Residents of American cities and college towns may have noticed a growing urban species whizzing down their streets. One strand of the highly adaptive Homo pedalis can be identified by telltale markings: a single leg of skinny jeans rolled up, a plaid shirt unbuttoned to alleviate perspiration and a clumsy retro helmet. As many young professionals choose cities over suburbs, the rising cost of living has pushed newcomers to the fringes of the urban core. Mass transit is not always available or convenient. Driving is costly and time-consuming. So young urbanites, like people nationwide, have turned to bicycles; bike use has gone up 39 percent nationally since 2001, according to the League of American Bicyclists. In the seventy largest US cities, commuter bike use is up 63 percent. “The cities are seeing huge rises [in cycling],” says Jeffrey Miller, executive director of the Alliance for Biking and Walking. “San Francisco has been seeing a massive increase, Chicago is seeing huge numbers, DC is seeing huge increases.”
The urban biking surge can be linked to a number of other factors, from high gas prices to an increased awareness of climate change. New bicyclists have discovered how unsafe many roads are for riding—and in response they have helped reinvigorate a movement that was once the sole province of urban planners and environmentalists: to reshape America’s streets.
In 2005 the National Complete Streets Coalition was born. A spinoff of America Bikes, the national nonprofit “advocating for positive outcomes for bicycling in the federal transportation bill,” Complete Streets has taken this mission and broadened it to advocate for the needs of all users at state and local levels. “A true complete streets policy must apply to everyone traveling along the road,” the group says on its website, as part of a recommended list of “ten elements of a comprehensive complete streets policy.” Rather than emphasize potentially divisive questions of lifestyle or environmental impact, the primary selling point is safety: making sure drivers and nondrivers alike, especially children and the elderly, can use streets safely, on foot or bicycle. Complete streets legislation has been passed in seventeen states—and at least eighty-one jurisdictions—most recently New York, where the law was dubbed Brittany’s Law, after a 14-year-old girl who was killed by a car on the way to school in Wantagh, on Long Island. Her mother was part of the coalition that lobbied for the law and included AARP, one of the Complete Streets Coalition’s primary members. The new law stipulates that complete streets design principles must be taken into consideration by the New York State Department of Transportation when overseeing or undertaking new projects.
For decades traffic engineers saw their purpose as simply moving cars, a perception that has not entirely changed. “There are some departments of transportation that still very much see that they only have this one role,” explains Complete Streets executive director Barbara McCann. Complete streets legislation has been pushed primarily by groups seeking alternatives to cars. Bills like the one passed in New York require transportation agencies to consider how they will move not just cars safely and efficiently but also pedestrians and bicyclists. This could mean wider sidewalks, more bike lanes, fewer car lanes or other traffic calming measures. In June the Association of American State Highway and Transportation Officials approved the first new routes in more than thirty years for a planned national network of bike routes. Biking activists deserve much credit for this shift. “The complete streets movement started with biking, but is much broader than that,” says McCann. “The big engine has been the bike community.”
Who is this community? The popularity of biking among creative-class professionals has given rise to the impression among some that bicycling—which is cheaper than driving or even mass transit—is the preoccupation of a narrow set of city residents. “These bike lanes are elitist, and they only serve a few people,” said a neighborhood representative at a public meeting last year to discuss bike lanes that would connect South West and South East Washington, DC. It’s certainly true that many of the bikers pedaling around the hipper city precincts appear to be of the bourgeois-bohemian persuasion. But take a look across the country and bicyclists are a diverse lot, including immigrants who lack the documentation to get a driver’s license and people who are too poor to own a car. These are disproportionately minorities. According to a 2006 report by the Brookings Institution and the University of California, Berkeley, 19 percent of blacks live in households without a car, compared with 13.7 percent of Hispanics and 4.6 percent of whites.