When most people in the US need to go somewhere, they reach for their car keys. There are plenty of reasons for this: driving is easy, it’s comfortable, and it requires very little preparation. But also, it’s hard to do anything else, and maybe the hardest of those hard things is cycling.
But plenty of people do it anyway. Whether by choice or because it’s their only option, millions of Americans bike to get where they’re going — around 50 million people biked at least once in 2022. And when people choose to ride, they’re facing the very real chance they might be run down by someone driving a car who either couldn’t see them or just didn’t bother to look — which happens far too often, leading to recent cyclist death counts not seen since the 1970s.
That’s because US cycling infrastructure has a long way to go before it can catch up with European cities like Copenhagen, Denmark, the bicycle paragon where the streets reflect that cycling is the norm for most people. At least in the US, bike lanes and trails are rare in the suburbs, and in cities, they can be unevenly dispersed or frustratingly disconnected, forcing cyclists to get creative to go anywhere safely. Plenty of factors get in the way here: political or cultural opposition to the very idea of bikes; resistance to changes perceived as taking space away from cars; and neighborhoods worried about the sanctity of trees as new traffic patterns are considered.
US cycling infrastructure has a long way to go before it can catch up with European cities like Copenhagen
Even for places perceived as bike-friendly, bike lanes aren’t a given. In Portland, Oregon, a city famous for its bike culture, a newly painted bike lane is in “limbo” because the city didn’t do the proper parking studies. Local cyclists blocked the crews that went to remove it after residents protested.
The US, like most of the world, is straining under the weight of cars and their baggage. People are buying bigger, heavier vehicles, causing roads to crack and deteriorate. EVs cause less atmospheric harm, but their production is deeply problematic, and they’re too heavy for the country’s crumbling roads. Car tires still create unhealthy pollution. Even setting aside environmental, social, and structural concerns, the US’s swollen SUVs and trucks are killing people more often and more effectively, and Black people and people of color are dying at disproportionate rates.
Roads and highways are also expensive. A list of Florida Department of Transportation reports on various projects, for example, puts new construction of a two-lane urban arterial road with a four-foot bike lane at very nearly $6 million per mile. Widening it can cost even more. By contrast, the most expensive pedestrian and cyclist improvement — a two-way, 12-foot shared-use path — is listed at about $410,000. Cycling infrastructure also doesn’t cost nearly as much to maintain. In fact, it’s likely a net financial benefit instead, owing to the reduced healthcare debt of more active people.
A world with fewer cars would be plainly better for the climate, and not just because of emissions. The world’s climate is barreling toward a nightmare scenario — for some, it’s already there — and cars are still rolling off of lots and onto roads in massive numbers. More cars mean more road wear, more construction, and more emissions. And as cities tear away greenery to make way for that construction or create the components to make cars and then replace it with heat-absorbing concrete, the vicious cycle continues as people use more energy to cool businesses and homes in the ever-hotter weather.
In spite of the dangerous relationship people in the US have with their cars, when push comes to shove, many of us still love bicycles. YouGov conducted a survey (download) 10 years ago that found that only 6 percent of people in the US never learned how to ride a bike. But even as cycling to work has become less popular since 2014, StreetLight Data found a 37 percent nationwide growth in general cycling trips in its GPS-based study from 2019 to 2021. The covid pandemic spurred a cycling boom that is still reverberating.
But as the societal response to the pandemic waned, so did that growth, and it flatlined in 2022. The numbers will go down if cycling infrastructure doesn’t keep up.
Thankfully, there are optimistic, dedicated people advocating for just that.
Gussying up the Midwest
Milwaukee is a mostly pleasant city for cycling, with a city-spanning paved trail stretching from the city’s north end to its south end and bike lanes waiting to carry you onward from most of its frequent exits. That’s on the east side of town. Go a couple of miles west, and your options for safe routes dwindle fast.
But things are changing after the city adopted a Complete Streets ordinance mandating road designs that facilitate all kinds of transportation, not just cars. It later announced its Vision Zero policy to eliminate traffic deaths by 2037. This year, the city became an affiliate member of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), an association of cities that share safe, equitable road design guidance with each other.
Jake Newborn, assistant director of the cycling advocate group Wisconsin Bike Fed, said that former Mayor Tom Barrett managed to get plenty of bike lanes painted, but otherwise, he was very “steady as he goes.” Simple, unprotected bike lanes may actually do more harm than good in some situations, and more needs to be done.
“It all kind of came together as a tipping point as we got those different policies — the NACTO, the Complete Streets, and the Vision Zero — all kind of falling in order and then aligning with Mayor [Cavalier] Johnson,” Newborn said.
Mayor Johnson, who became the acting mayor in 2021 when Barrett became the ambassador to Luxembourg after nearly 20 years in office, was soon officially elected. Newborn said that not only has Johnson been very supportive of active transportation initiatives but also the right people ended up in the right positions in both the Department of Public Works and the city engineer’s office — a perfect storm for getting better bike infrastructure built.
“The other factor is just the reckless driving issues from the pandemic,” Newborn said. “There was this kind of collective ‘we’re just fed up with the dangerous driving,’ and one of those solutions to reduce even the ability to recklessly drive or speed is infrastructure.”
Reckless driving in Milwaukee got bad enough during the pandemic that, in his first act after assuming office, Johnson declared it a public health crisis. Media has given a lot of attention to the Kia Boys — more of a TikTok car theft trend than any actual organized effort — but reckless speeding has been especially bad. Drivers also swerve into the bike lane to pass cars that aren’t speeding so often that the city has a name for it: the Milwaukee slide.
“There was this kind of collective ‘we’re just fed up with the dangerous driving’”
New approaches included a road diet for Martin Luther King Jr. Drive that shrank the four-lane road to two, with a center turn lane and outside bike lanes. Milwaukee’s 2022 Complete Streets report showed that the changes caused drivers there to slow down by 10 miles per hour from 2020 to 2022.
Newborn said specific projects like the MLK Jr. Drive road diet instead of big, statewide policies have been Bike Fed’s priority for the last few years because of the bitter bipartisan divisions in the Wisconsin legislature. Getting laws passed, he said, simply takes too much time and effort because neither side is willing to give a win to the other.
That approach helped it net a major victory when the state Department of Transportation agreed to a dramatic makeover of a state-owned trucking route called National Avenue. The proposal is unlike anything in the city: it will get raised, protected cycle tracks, raised crosswalks with extended curbs, fewer lanes, and better bus stops. The change would give cyclists a new, safer east–west corridor that connects to another nearby protected cycle track that itself is a short jog over lightly used roads to the Oak Leaf trail that extends the north–south length of the city, enabling a crucial new connector between neighborhoods.
Cycling isn’t just for the well-off
But redesigns can leave nearby disadvantaged communities cold if they don’t feel it reflects their needs. Newborn said folks in Milwaukee’s northwest side like the change, though, even when they aren’t cyclists.
“They’re walking and they’re crossing the street, or they’re taking the bus,” Newborn said, “and they’re sick of seeing crashes and having community and family members die.”
But Newborn said bike advocates don’t try to tell the largely Black community what it should want and instead focus on making sure they’re aware of the options they have for roadway designs. And he said the city is dedicated to ensuring safer road configurations are distributed equitably, rather than just making downtown streets safer.
Tekisha Hobbs, board president of Bike Friendly South Dallas (BFSD), has a similar report from her advocacy work in the Black and Hispanic communities of South Dallas. Hobbs said that Dallas’ leaders are preparing to update the city’s bike master plan, and they want BFSD to help them with it.
“The way it was presented to me was that, ‘hey, we’re getting good feedback, but we’re getting feedback from a lot of middle-aged white males,’” Hobbs said, “and they wanted to know more about what brown, Black people, females, and underserved people in, for example, South Dallas [want].”
“They’re sick of seeing crashes and having community and family members die”
She said a lot of people use bicycles as their primary means of transportation because they have no other choice, and many of them come to BFSD’s We-Cycle resource center to get a refurbished bike through the Earn-a-Bike program the group offers. That program is part of how BFSD gets input from its community to present to the city — Hobbs said the group talks to people about their needs when they visit. It also takes a more active role, inviting local neighbors to speak up when the chance occurs.
“We had a session where the transportation people came in,” she said, “and it was kind of like an open house. We invited people from the community of South Dallas to ask those guys questions and give that feedback.”
Hobbs, whose advocacy work started after a fatal crash involving a friend, said the community mainly wants to be seen and to be safe. South Dallas has some bike lanes, but the “stripes are faded [and] glass is in there,” so “making sure the city maintains them on a consistent basis” is a big focus for BFSD.
The ground floor
Winning new cycling infrastructure doesn’t just happen on its own. BFSD has only been active since 2012, and its focus is on the basics: just getting the city to maintain the few bike lanes that already exist. When asked about a project he’d really like to see come through, Newborn said Bike Fed has been pursuing a miles-long rail trail that requires negotiating with a railroad company. But Hobbs had more modest goals.
“Personally for me,” Hobbs said, “getting that safe-passing law passed in Texas.” At the moment, Texas law says drivers should pass other road users at a safe distance but leaves drivers to decide what that actually means. In 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry vetoed a law that would have required drivers to give a three-foot berth when passing cyclists because, he wrote in the proclamation, it would have put the onus of responsibility on drivers to ensure vulnerable road users’ safety.
Hobbs doesn’t pin the lack of bike infrastructure in South Dallas on the city. On the contrary, she said, “They seem to be really, really open to any recommendations or any feedback that we have.”
Hobbs described “the Loop” — a name given to a series of 11 trails intended to “connect Dallas to Dallas” by forming an unbroken, 50-mile circuit around the city center. When it’s finished, the project will connect to five of the city’s DART commuter rail stations. One leg of the Loop that runs alongside the Trinity River on Dallas’ southwest side connects to the DFW Discovery Trail, a 66-mile paved path under development that would connect Dallas to Fort Worth, passing through several of the mid-cities on its way.
The good infrastructure
The trail network Hobbs described to me is a far cry from the metroplex I knew growing up — I rode my bike in Dallas a lot but always on neighborhood streets and never for transportation outside of going to nearby friends’ houses because doing so was undeniably life-threatening (and still largely is).
After leaving for Austin in my mid-20s, I watched from afar as my hometown slowly became more bike-friendly over the past decade. Neither city is on top of its game yet — PeopleForBikes ranks Fort Worth and Dallas 153rd and 147th in the state on its 2023 list of best cities for cycling, respectively — but their progress has still been impressive.
Another smaller place has done remarkable things, though, and it’s not technically a city at all. The number two Texas location on PeopleForBikes’ list is The Woodlands, which sits nearly 30 miles north of Houston and is home to over 100,000 people. It’s both a census-designated place and a special-purpose district.
Winning new cycling infrastructure doesn’t just happen on its own
The Woodlands’ governmental structure is… unusual. It’s administered by a board of directors and a CEO inside a company called The Woodlands Township. Texas oil magnate George P. Mitchell created the planned community in 1974 to “entice city slickers looking for far-flung suburban quality of life,” according to the Houston Business Journal.
Patricia Kievlan, a board member of the Bike The Woodlands Coalition, said, “Mitchell had this vision to create this new model of suburban development that was really working in harmony with nature.”
“The plan from the beginning was that there was going to be a network of what they used to call the hike and bike trails which are now called the pathways,” she said, “and so we’ve got this extensive pathway system that’s nestled and winding within the forest and that lines every street,” said Kievlan.
The result is that The Woodlands is a very pedestrian-friendly community. But the district has had trouble getting new bike infrastructure put in place on the roads because of its strange qualities as a community.
The Woodlands, Kievlan said, has had a bike master plan in place for years, but for a long time, it couldn’t get them funded. That’s because most grants are written in such a way that only cities can use them — and The Woodlands isn’t a city. Then, when it tried for rural-area grants, the community found that because it already had such good cycling infrastructure, it couldn’t get those grants, either.
After the covid pandemic hit, the same technicalities prevented the district from getting covid relief funding, so community leaders drew up a 2021 ballot measure to incorporate into a city as a way to get more funding. But around 65 percent of the district’s population rejected the measure, firmly putting to bed the idea that its cycling infrastructure goals could count on government funding. Still, Kievlan said, removing ambiguity around what form of local government it will have ultimately helped get the gears turning.
“Some of the people who were like, ‘Well maybe let’s not take action on things because we might become a city at some point’ [decided to] move forward with some of these things we were kind of holding off on because our form of government might have changed,” Kievlan said.
Fortunately, the coalition found the COO of the township, Chris Nunes, was very open to their ideas, according to Kievlan. She said the group is in constant email contact with him and works from a list of projects, from The Woodlands bike plan, that are tracked in a living document. One such project includes connecting a neighborhood, Harper’s Landing, to the rest of the city with a pathway. Kievlan said the only way the neighborhood’s residents can get to hospitals and a school just on the other side of Interstate 45 from them is via a state highway with no sidewalks, making cycling or walking dangerous.
Kievlan said that the Coalition and other community entities wrote letters to the Township, urging it to apply for a Texas Department of Transportation grant that the district ultimately won, to the tune of $7.5 million. That, along with $1.8 million kicked in by The Woodlands Township, will fund the construction of five miles of mixed-use, paved pathway along state highway 242.
It’s deeply weird that The Woodlands is led by, essentially, a company. Yes, the lack of regulatory tape helps it move more nimbly than an ordinary city, but it has inherent weaknesses, too. Kievlan said that the township can and does do a lot with its plentiful bike trails, but only its bike trails.
“They are not in charge of the roads,” she said, “the roads are controlled by the counties.” They can work with the counties to enact change, but they don’t have much recourse if the county doesn’t want to do something.
Kievlan’s childhood hints at one possible future for US cities: “I think that’s one of the things that I like about living here. Having grown up here and experienced what it’s like to be a kid who biked to school every day in fifth and sixth grade. I was a kid bike commuter.”
She added, “It was safe, and there was a crossing guard, and there were pathways … that’s an idyllic kind of childhood, and I’m excited for my kid to have that childhood.”
The three communities represented three distinct phases of cycling advocacy, different priorities, and different approaches. Surprisingly, all of them felt local politicians were eager to know what they want when it comes to cycling infrastructure and safer pedestrian affordances — and enthusiastic about making those things real.
For Milwaukee, the challenges were complacency and timing, while the South Dallas community has just needed a voice speaking for it. In The Woodlands, a wholehearted willingness to make the roads safer ran into the peculiarities of its origins and unusual makeup.
In all cases, funding is unsurprisingly a challenge all around. But the work of creating cycling infrastructure has clear returns, both in terms of public health and the financial vibrance of a community.
Photography by Wes Davis / The Verge
Update December 11th, 2023, 10:38AM PT: Updated with some clarification from Patricia Kievlan of Bike The Woodlands Coalition.