Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bike lanes + bus lanes = Democracy in action

Capitol Avenue in Springfield, Illinois.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
We’ve been thinking lately about the idea of democracy and equality in our streets. Not in the sense of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but about whether all people who use our streets are treated equally.

We like to talk about how everyone is equal in the United States, and we’re supposedly a classless society. Yet, when we look at our streets, there are definitely classes of street users, and automobile drivers are the ones invited into first class.

Under our system, a person driving a motor vehicle is given the most space and the most advantages on our streets. But not everyone can or wants to drive a car. There are those who are not old enough yet, or don’t have the financial resources needed to own or operate a car. There are people who have disabilities that restrict or prohibit their ability to drive. In addition, more people are choosing not to own a car or use it for many of their trips,  based on economics, convenience, concern for the environment, to get in a little exercise, or all of the above. In Chicago, about 30 percent of households don’t own an automobile. When those 30 percent take a bus or ride a bike, they shouldn’t suddenly become second-class citizens.

Look at the poster above. It's used by the Muenster, Germany city planners to illustrate difference in efficiencies for modes of transport. It's pretty amazing to see so graphically how much space is taken up by 60 people in 60 cars, and compare it to the tiny amount used by 60 people in a bus or on bicycles. A hulking two-ton cocoon of metal provides a lot of comforts for the 150-pound driver operating his personal vehicle, but the tradeoff to society is that it also uses massively more amounts of public space than a bicyclist, and even more than a bus rider.

They're getting it right in New York: This is First Avenue in East Village, complete with bike lane, parking lanes, car lanes, and dedicated bus lane. (Photo seen on NYC DOT.)
If we lived in a true democracy where all people were treated equally, every person would be given an equal amount of space on the street, no matter which mode of transport they’re using, as seen in the First Avenue picture above. Our streets, after all, are public spaces, meant for all people. And yet, what do we have currently in Chicago? Not enough accommodations for modes of transport other than private vehicles. 

Imagine how many people might choose to get out of their cars and onto
the #72 North Avenue bus if they could be assured they wouldn't have to
sit in the same traffic as car drivers. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
Buses nearly always have to use the same lanes that cars do, and they’re given no preference. One bus is only given the street space of about three private motor vehicles, carrying three people, even though it may have 60 passengers. That bus should be given 20 times the street space that it is given, under a true democracy. That’s one reason we need dedicated bus lanes.

Likewise, people who choose to ride a bicycle on Chicago’s streets should be treated as equals to those in automobiles. (If you find that statement shocking, ask yourself why: Why should someone riding a bike to work or to go shopping not be given equally respectful treatment as a person driving their car to the same destination?) But bicyclists are rarely given any dedicated road space. 

A bicyclist on State Street is squeezed between the curb and auto traffic.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
Instead they’re squeezed in “where there’s room”, even though they take up about a tiny fraction of the space of a person in a car. This has to change. Safe bikeways that clearly communicate that people on bikes are equal citizens are sorely needed. And they’re coming, thank goodness.

We’re looking forward to the day bloggers in other cities feature pictures of Chicago as good examples of balancing the rights of all users of the street. Because it’s one thing to talk about values like democracy and equality in abstract terms, and it’s another to actually make them a reality.


  1. One way to get a more equitable treatment of our streets is to say that we should prioritize more space-efficient modes over less efficient modes on every single street.

    Another would be to say that we're going to prioritize the most efficient mode (high-capacity transit) on some and the least efficient (driving and parking) on others. It's not literally equitable or democratic, but it's a realistic first step.

    Prioritizing transit over driving and parking on a handful of our 814 streets would have lots of other benefits besides equity. Those transit-optimized streets (with no through traffic from cars and no trolling for parking) would be the safest streets for biking. With transit concentrated on the neighborhood shopping street, instead of dispersed to the periphery where traffic is lighter, you'd have a lot more foot traffic and a much more pedestrian-friendly environment--the best place to shop and the best place to own a shop.

    I think I like the idea of starting with quality on a handful of streets and evolving toward equity.

    1. Yes, absolutely, we should implement the highest efficiency transport mode where we can to model success, and then replicate it wherever appropriate. -- Michelle Stenzel

  2. Normally, there are a considerable measure of dangers out and about whether you are riding a bike, an auto, or a bus. In any case, since you are riding the littlest and the slowest machine out and about, you are viewed as the most defenseless, so it is shrewd to remember bike wellbeing tips at all times.

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