Around the country there is growing recognition of the pleasures and practicalities of biking. Travelers return to the United States noting how bikes have been woven into the daily fabric of our European contemporaries and wondering why we can’t do the same here.
Sophisticated, well-traveled, and idealistic, Princetonians have no doubt wondered at bike trails and bike traffic lights in Amsterdam; children transported in cargo bikes in Copenhagen in clouds of bike commuters; bike share systems in Paris and Lyon, and dedicated bike lanes carved into networks of sidewalks and bus lanes in those places; and the simple ubiquity of bikes in Munich and Freiburg.
Support for bikes in Europe is not just an urban phenomenon. Small towns with narrow streets, such as Cambridge (England), Assen, or Lund, find ways to make space for cyclists, and bike racks at village commuter rail stations are filled.
And yet, as admiring as we may be, there is still a sense that something fundamentally and ineffably different about Europe explains why bike ridership and infrastructure is so much more widespread and normal there, and why bike-supportive infrastructure is so difficult to find space for here.
The bike issue of the day in Princeton is whether – when the town repaves part of Hamilton Avenue in the coming year – the new roadway should include bike lanes in both directions between Harrison Street and Snowden Lane. Related to that is the question of whether on-street parking – which is currently forbidden on the north side only – will be forbidden on both sides on this segment of the road in future.
The Municipal Council will hear public comment on February 24th about whether a new ordinance supporting bike lanes and forbidding all on-street parking should be adopted, and a neighborhood meeting will be held prior to that on February 18th.
The arrangement proposed for Hamilton Avenue is not unusual in Europe, in communities large and small, but in Princeton – as in many American settings – the approach is controversial (despite its existence for over a decade as a recommendation in Princeton’s Carmalt 2002 plan, page 40).
Residents of the affected blocks of Hamilton have a number of objections to the ordinance as proposed, most of which can be encompassed by the statement that “the benefits to bike riders won’t be worth the parking impacts to residents.”
The fact that the bike lanes proposed for Hamilton are not part of a broader connected network of programmed bike improvements – as opposed to a list of suggested possibilities, which is what the Carmalt plan is – is a weakness of the current proposal, and a legitimate source of irritation to Hamilton Avenue residents.
Without a broader commitment to connecting bike lanes on Hamilton with similar bike-supporting improvements on Rollingmead, Snowden, and on Hamilton in to town (they don’t have to all be separated lanes, just a connected series of place-appropriate improvements), there’s a risk that the bike lanes as proposed for Hamilton would be merely symbolic for bike riders and would generate either real impacts for residents or end up just being disregarded and unenforced – a big negative for bicyclists, since cynicism about bike improvements would just make bike advocacy harder.
On the other hand, requiring a funded program of bike improvements town-wide as a sine qua non for any particular improvement for bikes would pose a real burden that could delay progress on bike infrastructure in Princeton indefinitely.
Improvements for bikes, though cheap compared to many other transportation investments, are most cost-effectively provided at a time when streets are being improved anyway. This is the case with Hamilton, which is badly in need of repair, and which is scheduled for a resurfacing in the coming year.
Delaying bike improvements on Hamilton means missing this cycle of regular maintenance and, while it wouldn’t preclude future bike improvements on Hamilton, it would certainly delay and reduce the options for future improvements, and potentially make them more expensive.
We need to have lots of bicyclists before we can document the benefits of bike investments; but people won’t bike in numbers necessary to motivate improvements until they feel comfortable on our streets and until there are networks for bikes, not just disconnected segments.
We need to have a comprehensive program of action before we can make any specific improvement, but we can’t get a system-wide program until there’s a broad enough consensus to commit the needed funding.
How do we get out of this chicken-or-egg situation to make progress on the bike-ability of our town? I actually don’t know. One reason I don’t know is that I fundamentally don’t understand why the issue can be so inflammable.
Is it because people who are stressed by the busy-ness of their lives can’t imagine why public space would be prioritized for others to travel in a slower way? Are people on bikes perceived to be judging people in cars? Do some drivers wish they were biking but can’t find a way to make that practical? Whatever it is, it seems that something bigger is going on beyond just cars and bikes, something emotional about how we and others are living their lives.
As regards Hamilton, while I recognize and sympathize with some of the objections of bike lane opponents, on balance I agree with the saying that “a journey begins with one step.” The municipal circulation element states clearly that a goal for in-town transportation is to “promote and encourage pedestrian/bicycle mobility.” (page 44) I think the lanes proposed on Hamilton are a reasonable first step – AND I think it’s time for the municipal council to clarify what this goal statement means in practice, so that individual potential improvements aren’t sequentially opposed and rejected because there’s no town-wide program.
To the larger philosophical and emotional questions, I am left to agree with Hemingway for the moment: the Europeans are different from us because they have more bike infrastructure.
Note: the exchange between Fitzgerald and Hemingway is actually apocryphal, but etched in myth … not unlike the trope about bad relations between cars and cyclists.