What does it take to keep new riders riding?

New York City has made tremendous strides toward improving cycling in the city. New bike lanes are built each year, the Citibike service area continues to expand, and new and better bridge crossings are being built as I write this. With the great 2020 disruptor – COVID – many new riders tried biking in the city for the first time, encouraged by the lack of traffic. Many are calling on the city to capitalize on this moment and keep new riders riding, which begs the question: what does it take to keep new riders riding? And how do we encourage people to ride bikes even as traffic comes back?

In 2005, Roger Geller of the Portland Bureau of Transportation categorized the city’s population in terms of willingness and ability to ride a bike. He described the following: 

Researchers at Portland State University later conducted a national survey of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the US to understand how applicable these categories are to other cities.

They found certain demographic differences in the categorization (for example, more women are likely to fall in the Interested but Concerned category than men), and while the exact percentages differed slightly, the relative proportion of these categories among a national population held roughly true.

This finding is significant! If cities want to get more people riding (and keep people riding) for at least some of their trips – and they should because of the reductions in carbon emissions, pollutants, noise, and congestion and the improvements in health and mental wellbeing – this “Middle 60” and the barriers they face to riding must be considered. These barriers are not universal and should be explored across various geographic and demographic populations, but I want to highlight a common barrier that I see for myself – an Enthused and Confident rider – and others: safe navigation and route planning. 

How do New Riders Know Where to Go?

Google Maps is a major entry point for navigating a city by bike. Last summer, as more people than ever took to biking, they likely used this map tool to determine their route. In fact, Google reported a 69% increase in requests for cycling directions in July 2020. This map features your standard Google map with green lines representing bike lanes. More illustrative but with less on-the-go functionality is NYCDOT’s bike map, which provides different colored lines for different types of bike facilities: protected lanes, standard lanes, and signed routes. Both of these maps – and every other bike map I’ve ever seen – overlays these lines on the standard street grid, suggesting the same level of connectivity for bike riders that motorists enjoy. What these maps don’t elucidate, though, is how these four types of cyclists might experience each street. The reality is that not every street nor every green line is available to every type of bike rider, especially riders that fall in the Interested but Concerned group. 

Two of the main bike routes near my apartment, for example, seem like well-connected routes – Bedford Avenue and Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn. These routes are long, linear lanes that don’t require many turns or complex navigation.

However, maps do not offer the many inhibitors one is likely to encounter on these lanes – vehicles parked in the bike lane, fast moving traffic along long stretches of standard (ie unprotected) bike lanes, or the melee at certain intersections where many cars are turning left across the bike lane (looking at you Bedford and Atlantic). At one particularly scary intersection (Bedford and Rogers), cyclists find themselves having to cut across lanes of traffic when the bike lane suddenly switches to the other side of the road.

In other parts of the city, where vast stretches exist without a single bike lane, the task of figuring out a safe route becomes even more arduous. Further, few map tools distinguish between types of bike facilities, the level of stress encountered, or the design flaws that make some routes – even protected ones – more dangerous than others. Taken together, these mapping flaws and the physical infrastructure they represent form what I refer to as the big map lie. As the pandemic unfolded, and I watched new riders pose question after question on bike forums about safe routes, I have been thinking about how every bike map I’ve ever seen includes this big lie. But what if these maps were more honest? What if the geographic representation of a cycling network more clearly communicated safe routes? And what would a more honest bike map elucidate about the state of cycling in our city? 

The Honest Bike Map

Instead of lines on a map indicating if a bike facility exists, more illustrative lines might indicate a level of comfort for different skills – similar to a ski map – and could be crowdsourced from a variety of users. The Strong and Fearless would feel comfortable riding on Black Diamond facilities, the Enthused and Confident on Blue Squares, and the Middle 60 – the Interested but Concerned – would likely only feel comfortable on Green Circle routes.

Consider the map below to determine a route between this origin and destination. The network in this part of Brooklyn looks well connected, and by looking at this map, you might determine that the route shown at right is a nice, safe route almost entirely within the bike network.

When you ride this route, however, you will quickly find that not every bike lane provides the same level of comfort. Some parts of the route – even those with a bike lane – feel like a Black Diamond road due to high speed traffic and the vehicles parked in the bike lane that force a rider to navigate in and out of that high speed traffic. 

Even some Enthused and Confident riders might walk for parts of this route that feel particularly unsafe. For those Interested but Concerned, the variation in route safety and difficulty in determining safe routes can be a barrier to riding, especially as the pandemic eases and other modes begin to feel safe again. The problem is not just the map lie, but the absence of a truly safe, protected cycling network. Rather than an ad-hoc approach to building bike lanes, building a Green Circle network should be the priority as we seek to increase ridership in New York.

Conclusion

The past decade of building bike infrastructure has been a key component in making New York City more attractive for biking and is a major contributor to the increase in bike ridership – we saw a 26% jump in cyclists crossing the East River bridges between 2010 and 2020, for example. But the next evolution in cycling in New York must consider connectivity and comfort to develop a network that the Middle 60 can ride on, at least for the majority of their trip. We need a Green Circle Cycling Network so that new riders can feel confident and safe. What’s more, this plan already exists. The Regional Plan Association recently released a plan for a Five Borough Bikeway, a connected network of protected bike lanes, similar to the Green Circle Cycling concept described herein. This type of connectivity is key for the next wave of cycling in New York, and developing a safe cycling network is an essential piece of the puzzle for solving many of the other big challenges New York faces right now: climate change, noise and air pollution, public health, street safety, and congestion.

April Schneider

Civil Engineer and Urban Planner

April Schneider is a civil engineer and urban planner incorporating sustainability and resilience principles into the built environment. At Stantec, she is the Smart Mobility Practice Lead Northeast and is known for her work to create a “car-lite, mobility rich” future. Outside of work, she leads a summer bike series to explore the city’s infrastructure, has biked to every brewery in New York City, and completed a solo, 550-mile bike ride from NYC to Buffalo along the Empire State Trail. Her favorite bike lane is the Randall’s Island Connector under the Hell Gate Bridge.

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