Going Mainstream: Overcoming Discouragements to Walking & Bicycling

Everyone who can walks, at least a little.  But how do we convince people that its preferable to getting into their car?  Similarly, we’ve gotten past the stage where the only people who bike are little kids, messengers, Euro-racers, and low-wage Latino immigrants.  Cycling has spread to a broader demographic of students, young adults, and people with a commitment to health and/or the environment.  But how do we get the next segment of ordinary people to use a bicycle for the 40% of daily trips that are under 2 miles or the 50% of commutes that are less than 5 miles long?

We know that the advantages of increasing the number of people who use “active transportation” go beyond reducing car congestion.  It would also reduce air and water pollution, reduce our dependence on depleting fossil fuels (whether domestic or imported) along with the export of profits from our region, reduce noise and accidents, increase social interaction in our communities as well as public safety and personal health.  It’s an entire campaign platform worth of benefits – and at a low cost!

How to accomplish all this?  The standard strategies are to work on the “Five E’s” of EngineeringEducationEncouragementEnforcement, and Evaluation – to which I add a “Sixth E” of Equity both between different modes and for all income/ethnic groups.

But it is also useful to structure our strategies around the major challenges that keep people from choosing active transportation.  Categorizing in this way not only allows us to more directly focus on reducing barriers, but also helps us understand the full range of issues on which we need to be working.  Transportation does not stand alone.  It is intimately related to the physical structure of our communities, the social environment we inhabit, and the well-being of our families.  It turns out that creating “livable streets” requires creating livable communities.  It turns out that transportation is part of a larger urban agenda, rather than a special issue on its own. The four types of barriers are:

  • Distance/Topography – challenges created by the physical layout between locations is addressed by tight integration of public transit and other modes backed up by smart zoning.
  • Safety/Convenience – the perceived risk and difficulty of walking or biking is addressed by appropriate infrastructure, not only “complete streets” but attractive destinations.
  • Skill/Confidence – the level of confidence people feel about walking/cycling is raised by teaching children and adults basic skills, and the chance to be active in groups, within an overall environment of public safety and social respect.
  • Equipment/Affordability – people’s ability to access the required gear is increased by bike share programs and low-cost purchasing programs.

The good news is that Boston, other cities, and even state government are beginning to address each of these barriers.  But significant gaps remain and more can be done.


Like the weather, there’s not a lot you can do about an area’s basic geography.  Even as climate change reduces our snow drifts and raises our coast-line, New England will always have hills and always have winter.

Boston is lucky: the Irish take-over during the first half of the twentieth century led to a prolonged “capitalist strike” during which the Brahmin elites refused to invest in the city.  Ironically, this allowed our colonial layout to survive – with high density three-decker housing, mixed commercial and residential uses, short blocks and narrow, winding streets: much of which would be illegal under today’s regulations.  Our colonial inheritance is the basis for Boston’s status as a “walking city.”

(It wasn’t until a new generation of corporate-friendly Irish leaders arose in the 1940s and 50s that the “New Boston” arrived and demolished the West End, shoved the Mass Pike Extension through the South End, focused attention on the downtown by welcoming back banks and insurance companies with their “high spine” skyscraper headquarters, and started – until stopped by growing public opposition – to demolish additional neighborhoods to make way for a network of car-serving highways.)

A vibrant downtown is good for a large city, but so are vibrant neighborhoods that provide commercial, educational, and cultural opportunities within easy walking or cycling distance.  Boston’s “Main Streets” program (which supports decentralized shopping districts in neighborhoods around the city) and “affordable housing linkage” (which requires developers of high-end buildings to contribute towards neighborhood housing) provide some counter-balance to a downtown focus.  The state has begun revising its zoning templates, which set the default standard for municipal regulations, to once-again allow an area to have a careful selection of mixed uses in the same area and greater density.  What we don’t yet have is something like Philadelphia’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative which provides tax credits and loans to supermarkets willing to locate in inner city “food deserts,” or even a program that helps local corner stores install freezers able to handle the frozen vegetables and prepared dinners that are just as nutritious as fresh or home-made options.

A great walking city has to have excellent bus, trolley, subway, and train systems to allow people to do cross-neighborhood trips without using a car. We can also reduce the distance/topography barrier by expanding our public transportation system and doing more “Transit Oriented Development” (which encourages higher density building next to transit facilities).  And we have to make our transit vehicles bike-friendly – the MBTA is already committed to installing bike racks on every bus, but it needs to expand the still-limited hours when bikes are allowed to use the system as well.


A large number of people would love to bike “if only….”  And the next phrase often includes something about being nervous about being so close to cars.  Pedestrians often complain about crazy intersections and even crazier drivers (and sometimes about crazy bicyclists).  Increased safety requires a rebalancing and reconceptualization of our infrastructure.  For nearly a century, we built for cars.  The goal was to encourage more of them by allowing them to go faster, further, and more conveniently.  Highways, designed for high-speed, long distance travel, set the standard for nearly every street, even in urban areas.

Now, we need to deal with the modal distortions this one-sided investment priority created by moving significant amounts of money back into walking, cycling, and transit facilities – even if that means not only refusing to expand the road system but also cutting back on the huge backlog of maintenance it requires.

Massachusetts has a plan for a state-wide bike network, which needs more funding.  But we also need to create a Boston metro-area “Greenway Network” of off-road multi-use paths that builds on our wonderful heritage of parks and water-fronts. (These are not an accidentally surviving remnant of our colonial origins but a deliberate creation of the Brahmin upper class.)  Where the Greenway system has to go on-road, it should have both a sidewalk and a separated bikeway like those recently created in New York City by moving the parked cars away from the curb and placing a buffered bike lane between them and the sidewalk.

In fact, separated bikeways (also called “cycle tracks”) should be the preferred design for bike lanes everywhere space permits.  We should only use the currently-standard “naked” bike lane next to moving cars where absolutely inescapable.  And if there isn’t even room for a “regular” bike lane, there should be abundant signage stating that “bikes can use full lane” (as has been done on the Charles River bridges during construction) to legitimize the need for cyclists to stay away from parked cars, dangerous sewer grates, piled up glass and debris, and other hazards of hugging the far-right strip of a road.  (I have little regard for “Share The Road” exhortations since most car drivers seem to believe that “Share The Road” means that bicyclists should stay far enough to the right to give the car all the room it needs to zoom by.)

It’s not enough to make getting there safer, we also need to make it more convenient to arrive by bike.  Bike racks should be required near the entries to all commercial areas and transit stations, all residencies and public buildings.  Zoning laws should require sufficient long-term, indoor, secure bike parking facilities wherever people work and live.  Cambridge has already passed good regulations about these; Boston’s are still being worked on.

For pedestrians, we need to prioritize sidewalk maintenance – keeping the surfaces smooth, clear, continuous, wide enough for wheel chairs, with “socializing areas” for people to rest and talk.   We also need to pay more attention to intersection layout and signal timing so that “normal” people are able to comfortably get across.  There should be citizen’s infrastructure review panels in every neighborhood charged with keeping the city informed about any local problems.

(In northern Europe, traffic signals are timed to allow someone traveling at about 12 mph to get regular greens all the way into town – increasing the efficiency of bicycling and encouraging car drivers to use another mode, which then makes it safer for pedestrians.  While controversial, I think it would also be good to allow bicyclists to treat red lights and stop signs as if they were “yield” signs – requiring the cyclists to slow and look and only proceed if there was no on-coming cross traffic.)

While snow removal is not technically a form of infrastructure, it has enormous impact on the accessibility of the existing facilities.  Icy sidewalks and snow-clogged bike lanes essentially render key infrastructures invisible – it’s as if they weren’t there in the first place.  Recent court decisions have stated that not keeping sidewalks open is a violation of the civil rights of handicapped people, so it is important (for defensive purposes if nothing else) that cities start updating their regulations.


There are some people who don’t feel that they can walk very much, particularly among the one-third of our population that is already obese or the additional third of overweight people that are in danger of joining them.  For them, walking clubs (such as those organized by Boston’s STEP program) and doctor-mandated “walking prescriptions” are powerful facilitators.

As for bicycling, even if once you’ve learned to ride a bike you never totally forget how, you still need to get the original lessons – not only about how to balance but also have to behave.  Boston is fortunately to have a group like Bikes Not Bombs, which not only trains low-income teens how to ride, but also how to fix bikes, understand basic math and engineering concepts, and develop mature leadership skills.  It is an extremely long-term, hands-on, intensive approach that is deeply transformative, but very hard to scale up.  Other programs, like the Cycle Kids program that focuses on a several-week-long afterschool series addressing both physical activity and nutrition, and the even shorter-term Open Cycling Foundation’s events, can be more easily scaled up.  But none of these are a substitute for in-school programs that include everyone.

In the Netherlands, bike training is part of every elementary school curriculum and our own 4th and 6th graders should have the same opportunity.  In fact, not only is cycling one of the only two effective alternatives to using a car to get around urban areas (public transit is the other); it has profound long-term health impacts.  Recent studies show that the speed at which most people walk does not improve fitness enough to reduce mortality rates, but regular cycling at almost any speed does – something of particular importance to low-income families at the greatest risk of diabetes.

One way to increase student interest in bicycling to is develop high school racing teams.  Suburban and private schools have already created leagues, participating in these might create another avenue for inner city kids to get access to the sports scholarships and social connections that their peers involved in rowing, tennis, and lacrosse already enjoy.

Adults can also gain experience and confidence by participating in large-group events such as Boston’s Hub On Wheels bike festival, and Cambridge and Somerville’s city-wide bike rides.  Being part of a large group gives a feeling of safety and joy that is a powerful introduction to cycling.  And the one enduring contribution of the elitist “Effective Cycling” advocates (who oppose creating bike-friendly facilities on the grounds that bikes are vehicles and should simply use the regular road) is an excellent curriculum teaching how to safely navigate a bike through traffic.

But bike skills and good sidewalks aren’t enough.  People who are afraid of getting mugged, or shot, on the street will not bike or walk – and won’t let their children outside to play.  Ending neighborhood violence is a precondition not only for travel but for public health and local economic development.  Similarly, people who feel that they are likely to be harassed by others, or by the police, are not likely to venture outdoors.  To be pulled over for “driving while black” or any other form of racism is as dangerous to the public (and personal) welfare as a shot from a gun.


You don’t need high-end walking shoes to go down the street.  And while cost is a bigger issue for cycling than for walking, neither do you need a carbon-fiber bike to get across town.  But even basic equipment costs something.  And even if you can afford a bike, you don’t always have it with you.  So the advent of Bike sharing programs in cities around the work is a major “game changer” – if only because the streets get flooded with cyclists, creating a visible constituency that is hard for decision-makers to ignore while highlighting any infrastructural inadequacies.

Bike share programs need a high density of “stations” and users to work well, so they tend to be concentrated in downtown areas.   Planners usually believe that residential neighborhoods, particularly in low-income and African-American areas, lack the needed numbers of users – and so don’t get sharing stations until the core program is well established.  One way out of this self-fulfilling prophecy is to seed low-income families with low-cost bicycles, bike skill workshops, and bike riding opportunities.  Bikes Not Bombs make recycled and refurbished bikes available at relatively low cost.  Even more radically, Boston’s “Roll It Forward” program hopes to distribute roughly 1,000 free or very low cost bikes over the next year or two.  Local bike stores will accept and refurbish the donated bikes used in the program.

At the same time, cities need to adopt aggressive “Transportation Demand Management” ordinances that limit the number of parking places included in commercial and residential developments and require companies to help their employees and customers leave their cars at home.

Finally, to circle back to the Evaluation part of the Six E’s, we need to always keep track of how transportation patterns are changing, how many more people are walking or cycling, who those people typically are, where they are coming from and going to, and what barriers or keeping even more people from joining them.


If you found this interesting, you might also want to read:

The Complex Ingredients of Livable Cities: Complete Streets to Interior Design, Transit to City Planning, Art to Education


Sources for this posting include:

At The Intersection of Public Health & Transportaton, American Public Health Association <http://www.apha.org/NR/rdonlyres/43F10382-FB68-4112-8C75-49DCB10F8ECF/0/TransportationBrief.pdf>

Transportation Policy is Health Policy, National Complete Streets Coalition <http://www.completestreets.org/news/transportation-policy-is-health-policy/>

Transportation, Public Health, and Safety, Transportation For America <http://t4america.org/policybriefs/t4_policybrief_health.pdf>

Dangerous By Design, Surface Transportation Project <http://www.transact.org/PDFs/2009-11-09-Dangerous%20by%20Design.pdf>

LEED-ND Report on Public Health and the Built Environment, U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) <http://www.cnu.org/node/559>

Creating A Healthy Environment, Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse <http://www.sprawlwatch.org/health.pdf>

The Impact of the Built Environment on Public Health, Design Intelligence, <http://www.di.net/articles/archive/3426/>

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