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Opinion: Infrastructure IS the answer to bicycling industry and ridership growth

Published January 14, 2019

By Chris Wiltsie

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Editor's note: Wiltsie is the 1,000 Miles Program director for Bike Utah

Rick Vosper's recent opinion piece titled "Cycling is the antidote to childhood obesity" should rightly serve as a warning sign to anyone in the bicycle industry. I couldn't agree more that a decrease in the number of young people riding bicycles will have a drastic impact on the future of industry manufacturers, online retailers, and local bike shops. However, Mr. Vosper's criticisms are ill-informed and his proposed approach will not in itself move the needle toward increased ridership in any significant way.

I take particular issue with Mr. Vosper's critique of bicycle advocacy: "It's time for the industry to collectively recognize that twenty years of infrastructure-building masquerading as advocacy has literally done less than nothing to increase total ridership." His attempt to argue that infrastructure improvements and advocacy efforts are ineffective is misguided.

First, let's remember the significant barriers advocates battle every day across the country. Generally, American cities and states do not invest in planning and infrastructure in ways that provide a meaningful alternative to the automobile. Americans have been building highways through our neighborhoods and downtowns for decades, thanks in large part to decades of lobbying and investments from the automobile industry. You can see the proof in many communities where car ownership is almost a requirement because of car-centric development patterns and street design. This did not happen by chance but was a concerted effort by car advocates. Ultimately, we can do the same thing as an industry to create more and safer bicycle infrastructure.

Second, there are multiple studies surrounding Roger Geller's "4 Types of Bicyclists:"

  1. Strong and Fearless: People willing to bicycle with limited or no bicycle-specific infrastructure
  2. Enthused and Confident: People willing to bicycle if some bicycle-specific infrastructure is in place
  3. Interested but Concerned: People willing to bicycle if high-quality bicycle infrastructure is in place
  4. No Way, No How: People unwilling to bicycle even if high-quality bicycle infrastructure is in place

Depending on the source, 60% or more citizens of particular cities fit into the "Interested but Concerned" category. That is a big number anywhere, and a group of people who can be easily encouraged to ride, once safe, effective bicycle infrastructure is in place.

In stating that infrastructure has not positively affected ridership, Mr. Vosper ignores mountains of evidence that show otherwise. One only has to observe any community that has implemented safe, well-designed bicycle infrastructure, to understand the positive correlation between infrastructure and ridership. Recent research completed by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) revealed a 100% increase in ridership and 50% decrease in risk as a result of a 50% increase in bicycle infrastructure. It's no accident that 62% of Copenhagen, Denmark residents choose a bicycle as their primary mode of transportation — the infrastructure is specifically designed for it!

And, there is progress is despite the existing barriers. Bicycle advocates are unwavering in working with the many community planners and engineers who come out of their formal education with the goal of building specifically for cars. Recently have some of these professionals and governing bodies have started to see the shining light of bicycle infrastructure's ability to improve community livability, reduce pollution, calm traffic, solve traffic congestion problems, and contribute to the health of the local population. Cities like Minneapolis, MN and Bentonville, AR are showing the fruits of these changes.

Vosper suggests a "Got Milk?"-style advertising" campaign as the way forward. The "Got Milk?" campaign was largely considered a failure, but also, it illustrates that marketing only works well if the product being marketed is desirable. A robust marketing campaign would be a valuable component of an overall push to get people on bikes and out of their cars, but it will only be effective if people view bicycling as a safe, convenient, and viable alternative to driving. Education and encouragement will only take us so far. If people do not have safe, enjoyable places to ride, all of that messaging will be for nothing.

The marketing and messaging that the bicycle industry — from manufacturers to retailers to media outlets to current riders — needs to push is that bicycle infrastructure works. Bicycle infrastructure, and miles and miles more of it is the answer to growing ridership, growing the industry, and creating healthier, more livable communities. Imagine the positive benefit to service departments, to accessory and clothing sales, and of course, to bike sales that everyone from the small local retailer to online outlets will see when 10% or 30% or 50% more citizens choose to pedal.

You can affect this change. Donate to your local bicycle advocacy organization. Help to fund viable infrastructure projects. Educate yourself about local happenings. Connect with community officials and planners. Tell them how important bicycle infrastructure is to your business and your town. Attend meetings. Volunteer. Your community, your industry, and your business will absolutely thrive.

Bike Utah envisions a Utah where complete networks of bike lanes, paths, and trails contribute to livable, healthy communities, allowing everyone to ride regardless of age, ability, or income. Learn more at www.BikeUtah.org.

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