Moving People, Not Cars: Dedicated Lanes for Bikes and Buses Are a Great Idea. but There Is Only So Much City Street to Go around. the Missing Link? Limiting Cars

By Fitzgerald, Joan | The American Prospect, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Moving People, Not Cars: Dedicated Lanes for Bikes and Buses Are a Great Idea. but There Is Only So Much City Street to Go around. the Missing Link? Limiting Cars


Fitzgerald, Joan, The American Prospect


Bike rentals are popping up in every major U.S. city, a harbinger of the desire of more and more people to break the car habit. Enthusiasts have visions of Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where about 40 percent of people commute to work and do many errands by bike. Yet few American cities have separate lanes in which bikes can safely travel. Meanwhile, bus rapid transit--buses moving in their own lanes that drive up to platforms and are boarded like trains--is catching on as a lower-cost alternative to expensive subways. But here's the catch that is slowing the shift to both bikes and modern buses: There are only so many lanes on a given street, and at some point these uses compete with each other--unless cars are given less space to hog the road.

Unlike Europe, American cities tend to have a stunted, token version of these car-alternatives. Instead of separated, dedicated lanes for bikes and buses, we get what transportation planners have dubbed "sharrows" (lanes that both cars and bikes use, marked confusingly with a bike symbol); and bus-rapid-transit "lite" (a lane seemingly reserved for buses, except when it isn't). But there's another option. If there were fewer cars permitted in center cities, and street parking were ended to open lanes for other uses, we could move more people through cities faster, more pleasantly, and with a lot less pollution.

This is not difficult as a matter of transportation planning. In a nation addicted to cars, the problem is politics. And the underdevelopment of mass transit creates a vicious circle. The less available and attractive the alternatives, the more people cling to their cars. And the more cars dominate, the less room there is for bikes and buses. But some cities are making headway nonetheless. And the pioneers, from which we can learn, are mainly in Europe.

It's hardly a new idea. Florence, Italy, has closed off its historic center, a 40-block area, to all but pedestrians, taxis, and buses for years, as have many other Tuscan towns. Venice is completely car-free. Freiburg, Germany, banned cars in its historic center in 1973 and built extensive bike and trolley infrastructure. The list goes on.

There is renewed enthusiasm among urban planners for rethinking city streets to meet the goal of moving people--without the assumption that cars have priority while buses, trolleys, bikes, and pedestrians take the space that's left. Some European cities are taking the idea a step further by discouraging or eliminating cars--truly reimagining cities. Berlin, Hamburg, Madrid, and Oslo are among the European cities currently taking comprehensive action to create car-free zones and bike "superhighways"--physically separated, uninterrupted bike lanes that traverse a city. To do this, they are de-privileging cars.

THE VIEW FROM OSLO

With 61 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and 39 percent from cars, Oslo has developed an integrated solution for reducing pollution and emissions that features more electric vehicles, better transit, fewer cars, and more bikes and walking. Oslo has become the world's capital for electric vehicles due to generous national subsidies, development of a charging infrastructure, and incentives such as free charging, exemption from tolls, and use of HOV lanes. In 2017, half the new-car purchases in Oslo were electric.

Sture Portvik, Oslo's project leader on electric vehicles, tells me that expanding public transportation and making it cleaner are also key priorities. Transit ridership has been rising steadily, up 4.6 percent in 2016 alone. Frequency of service on the tram system has been increased and in 2016, Ruter, Oslo's public transportation company, announced an unprecedented 10 billion kroner ($1.3 billion) expansion to be built over eight years. Ruter also aims to be completely fossil-free by 2020.

The tram and metro run on renewable hydropower. About 35 percent of city buses are powered by biodiesel, hydrogen, and biogas, and the first battery electric buses are being piloted this year with major bus-charging infrastructure planned for next year. …

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