Infrastructure, Part 1: Why It Matters to Me

At last night’s #bikingtobeers, I wondered aloud something that’s been bugging me — how can members of our local transportation bureau who are also bike commuters drag their heels about building real infrastructure when they’re experiencing the problems firsthand? I got an interesting answer (in reference to one bike commuter at PBOT) — “He’s a vehicular cyclist.”

The debate between those who want protected infra and those who argue that no infra is needed and that people on bikes need to simply assert their status as vehicles “just like cars,” and “everything will work out fine” has been going on for years, and it’s not going to get solved today. But wherever you stand on the subject, it’s hard to argue convincingly that vehicular cycling will work for children, or to debate the fact that places with high-quality infrastructure have high rates of bicycling — and those with poor or no infrastructure have low rates.

The truth is that people will do what they feel comfortable doing, not what is theoretically possible, or what someone tells them they should be doing. The country with the highest bicycle mode share in the world — the Netherlands — is, not coincidentally, also the place with the most complete network of high-quality infrastructure designed to make cycling both safe and convenient. For everyone.

As someone who’s ridden in extreme traffic situations, I’m often asked why I care so much about infrastructure. Why should it bother me? Aren’t I “strong and fearless”?

Setting aside (for a moment) the fact that it’s important to me that where I live be a place where anyone, and everyone, can ride safely, comfortably, and conveniently, there is a vast difference between what I can do and what I want to have to do on a daily basis. Our culture has an unfortunate tendency to conflate bravery with fearlessness. Yes, I’ve ridden up Lexington Ave. at rush hour, mixing it up with the taxis in the left lane (because that’s actually the better position than the right, with buses stopping to discharge and pick up passengers). Yes, for years I braved a 30-mile commute in the most intense, nonstop bullet-dodging traffic imaginable.

I was terrified the whole time. I still am. Every time I get on my bike, I have to shoulder the anxiety that sits heavier than any backpack. Most days, the love of the bike itself — the pure beauty of pedaling, of moving myself through the air — is strong enough to convince me to keep riding. But not every day. And it’s getting harder as I get older, both because the accumulated weight of years of stress, hostility, and near-misses is wearing on me, and because I’m physically less resilient than I used to be. My muscles may be stronger than ever, but I don’t heal as quickly from injuries, and there’s no getting around the fact that the bones of a 50-year-old are brittler than those of a 30-year-old.

So I care more about having real (read: protected, separated) infrastructure as I get older. I want the place I live and ride to be safe for me and for the five-year-old who’s waving madly at me, spilling over with that special, luminous pride that comes of getting the knack of balancing on two wheels for the first time. Believe it or not, our needs are exactly the same. And we both deserve it.


5 thoughts on “Infrastructure, Part 1: Why It Matters to Me

  1. Hear hear! You’ve put your finger exactly on that “bravery = fearlessness” assumption. I rode the bus this winter far more than usual, mostly because I mentally just could not face the 2-mile segment of my commute that is a narrow country road with no shoulder, with motorists driving far too fast and recklessly. There are only so many ‘near heart attacks’ a person can (or wants to) handle from being, through no fault of their, much too close to dangerous overtakes on blind curves to have any hope of avoiding/escaping if something’s coming the other way. The other two routes into town add half again as much distance and involve some slow dirt/gravel sections and perils of their own. Nonetheless, I do ride. But mentally it’s exhausting and frustrating because why should I have to put up with this sh*t?

    (Signed, 46-year-old who wants to live another 40+ years)

  2. Just to clarify (since I was the guy who made the comment about vehicular cycling): I don’t believe that anyone important at PBOT actually espouses the VC philosophy and wishes to actively force people on bikes to operate their bikes like cars all the time. It’s more that the people in leadership positions tend to be people had have ridden for a long time, who maybe remember how it was with no infrastructure, who can look at the bike lanes in place and see all the huge improvements there have been since the 80s and 90s (and there have been, in absolute terms) and they don’t get the urgency of the situation. their experience may be a disadvantage to them in terms of their perspective.

    Anyway, great job, and I sure hope Part 2 is about this horrible need for consensus before anything can get done, because you can imagine I may just have an opinion on that.

  3. Spot on as usual. I started to commute to work almost 5 years ago because I found the 7 mile route could be about 65% path with the rest being quiet residential streets and busier streets with good bike lanes (fairly wide, usually no debris, not next to parked cars, smooth pavement). After I started (lured by infra) I was hooked and bike all over now. But I still favor paths or lesser bike infra on quieter streets. I can and do ride in traffic, take the lane, etc but it is stressful–even in a smaller, “bike friendly” city like Eugene. And not safe or comfortable for a lot of people who might want to ride a bike. My dad (78) & stepmom love to ride but stick mostly to paths/sidewalks now because they don’t feel safe riding elsewhere. Same with my mom (77), who used to ride a lot more when she was younger. They are big supporters and understand my bike love BUT they also worry about my safety because they ride bikes and know what it’s like even in “safe” situations. We all deserve better.

  4. I’ve been on a couple Kidical Mass rides (don’t have young kids but think we all should support biking families) and oh my those kids on bikes! There are few things more joyful than a kid on a bike. How can we not provide safe infrastructure for us all?

  5. I agree, and appreciate your perspective. I also CAN and DO ride on a road (N Interstate Ave) that is filled with fast cars, and large trucks. I ride it every day M-F and I enjoy my ride 10x more than I would enjoy riding in the Max train that passes me some days. But I don’t enjoy the “rush” of feeling someone bearing down behind me, of a truck whooshing beside me as it passes a little too closely. I endure those because I don’t want to miss out on the wonderful parts of my ride to and from work and around town. I would much prefer to have the same direct route with a path separated from these fast, large, sometimes inconsiderate vehicles.

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