It’s not about the bicycle; it’s about the infrastructure

Originally published March 24, 2011 on

I enjoy the technology of the bicycle: the machinery that makes self-propelled travel possible; the machinery that an average owner can maintain at reasonable cost with a few simple tools. Moreover, I really enjoy how that technology has been steadily improving over the past 40 years.

But I don’t need the latest and greatest equipment. A bicycle is still a bicycle: it’s not going to pedal itself.

In fact, you could argue that the general outline of the machine – a seat here, handlebars there, equal-sized, air-filled tires and rear wheel drive – was settled in the 1890s, though you have to admit that 120 years of refinement have made bicycling way more enjoyable.

Today’s tires are lighter, livelier and more durable. Frames are more precisely constructed, with similar results. Brakes are easier to adjust and maintain. Multi-gear systems match the rider’s limited power to a wide range of wind and road conditions.

There’s only one potential problem with today’s road bicycle, and that’s the environment in which it is (or isn’t) operated. What we’re talking about is infrastructure: the existence and quality of bicycle-friendly roads, paths, trails and parking. Bicycle access.

Some locations have better infrastructure than others. Sometimes it’s by design, a conscious decision to introduce improvements; more often, it’s the result of benign neglect. In other words, they haven’t screwed up a good thing yet.

Erik & DanielleFor instance, a city that simply continues to support and extend a 19th-century street grid is likely to have a mix of high-speed and low-speed roads, with more or less traffic on certain streets. Chances are good that people riding bicycles in that city can 1) find a route that suits their comfort level and 2) use that route to get to the places they want to go.

Rural areas have their possibilities, too, especially for recreational riding. For instance, farmers in central Illinois and other states have long been the reason behind the continued existence of the paved and lightly traveled roads that are so amenable to bicycle travel. I’ve used farm roads to comfortably ride from Appleton, Wisconsin, to Peoria and from Peoria to southern Indiana and to central and southwestern Missouri.

Such roads are one of the reasons that Illinois can promote the Mackinaw Valley Trail, a combination of on-road and off-road connections.

Unfortunately, there’s no natural law that ensures bicycle-friendly areas remain bicycle friendly. Many communities, including Peoria, abandoned the grid in the 1950s and 1960s in favor of a cul-de-sac planning mentality that eliminated low-traffic, low-speed connectors in favor of dead-end neighborhoods tied to high-traffic arterials.

Similarly, some rural roads were summarily bisected by interstate highways, reducing local travel options for all road users.

And that’s a shame. When you damage the diversity of a transportation system – a diverse system being one that addresses the needs of pedestrians and people on bicycles as well as other travelers – it’s difficult to re-establish it.

Just as we tend to forget what an area looked like before an historic specimen oak was cut down, we tend to forget the travel options available to our predecessors, but denied to ourselves. Moreover, people can sometimes confuse the status quo with its desirability, such as when Illinois Representative Joe Walsh said one reason to question the cost effectiveness of high-speed rail was the idea that Americans love their cars.

That’s not to say we don’t love our cars. But a lot of Americans really don’t have any transportation choices besides the car. It’s like two people stranded on a island. Yes, they might love each other, but it’s just as possible that they would have liked to consider some other options before settling down.

That’s what bicycling can and should be: another transportation option. And that’s why having the most advanced bicycle derailleurs, wheels and frameset just isn’t all that interesting to me. You can improve the bicycle all you want, but at the end of the day, you need access.

You need bicycle-friendly infrastructure, which depends on a society that values transportation diversity.

What you don’t need is someone’s stereotypically romantic assessment of the relationship between car driver and car. What you don’t need is “love.”