Should We Plan Transit for “Bikeability”?

As cycling becomes more and more popular, how should transit planning respond?  I’ve suggested before that better integration of cycling can be crucial to expanding the reach of rapid transit, and possibly eliminating some of the need for less efficient local-stop transit.  That post also attracted great comments from experienced bike+transit riders hammering out the details.

But the details of whether and how much this can work vary a lot from one city to another.

Adam Parast of the University of Washington — one of the voices behind the excellent Seattle Transit Blog — recently completed a Portland and Seattle Cycle Analysis.  It compares the cycling potential of these two rather perfectly different cities:

Parast 1

The above drawings are of “current bikeability,” which combines changeable things like infrastructure with immutable things like topography.  Adam then looks at how bikeable the cities could be with improved infrastructure — but not including flattening the hills.

Parast 2

Portland is a valley, and the dense or densifiable parts of the city are mostly flat or gently sloping.  The westernmost part of the city has ferocious hills, but also a much lower density.  The contiguous bike-friendly area of Portland has the vast majority of the city’s population and activity; I think that’s a key to Portland’s cycling growth and potential.  Portland’s geography is much like that of the European cities that it admires, which are mostly either dead-flat like the Dutch cities or built on gentle valley floors, like Freiburg.  It’s easy to imagine that an aggressive bicycle infrastructure program could continue to drive Portland’s cycling to a point where many people would find they could meet most of the needs of life on a bike, without ever confronting a really steep hill.

Seattle, by contrast, is a city of obstacles, a labyrinth of hills and water barriers.  This makes the city rich in chokepoints where it’s relatively easy to give transit, and bikes, an advantage.  Adam describes this a different way: Seattle, to a cyclist, will always be a series of islands, an archipelago.

Adam could have made this same comparison between mostly-flat Los Angeles and the much more geographically challenged San Francisco Bay Area, or between dead-flat Melbourne and Sydney’s undulating landscape of promontories and ravines.  But Seattle really is exceptional, on a global scale, for the density and severity of obstacles that lacerate every part of the city.  As I observed before, nowhere in Seattle can you go more than a few miles in a straight line without plunging into the water or over a cliff. Even the heart of downtown is on a serious slope, such that people often use building elevators to get from 2nd Avenue to 3rd Avenue.  From a transport perspective, it’s a ridiculous place to build a city.  But of course, this fine-grained obstructedness is inseparable from what makes Seattle a spectacular and exciting place.

The image of Seattle as an archipelago suggests that it will need a lot of “boats.”  On each “island” pedestrians and cyclists will be able to get around locally without much trouble, but getting from one island to another will be a challenge.  Is it possible to design bike boulevards that will connect all of the islands?  Some effective boulevards already exist, crossing water barriers where the topography is gentle, such as the link north from downtown across the Fremont Bridge.  But many desire lines face huge topography barriers.  It’s hard to envision any infrastructure that will make an average cyclist want to ride from downtown to the fortress-like hilltops of West Seattle — let alone that archetype of Dutch cycling, a 60-year-old woman with two bags of groceries.

So archipelago cities who want to invest deeply in cycling — and who want cycling to penetrate the culture beyond the young and athletic — are going to need some links between these islands.  Perhaps we should be thinking about rapid transit more specifically in those terms.  Perhaps this means that highly obstructed “crossings,” such as downtown to West Seattle, should have rapid transit options where you can take your bike on board.  Sound Transit’s new Link light rail line is one such, and it usefully connects downtown to the bikeable “islands” of the Rainer Valley and Tukwila.  But elsewhere, Seattle has buses, and the standard bus generally has limited provision for bikes.

I wonder, in short, if Seattle’s very pro-transit mayor should be thinking along lines that would bring cyclist and active-modes interest to the transit agenda.  Light rail is certainly one product that usually allows bikes on board, but does it have to be light rail?  Should Seattle be designing a rapid bus product that integrates with bikes more effectively?  Do we have to focus on taking bikes on board, or can the same need be met by bike hire stations in each “island”?   It’s an interesting problem, maybe an important one, and not just in Seattle.

21 Responses to Should We Plan Transit for “Bikeability”?

  1. mike April 20, 2010 at 8:16 am #

    There’s definitely a convincing argument here, but perhaps it is overstated. To take your potential comparison of San Francisco and Los Angeles: there are way more people on bikes in the former, despite the large number of hills and the unbikeable Bay Bridge. So topography is important, but infrastructure, culture, and other factors are at least as much so.

  2. Jennifer April 20, 2010 at 9:43 am #

    Culture is definitely huge; there’s a very anti-bike culture here among drivers and things get really nasty sometimes. St. Louis is a great biking city from a topographic point of view, but the cultural factor and the weather I think keep a lot of people from giving it a try.
    Also, some of the flattest places – the places where there should be lots of density and should be very conducive to biking – are perceived as decaying urban wastelands where you’d be insane to walk or bike, places where it’s risky even to drive through the area except in broad daylight at a higher speed. (Some of that perception is well-grounded, some not.) These places tend to provide psychological and safety barriers for bikers. As a person who lives in the Mississippi River bottoms over on the Illinois side, I’d love to bike to work each day, even despite the weather, but I’m not willing to risk my safety to ride through some of the areas between the suburbs where I live and downtown.
    So, back to your post – should/could the planning bodies in St. Louis treat these areas as geographical barriers and take the “island” approach that you recommend for Seattle?

  3. W. K. Lis April 20, 2010 at 10:14 am #

    Missing are parking lots for bicycles at transit stops and stations. Currently, there are plans for people to use their cars to get to the stations, but not for people to bicycle there. Most end up locking their bicycles to posts, poles, or fences.

  4. John April 20, 2010 at 10:39 am #

    Maybe they need tow ropes for cyclists?

  5. Tom West April 20, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    Buses should be able to carry bikes on the front… the inter-regional bus operator in the Gretare Toronto area now has bike racks on the front of its buses, including those that go on the freeway. So do many local operators.
    The buses in Lethbridge, AB has had them for years. Lethbridge is a city somewhat like Seattle in that you have three “islands” of level and easy cycling, with non-bike friendly divisions in between (a steep river valley and a freeway with nasty underpasses respectively). Certainly the buses there help you get from one island to another.

  6. RMC April 20, 2010 at 11:52 am #

    Bridging barriers, water, hills, islands… That sounds like a case for the aerial tram.

  7. M1EK April 20, 2010 at 3:08 pm #

    Again, I’m very wary of the push to integrate bikes with transit – not because they aren’t both good, but because bicycles can be used to hide a really awful transit implementation (to an extent), as is currently happening with the Red Line in Austin.

  8. Jeremy Harris April 20, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    I think you might find Auckland to be a rival to Seattle in terms of hills and choke points, due to two massive harbours extending into all parts of the city and focusing transport corridors into narrow points in the North, North-West, East and South-East and being built on over 70 volcanic cones does not lead to a flat topography…

  9. Jarrett at April 20, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    Jeremy.  Glad I've pricked your civic pride!  There is some very Seattle-like topography in Auckland.  In fact, I sometimes encourage young people from Seattle to visit Auckland if they want to know what Seattle was like 40 years ago, before Microsoft and Amazon and Starbucks.  (That does not mean, of course, that Seattle is Auckland's only future, but it's certainly one of them.  Sydney is another.)
    But the difference is that Auckland's dramatic hilltops are mostly parks, while Seattle tends to build superdense neighborhoods on them.  So there are lots of places in Seattle where huge volumes of people have to climb steep hills.  Not so many of those in Auckland, except perhaps the grade separating the University area from Queen St.

  10. alexjonlin April 20, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    Practically every single King County Metro bus in Seattle has bike racks (there may be a couple outliers out of the fleet of thousands of buses that don’t have racks, but I’ve only seen one without a rack once). They are currently in the process of replacing the racks with newer, easy to use, three-bike racks. I believe that almost all of the other bus agencies around the region have bike racks on the vast majority of their buses as well. Each Link light rail car has two bike hooks and allows to people to stand with bikes, allowing 8 bikes per two-car train (the trains will be expanded to four-car trains, allowing 16 bikes, when some extensions open in a few years). So in Seattle, we already integrate bikes into transit pretty well.

  11. Richard April 20, 2010 at 7:35 pm #

    Hills are pretty much not relevant going forward with electric bicycles becoming less expensive, lighter and more reliable. Over 20 million per year are being sold in China. They are also pretty popular in the Netherlands.

  12. Tessa April 20, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    Just wondering, i’m guessing the study didn’t take into account density and a high number of destinations within a given area, meaning that people wouldn’t have to bike as far as they would. Even if I’m biking on flat land, going on a 15 km bike ride is sometimes more intimidating than a short, 1-2 km bike ride up and down a hill (especially since the down part is always so much fun!)
    Shouldn’t that also be included into a study? Or did this one take it into account and am I simply not giving it credit?

  13. Steven Vance April 20, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    Adding to what alexjonlin said…
    I just returned from Seattle. I took the Link light rail train from downtown Westlake to Seatac airport (SEA). I noticed at one of the stations (I think SODO) they had *covered* bike parking AND bike lockers. The station is also along a trail that was built parallel to the line that connects to another trail (multi-use path).

  14. Jarrett April 20, 2010 at 10:29 pm #

    Yes, I recognize that KC Metro has bike racks on buses. The question is really how do you make this “scale” to an era when a much larger percentage of the population wants to use bikes.

  15. sahctu April 21, 2010 at 11:55 am #

    As a Seattlite who uses a combination of biking and busing to commute, two- or even three-bike racks are not enough. Bicyclists are often left behind at bus stops because the bike racks are already full. On sunny days in particular, I have found myself biking backwards along the bus route to an earlier stop in hopes of securing a free rack for my bicycle.
    I am lucky now, in that my commute involves the new Swift service from Community Transit (in the next county north of Seattle), which uses on-board bike racks (for 3 bikes) on articulated coaches. Coaches were also outfitted for fewer seats and more standing room, meaning there is space to simply roll a bike or two on and stand with it if the racks are full. I have never seen a bicyclist turned away on this service, but then it’s not summer here yet. This seems a good solution for bus/bike integration so far, but, of course, it can only be used on routes where articulated coaches are practical, and where the aisles aren’t already full with standees.

  16. Carter R April 22, 2010 at 4:26 am #

    I lived in Seattle for 3 months this fall, with grand plans of biking everywhere that never really materialized, mainly because:
    1) The local bus service worked well enough for almost all my needs.
    2) I living in a rather walkable area (77 @ walkscore)
    3) It’s not just the hills, it’s the fact that they’re really slick 9 months a year.
    All this goes to show how much LA, with it’s sunny flatness and arterial grid is just begging to be a bike friendly city.

  17. Tom Ed White April 22, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    I’ve overcome bike/transit issues with a high-performance kick scooter.
    Everyone on the bus could be carrying one of these things, with room to spare.
    My commute involves riding around 8 miles a day on the scooter, between origin, bus stop, and destination. I’ve time-tested the trips against a bicycle, and, while the bike is faster, its higher speed is mitigated by the need to store and secure it. My overall travel time seems to be the same, or close enough so that I haven’t measured a consistent difference.

  18. Tom Ed White April 22, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    I’ve also noticed other small “transportation devices” coming into use in the university community where I live, skate boards, and even a unicycle. They enjoy the same advantages with transit as a scooter, but have have steeper learning curves.
    These things can come into use and not be noticed. They remain under the radar because they require no support infrastructure or policy.

  19. Barb Chamberlain April 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm #

    I live in Spokane, Washington, where downtown is in a bowl. Most people who live outside the immediate downtown area will face an uphill ride at some point.
    Buses can be the answer for people who can’t handle the hills. This isn’t RAPID transit and bikes won’t replace local frequent-stop transit in topography like this. The transit piece is overcoming physical barriers, not long distances, for cyclists. (And I would argue–as a bike commuter of many years–that many of us already approach transportation time with a different mindset–the “rapid” piece isn’t necessarily part of our planning.)
    Spokane was actually the first city in Washington to put bike racks on every bus in the system. They’re 2-bike racks and we’re now experiencing the problem with full racks. Like many transit systems they’re facing budget cuts and changing service in response; increasing service to cyclists might be a way of gaining ridership.
    As I understand it changing to 3-bike racks if they’re on the front would require not only retraining drivers (a 3-bike rack makes a longer bus); it would also require changes in some stop locations because there isn’t room to pull in with the longer configuration.
    We have a great partnership between Bike to Work Spokane, which I co-chair, and Spokane Transit. They bring a bus to the Education Fair we have to kick off Bike to Work Week so people can get hands-on practice with the rack without the pressure of feeling they’re holding up the route using it the first time. We’ll have posters publicizing this year’s events in all 170 buses in the system and in our central plaza. I pitch “bike/bus combo” to new commuters who are intimidated by the length of their ride before they realize how doable biking is. The mental shift I made in becoming a bike commuter also made me a non-driver, for the most part, so when it’s too snowy to bike (because drivers will slide into me) I switch to the bus. It’s a natural match whether the system provides slower transit or rapid transit.
    Your blog is a tremendous resource. I’m now on a transportation advisory committee for our metropolitan planning organization and will be recommending it to fellow members.
    Co-chair, Bike to Work Spokane
    Member, City of Spokane Bicycle Advisory Board

  20. Jarrett at April 25, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    Thanks, Barb.  I agree about the importance of hill-climbing transit even in a cycling utopia.  Note too that where you have steep hills + high frequencies + hydropower, you have a case for electric trolleybuses, which are not just zero-emission but also quieter and much more powerful at hill-climbing.  See Seattle or San Francisco.  I worked a lot on the STA system around 2000, soI realise the frequencies aren't there yet, but it's an idea to keep in mind.

  21. Lisa February 28, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    Cable cars with bike racks!