Cycling as a means of transportation is still very much a niche activity in Princeton. Of the ~30,000 people who work in Princeton, just 1.8% use cycling as their primary mode of commute. Why is this? Some possible explanations:
- It’s inconvenient to cycle because it’s too far,
- The roads are too dangerous to risk cycling a bike,
- People just aren’t interested in riding a bike,
- People are just too lazy to cycle.
These reasons tend to be defeatist, in that they assume that there there are many obstacles to cycling that will prevent it from ever making a meaningful contribution to transportation. But cycling is commonplace in other places, even in the United States. In Davis, CA, a college town like Princeton, at least 15% of commuters use cycling as their primary form of transport. That is almost 10x higher than the rate in Princeton.
What factors promote cycling for transportation? Research in bike-friendly Portland, OR in the early 2000s indicates that people can be classified into one of several groups when it comes to cycling. There are the ‘strong and the fearless’, a minority of about 1% of people who will cycle no matter what the obstacles. Then there is ‘not able / not interested’ group, a much more significant band, including an estimated 33% of people. This group will not cycle no matter what provisions are made.
But the interesting finding is that the majority of people – estimated at between 50%-60% of the population are ‘interested but concerned’. This group, which includes most of us, would be interested in cycling, but are put off by various obstacles, the most important of which is the interaction / safety issue of motor vehicle traffic. If we provide opportunities for these people to get to their destination by a route with safe interaction with traffic, the proportion of people cycling is likely to rise dramatically.
At present, Princeton makes almost no provision for cyclists, and unsurprisingly, very few people cycle. The rate of cycling here would indicate that our cycle reach barely goes beyond the ‘strong and the fearless’ group. Even the ‘enthused and confident’ group, which comprises 6%-12% of people, are apparently not being provided for. Princeton recently adopted a policy of shared lane markings or ‘sharrows‘– little bike symbols painted on roads that are supposed to indicate the correct lane placement for cyclists and remind drivers to share the road. But research indicates that sharrows do ‘little or nothing’ to promote cycling among those who don’t already regularly use bikes for transportation. What makes a much larger difference are proper bike lanes and cycle tracks.
Princeton’s programs to improve cycling infrastructure have received scant attention, although Mayor Liz Lempert has been working behind the scenes to try to assist the Joint Pedestrian and Cycling Advisory Committee (PJPBAC) in their efforts to make cycling easier. One problem that is often cited is that ‘there is no money’ for cycling improvements. PJPBAC recently asked for suggestions on where to position the one single, solitary bike rack that they had available. Contrast this with the attention given to cars: Princeton Council went full steam ahead to allocate funds for adding additional free parking at Community Park School, a site that isn’t even under their jurisdiction (it belongs to the school board). What is the effect of decades of governmental support for car driving? Yep- we have become a town of car drivers.
Princeton would benefit immensely and many more people would cycle if we improved our cycle infrastructure. But for this to happen, more of us need to apply pressure and get involved. Change will likely come when occasional cyclists demand it. Those who cycle all the time will not be the ones to demand improved infrastructure– they don’t need it! It is the rest of us who must act to make our town bike-friendly.
What cycle ‘tribe’ do you belong to? Would you cycle more if the infrastructure was better? What kinds of cycle improvements do you think would benefit us most? Feel free to leave a comment below!