? Well, even then you run into obstacles. Dan had a great example where a couple, strapped for employment, had to find jobs in different cities, which made for a decision to live in a town in between the two jobs. The distance is too great to make cycling a practical choice for them. And then there are cities where folks live so far away from the employment centers that traveling by bicycle would just consume too much time.

Are we just too big of a country to be a commute by bicycle nation?

I think it is a fair question. The way this country grew up, with its vastness and open lands being plentiful, it lent itself to "spreading out", as opposed to the close, centralized villages and towns that are common in older countries. The "spreading out" of America is still happening. Just look where towns and cities grow. It is at the fringes, mostly, while at the center, things decay.

Doing Things By Bicycle
Of course, there are exceptions. Portland, Minneapolis, and even my local communities are making strides to revitalize the metro-centers and install bicycle infrastructure that promotes doing things by bicycle.

Doing things by bicycle in communities is great, but "commuting to work" by bicycle is where things seem to get more difficult.  Distances to employers seems to be a great factor in why folks don't, or won't commute by bicycle. Is this a detriment to doing any commuting by bicycle for most folks? I don't think it has to be.

Obviously, where there is a will, there is a way. Dan, for instance, travels to bigger cities, then uses a bicycle to visit different clients in that city. Another blogger I know used trains and bicycles in his commute on the west coast. Maybe we should start thinking more in terms of "hybrid-commuting". Maybe using a combination of bicycles with other forms of mass transit, or commuting partially by vehicle.

Whatever it is, cycling will have to be seen as being something practical, useful, and smart before it is seen a "cycling as we cyclists know it". In other words, to get these folks commuting, at least in part, by bicycle, there will have to be some economic/cultural incentive. Just expecting everyone to be "bitten by the bug" is a bit too utopian.

This country just doesn't cotton to dreams without a consideration to its harsh realities.


bicycletorch said...

Here in the twin cities, there are a few places where you can rent bike lockers, placed at various locations around the metro, from Metro Transit. The idea being you can ride to the locker, store your bike and hop on a bus for the rest of the ride. Just one form of hybrid commuting that I don't think a lot of people think about. Evviva bicicletta!

Boz said...

Living in Duluth near the lake and working over the hill, I would dive half way to work, then ride the rest of the way. Having a 12 mile commute that was 90% uphill was a tough way to start the day...

Tim S. said...

My answer to your question is hopefully not. We may never be dense enough to be majority cycling, but hopefully we can continue to see an uptick in bike/walk/public transit and a decrease in auto miles.


Scott Loveless said...

I think there are some significant problems in rural America, and I'm fairly convinced that aside from distance many of those problems are a matter of perception. I have an example:

My parents live in a small town in the delta region of Arkansas. It's flat. Really flat. Between all the little towns the roads often go on in a straight line for miles. Most of the little factories that used to sustain these towns have closed and many folks have found that it's impossible to sell a house in a place where there's no work. So they drive 20 or 30 miles each way to get to a job. Impractical for bike commuting.

But with wages stagnant and gas prices volatile, I'd expect to see people on bikes for their local errands. After all, it's flat. This last June, while visiting Mom and Dad, the only people I saw on bikes were a couple kids with their BMXes.

Little towns with little traffic and wide streets, people know each other and tend to be polite, and no hills. It's really, really flat there. The bicycle seems glaringly obvious, yet no one rides. How do you solve that problem?

mw said...

the american dream of a big house and a big yard has created the sprawling landscape we have now. we need to get over the dream, or modify the dream. there should be massive benifits to living close to where you work.