U.S. cities trying to attract young residents and the businesses that hire them are increasingly finding magic in the bike lane.
With more people pedaling for transportation and recreation, lanes separated from traffic by poles, curbs or other barriers have almost doubled since 2011 and may again by 2016, according to PeopleForBikes, a Colorado advocacy group that tallies them.
There are almost 150 protected lanes in 41 cities with about 200 projects planned, the group said. Municipalities such as New York, Chicago and Memphis are adding lanes, bike-sharing services and other infrastructure for an option prized by many millennials born after 1980 and the technology firms and employers who want their services.
“Young folks are looking for choice,” said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., a Democrat who has installed 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers) of lanes since 2013 with plans for 22 miles by 2016. “The minute they see that, it dispels the notion that Memphis is that city that’s stuck in a time warp way back somewhere.”
Wharton, 69, said that’s a big change from a couple of decades ago, when the few cyclists on Memphis streets would be called “hippies” or “weirdos.” The number of U.S. bicycle commuters increased about 60 percent since 2000 to 786,000 in 2008-2012, a larger percentage increase than that of any other travel mode, according a U.S. Census report in May.
Even as some residents complain about losing parking and roadway, leaders with limited ability to handle more cars see that cycling makes sense, said Martha Roskowski of PeopleForBikes.
“It’s not because they’re passionate about bikes,” said Roskowski. “It’s because they’re seeing that bikes are a tool for helping make their cities work better.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised in 2011 to install 100 miles of protected lanes by next year.
“Improving our bicycling facilities is critical to creating the quality of life in Chicago that attracts businesses and families,” Emanuel, a Democrat, said in an April 5 release announcing that the city is halfway to his goal.
Emanuel has pointed to decisions by businesses such as Google Inc.’s Motorola Mobility unit. Bicycle access was one consideration when the company moved its global headquarters and about 2,000 employees downtown in April, spokesman William Moss said.
Chicagoans take an average of almost 125,000 daily bike trips, and cycling to work more than tripled from 2000 to 2012, according to an analysis by the Active Transportation Alliance, which advocates public transit, cycling and walking.
Strapping on a gun-metal-black helmet at the end of a workday, Terry Park, 29, said lanes are “one of the perks” of living in Chicago. He said he rides 15 minutes to and from his job in the financial district rain or shine, even in winter.
“The bike lanes help,” Park said. “I tend to ride the streets that have them.”
Not everyone is a fan. When pollster Mike McKeon did a political survey this year for the Chicago Sun-Times, he said about 30 respondents offered unsolicited comments about how much they disliked the lanes.
“It really surprised me how vitriolic it was,” McKeon said. “You’re giving privileged travel to a few at the cost of a lot.”
Yet each $1 million invested in bicycling infrastructure creates 11.4 jobs for a state, a 2011 study by Heidi Garrett- Peltier of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst said. That compared with 7.8 for road-only projects, the study found.
Budgets for biking and walking projects in the 50 most populous U.S. cities plus New Orleans and Honolulu rose to $292.3 million in 2012 from $261.8 million the year before, according to an Alliance for Biking & Walking report in April.
The more than 8,600 miles of on-street unprotected bike lanes in those cities dwarfs the number of protected tracks, according to the report. Yet protected lanes appeal to those who may not be comfortable riding near cars. They’re a key part of a network that includes bike trails and open lanes, said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, a Washington advocacy group.
“There’s a place for all of those things in a well- designed, well-thought out urban transportation system,” Clarke said.
–With assistance from Tim Jones in Chicago.