Monday, January 18, 2010

Urban Planning and Cycling Infrastructure

Unless you are living in a cave somewhere that happens to have internet access, your life is affected by Urban Planning. Strike that - if you ARE in a cave, your life might still be affected - as a Planner could have very well written a code provision that protected said cave.

I have heard many times regarding cycling infrastructure: “If only the Planners here had a damn clue” or “they should just tell those Planners to add bike lanes for us cyclists!” Well, the sad thing is that Urban Planning is typically disconnected from any sort of infrastructure decisions that cyclists care about. The real problem is the disconnect between those in Urban Planning departments and those in Public Works departments.

Lets just clarify a few things. One overarching goal of Public Works with regards to transportation is to move cars on the roads and shit in pipes. The roads are built to the standards that exist in the Public Works section of the Municipal Code. Those standards rarely have provisions for cyclists. If they do, consider yourselves damn lucky. The paradigm is that cars and shit are the same - just move that shit from here to there as quickly as possible. Planners live in a happy Planner-Land of zoning and land use - setting up your environs with the utmost care to layout on a grid with nice aesthetic design function or in some (many) cases with a rubber stamp after some developer bullying. A large paradigm in Planner-Land is less cars = better and none is best. Everyone always walks everywhere in rays of sunshine past strategically placed flower pots bursting with color. 

In both cases, cyclists are left out of the equation most of the time because both groups are working outside of “reality.” Public Works is a “by the book” type of arrangement. No cycling infrastructure spelled out in the brain numbing code? No dice. No cyclist friendly engineers in the Public Works Department? No dice. No City Council members on the Public Works Committee that care about your desire for bike lanes? No dice. Nice try. The code is the Law. That Code is probably old and outdated, but that only makes it more powerful. Heard of Moses and his 10 commandments on the stone tablets? I’m pretty sure that Moses could have been a Public Works Director.

Planners, however, are often by nature looking to “get out of the box” and work these solutions into the equation - even in absence of a code provision that allows it. This is a difficult situation to be in. Is the planner breaking the rules consistently? Which rules? Who gets the favor and who doesn’t? Why have any code at all if certain ones can be bent to almost-beyond-recognition? How is consistency maintained when new planners arrive? It also pits the “Word is the Law” Public Works folks against the “Heathen fru-fru rule-breaker Planners” when it comes to infrastructure for cyclists. Many times the Planners can get the cyclists some great fancy-schmancy bike racks but ultimately it is up to the Public Works folks to get the cyclists there or not. In a lot of jurisdictions these two departments are not even in the same building, which means effective communication and collaboration just does not happen.

At best many Planners and jurisdictions have established MUP trails that can be great for cyclists. But those rarely get you anywhere other than recreation. Don’t get me wrong - MUP bike paths are awesome but they have many problems - but a topic for another day.

Cyclists wanting “real” means of transportation options - the ability to access the same services and facilities you could in a car - need to open lines of communication with their transportation folks in the Public Works Department. Get them talking to the Planners some. Too often they do not connect and the REAL recipe to ensure implementation, connection, and continuity of cycling friendly infrastructure gets forgotten. 

Be an advocate for real solutions that work for everyone. Planners get off your high-horse of eliminating every type of powered vehicular transportation and tone down the social engineering. Public Works people wake up and realize that adding safe provisions for lower impact transportation options increases their use and thus in turn reduces future maintenance costs. Win-win here all around. Somewhere in the middle of the Planner dream of a pedestrian-only promenade utopia and the Public Works vision of a 4-lane autobahn through every neighborhood is an environment where cars, pedestrians, and bikes can function somewhat in harmony.

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