Biking Uphill Is Satisfying, and Other Bicycle Research From TRB 2013

Today is Day Three of the Transportation Research Board’s annual conference. Interested in pavement composition and performance? There are 200 workshops with your name on them.

Bring transportation officials from your hometown to Copenhagen to gawk at all the "non-fat non-motorists." Photo: ##

Interested in bicycling? There’s quite a bit for you too. Yesterday, 13 scholars presented their research on cycling. Here are a few highlights:

Take Your City Engineer to Copenhagen. Cortney Mild of the University of Oregon studied the impact of study trips led by Bikes Belong and FHWA to cycling cities in Europe [PDF], showing policymakers and transportation professionals the potential of better infrastructure. They found that the tour participants were overwhelmed at the sheer number of cyclists and the “normalcy” of it in everyday life, with people of all ages, athletic abilities, genders, and economic statuses getting on bikes.

Dave Cieslewicz, former mayor of Madison, realized that the Netherlands achieved high rates of cycling not just “because the price of gas is so high and the land is flat,” but “by making conscious decisions about bicycle infrastructure and policies.” He said that what “hit [him] over the head” was that the U.S. “can make conscious policy decisions that dramatically change the mode share.”

The most common improvement these participants implemented in their home towns upon returning was colored pavement to call attention to complicated intersections. But they also returned excited about opportunities to build cycle tracks.

Connectivity Does In Fact Boost Mode Share. Jessica Schoner of the University of Minnesota found that bike route connectivity was a significant factor in increasing mode share in the the 74 U.S. cities she studied – but, surprisingly, “fragmentation” is not. I asked if fragmentation wasn’t just the lack of connectivity. She said fragments were “little islands of bike facility everywhere.” The size of the bicycle network was also not a significant factor in mode share, according to her research.

The Mineta Transportation Institute studied this issue recently, looking at high-stress and low-stress streets for biking in San Jose. They found that while 67 percent of the city’s streets were “low-stress,” that didn’t help if, to get between them, you have to risk your hide on wide, arterial streets with speeding traffic.

Schoner also found that households with seniors or children were far less likely to ride bikes. I suppose this isn’t shocking, but it is disheartening. She said parents often have “more complex trip-chaining needs” and she’d hoped greater connectivity would ameliorate that problem some, but it didn’t appear to.

Biking Uphill Is Satisfying. It’s an established fact that cyclists rate their commute as more “satisfying” than others.

Researcher Devon Paige Willis from Montreal’s McGill University surveyed more than 5,600 students about their travel behavior [PDF], and 268 of them rode bicycles (three times Montreal’s average mode share of 2 percent). People who rode out of an environmental conviction or health goal were more satisfied than those looking for just a convenient commute. Willis calls it the “halo effect” – the satisfaction that comes from living your values.

The built environment also had a big effect, with population density having the highest impact on bike mode share. “We hypothesized that land use would impact it,” Willis told me, “that parks and residential areas would end up with people being more satisfied.” But those factors weren’t nearly as significant as population density. Cyclists like an interesting ride, Willis told me, with lots of people around and lots of activity. She said the traffic congestion often associated with high population density didn’t seem to drag down the satisfaction level.

Another surprise is that hillier commutes were more satisfying.

“It’s not intuitive and it’s something we have not entirely explained,” Willis said. “My personal hypothesis is that because cyclists are cycling a lot of the time for exercise and health, the slope is not an inhibitor to them.”

That would indicate to me that “satisfaction” is not necessarily the same as “enjoyment.” However, the 58 students who said they biked year-round found their commute less satisfying than those who only rode in good weather.

To Promote Cycling, Emphasize Its Convenience, Not Just Creating More “Non-Fat Non-Motorists.” So should the pitch for people to start cycling be all about the “halo effect”? Maria Börjesson of the Centre for Transport Studies at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm studied the ways cycling is promoted. She found that campaigns emphasize those “halo effect” benefits – health, environment – which are indirect effects of cycling, to the exclusion of biking’s direct effects.

“Rather than invoking positive effects on travel costs and travel times – as planners would do for other modes of transport – cycling measures are often motivated by reduced negative externalities of car traffic,” she found. “It silently presupposes that the cycle’s advantages in itself, as a mode of travel, are not enough to make it competitive. Moreover, the ‘indirect effects’ argument disregards cyclists as travelers. Cyclists are only important to the extent that they have become ‘non-fat non-motorists.’”

Notably, when Börjesson talks about planners invoking the health benefits of cycling, she means they emphasize the health of the population, not the individual. Therefore, she sees the arguments made for cycling being discriminatory against cyclists, as if their motivations should all be generalized toward the common good and not simply their own convenience of a quicker, smoother, cheaper trip.

Australians Are Wusses About the Cold. Professor Geoffrey Rose of Monash University found that in Australia, daily bike commuters tend to ride less in the winter, while more casual cyclists will usually keep biking at their normal rate, presumably able to find a few nice days each week to ride. Granted, this research [PDF] was done in Melbourne, Australia, where winters are mild. “In Denmark, they’ll cycle through three feet of snow,” Rose told me. “In Australia, if it looks like it’s going to rain, people pull the plug.”

Casual cyclists in Rose’s study were 2.3 times more likely than committed ones to use a private automobile as their backup mode in bad weather, while committed cyclists rode transit as their backup. The upshot, Rose said, is that if the goal is to reduce miles driven, “we have to figure out what we can do to support casual cyclists.”

Of course, weather isn’t the only factor that helps a casual cyclist decide whether any given day will be a bicycle day. Activities planned before or after work, the need to carry a lot of items, the clothes required for work, and the availability of other modes are also factors – not to mention the not-insignificant issue of whether they feel like it.


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