WALK, BIKE, RUN: Unity and Tension In Non-Motorized Alliances

It wasn’t that long ago that Boston’s walking, bicycling, and transit advocacy groups saw each other as part of the problem. Faced with the hostile fragmentation, government policy-makers moved slowly or not at all. Boston wasn’t unusual. To the extent that cities had active transportation advocacy groups, the discordance was common.

Today, urban areas (and some states) have two general types of much-more coordinated active-transportation activism. In many cities the dominant group is an all-inclusive alliance of non-motorized movers such as New York-based Transportation Alternatives that combines walkers, joggers, runners, and cyclists. In other cities, mode-specific groups lead the way although they tend to work in partnership with each other. Boston has both: LivableStreets Alliance has, from its inception 10 years ago, seen itself as representing both foot and wheels; the other major advocacy groups – Boston Cyclists UnionMassBikeWalkBoston – maintain their single-mode foci.

Because there have been few walking-oriented advocacy groups around the nation (America Walks, the national coalition, is less than 10 years old), much of the national trend towards inclusivity seems to come from former bicycle-only groups expanding their scope, an evolution that makes enormous political sense since bicyclists are a small but well organized minority while walkers comprise a majority but are generally unorganized. Together they have many times the clout against their common enemy – our society’s car-centric infrastructure, policies, and cultural tendencies. However, whether internalized in one group or as a coalition among several, the emerging multi-modal alliance is not as deep or as tight as it needs to be in order to survive the coming challenges raised by more conservative political leadership at several levels of government. We need, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, to move together or we shall all go nowhere.


Our society’s past treatment of bicycling as a risky and deviant behavior created a sense of community and identity among those who do it – as well as making it inevitable that urban cycling had a high proportion of risk-taking adverturists. In recent years, as cycling expanded among more mainstream middle-class young adults, bicyclists emerged as an articulate and assertive presence. They are, in many cities, the vanguard demanding safer and less car-centric transportation policies and infrastructure. In Boston, senior Walsh administration officials recount that other than parents of school kids, bicyclists were the most vocal and visible constituency during the recent mayoral campaign. (Bicyclists’ new influence developed partly because of the declining sway in their community of “vehicular cyclists” who oppose any bike-specific accommodations on the grounds that bikes are vehicles and if you aren’t strong, societally-self-confident, and brave enough to ride fast with cars you shouldn’t be on the road.)

No matter how popular or mainstream it gets, bicycling is likely to remain a minority activity. On the other hand, every trip – by bike, car, bus, or train – begins and ends with walking. Everyone walks. But exactly because it is so ordinary few people identify as “walkers” even though most cities (including Boston) are full of poorly-maintained sidewalks, dangerously ill-timed crosswalk & traffic signals, and a woefully inadequate amount of “street furniture,” benches, or attractive outdoor social spaces. Combining the energy of the bicycling community with the ubiquity of pedestrian issues increases the chances of success for both.

(Runners have much more group identity and have an organized core – one reason why WalkBoston and other walker groups have begun expanding their agenda to include them. Long-distance walkerswilderness hikers, and trail runners are a separate category interested in specialized areas such as the wonderful Bay Circuit Path.)


However, the pedestrian-cyclist alliance is not an inevitability. Both sides have much in common: the desire to slow cars on city streets to 20 mph or less (while maintaining “through put” with better traffic signal timing), to push for lane and road “diets” to create more room for other modes and reduce crossing distances, to reduce the inefficiently-used amount of space devoted to parking, and to lengthen crossing time while shortening “cycle times” at signalized intersections. They also have a shared interest in expanding and improving off-road paths (greenways, rail-to-trail conversions, river-side paths) into “multi-use” facilities.

Beyond that, interests diverge, a fact that issue-expanding bike advocates sometimes overlook. Bicyclists want separated lanes (buffered lanes or cycle tracks) and more bike parking spaces, both of which may reduce sidewalk widths. Pedestrians want corner bulb-outsraised crosswalks and intersection tables which slow cars but can also interfere with bike flow. Walking advocates get nervous about allowing bikes to start a few seconds before cars with the pedestrian LPI (Leading Pedestrian Indicator) walk signal because of worry that turning bikes will hit pedestrians, and of sidewalk-level Cycle Tracks that allow flexible use of the full space.

Some of this emerges from a general uneasiness among pedestrian advocates about bicyclists’ behavior, which runs from realistic concerns about jerks on bikes (and the anxiety their fast-and-close presence evokes in the slow moving elderly) to a nearly paranoid fear of bikers that somehow ignores the infrequency of bike-ped crashes and injuries compared to car-ped disasters. (I suspect that this is somehow related to the fact that many pedestrians, like many motorists, see bicycles as the intruding newcomer to the street scene and a threat to the limited security they’ve been able to win from our car-dominated transportation system. This all reminds me of the anger some white people have about the intrusion of non-whites into their labor market rather than seeing both groups as suffering from employers’ manipulations.)

Like most frequent bicyclists, at social gatherings I am occasionally subjected to a litany of complaints about rude cyclists who run red lights, or hog sidewalks, or race by scarily close in crosswalks, or even yell profanities at anyone in their way. It only helps a little to point out that bicyclists would be happy to get off the sidewalk if there was a safe place to go, that treating red lights and stop signs as if they were “yield” signs helps bicyclists stay safe from turning cars, and that as cycling becomes more mainstream the anti-social miscreants are becoming a decreasing portion of the group and their misbehavior is no longer the norm. I admit that the growing number of bicyclists creates real challenges for our inadequate transportation infrastructure and that the behavior of some two-wheeled fanatics is unsafe if not reprehensible. But I also point out that the percentage of distracted drivers and obliviously ear-plugged walkers seems to be increasing. And, if the conversation lasts long enough, I always agree that these are issues we all need to deal with.


Still, while some of the walkers’ complaints are legitimate, we (and they) need to keep a sense of perspective about the relative function and impact of the two modes. While walking is the “last 100 feet” of every trip, bicycling can serve as the last mile. The explosive growth of bike sharing such as Hubway shows that bicycling is the logical last leg of an urban public transit system. It is also, unlike walking, the only realistic commuting alternative to overcrowded trains or congested roads. In fact, the fastest growing type of cyclists are “functional bicyclists” – people who regularly use their bikes for daily transportation. Improving walking conditions is vital – especially for those outside working age: children going to school, the elderly, the disabled – but improving cycling conditions will have a much greater impact on the overall transportation system and a region’s economic development.

Similarly, from a health perspective it’s better to do any physical activity rather than sit in front of a TV. Even standing up to get another snack is a step in the right direction. Regular walking, such as occurs among people who commute by public transit, has proven positive health impacts. And walking is probably the most important built-into-daily-routines physical activity of the elderly – a status that the lucky among us will someday attain, or already have. On a population basis, the first step that people take towards more physical activity is more likely to happen on foot that via pedaling.

But even better health impacts come from regular bike riding, even if it’s only slow-speed pedaling. Analysis of the Harvard School of Public Health’s huge health-outcomes database shows that the vast majority of walkers simply go too slow to have any impact on their weight. At the same time, convincing research from Denmark covering tenyears shows that people who commute by bike have a nearly 28% lower risk of all-cause mortality, no matter what other kinds of physical activity or exercise they engage in. Regular cyclists, meaning people going no more than 10 miles an hour on relatively flat roads have an average level of fitness equivalent to people ten years younger than themselves. Multiple studies show that the cardio-vascular and general benefits of regular bicycling hugely outweigh the relatively small negative impact of accidents or breathing car-polluted air – and both of these negatives are significantly reduced by the presence of separated cycle-tracks and distancing the bikes from the cars on heavily trafficked arterials.


Recently, after years of struggle by low-income communities demanding that cities improve local parks, playgrounds, transit availability, and street conditions, many low income leaders have become afraid that any upgrading of their neighborhood’s facilities will attract upper-income “urbanizing settlers,” leading to gentrification and the eventual inability of working or poor families to afford the rents or find stores catering to their needs. The fear is sometimes particularly expressed against bicycle infrastructure which is sometimes described as a “white thing.” There is clearly some justification for worries about upscaling, particularly in neighborhoods adjacent to current upper-income areas or with (or in line to get) transit connections to downtown employment centers – of which Boston has many. But any objective analysis makes it clear that the problem isn’t limited to bicycle infrastructure, and the solution isn’t to stop public investment in low-income neighborhoods but, rather, to find ways to protect residents from the destructive effects of the free market.

Even more fundamentally, it’s important to realize that the number of non-white bicyclists is much higher than the stereotypes portray. Asian and Latino populations come from cultures where bicycling is prevalent – although it is often seen as a low-income alternative to the higher-status ownership of a car. Even in African-American communities the number of youthful bike riders is very high – although the use of “bike runners” in the drug trade further complicates the cultural associations. The problem is that immigrants, non-English speakers, people of color, and low-income people of all ethnicities are woefully under-represented in organized bicycle (and walking and running) club and advocacy groups. (The League of American Bicyclists, LAB, deserves credit for starting its Equity Initiative and Women Bike Program, as does the Boston Bikes Program for its community low-income outreach programs such as Roll It ForwardYouth Programs, and more.)


In Boston, ten years ago, LivableStreets Alliance was started partly because existing walking, bicycling, running, and transit groups were not only not working together, but treating each other like hostile competitors. As a result, and aided by the then-dominant Vehicular Bicyclists’ opposition to anything other than roads-as-they-were, government agencies were able to play each group off against the others, resulting in repeated failures for everyone. LivableStreets played a seminal role in showing that a broad transportation focus, inclusive of every mode including cars, aware of both recreational and functional uses, could create a united front that was capable of winning change. Since then, new leadership at WalkBoston and MassBike along with the emergence of the Boston Cyclists Union have fundamentally changed the political landscape – and led to a (hopefully) continuing series of victories for safety, multi-modalism, and innovation. WalkBoston even publically supported the BCU and LivableStreets call for cycletracks on Commonwealth Avenue.

But we can’t take any of this for granted. New political administrations at the city, state, and federal levels can not be assumed to be as open to progressive transportation visions or as willing to provide funds as those of the past. Harder times make small differences more difficult. We have to consciously work through our distinct interests and perspectives. The bottom line is that bicyclists who ignore the needs of pedestrians undermine not only their own current advocacy but also their own future well-being – and the same is true for pedestrians, transit users, and even car drivers. Single-mode fundamentalism is as destruction to transportation advocacy as it is to religion.


Thanks to Wendy Landman whose public comments sparked my thinking about this and to Pete Stidman who forced me to rethink an earlier draft. All opinions are, of course, my own.


Some related previous blogs include:

STABILIZING EQUITABLE COMMUNITIES: Gentrification, Displacement, and Markets


VULNERABLE ROAD USERS (VRU) PROTECTION LAWS: “Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful”

THE RIGHT TO BE ON THE ROAD: When Bicyclists Have To Pull Over, When Cars Can Pass

CAMERAS, TERRORISM, AND TRUST: Fears and Memories Across the Generational Divide

CIRCLING THE BLOCK: Saving Money, Time, and Aggravation Through Parking Reform

ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION CREATES HEALTHY COMMUNITIES: How To Use Your Roads To Lower Your Doctor (and Insurance) Bills

NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks


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