Safer infrastructure can drive a surge in cycling

By Chris McCahill 

Acknowledging that highway investments drive up car use and traffic, transportation professionals and advocates have grown more interested in accounting for induced demand in transportation investments. But the laws of induced demand are not limited to highways. As several cities have shown, investing in bicycle infrastructure can increase bike use by 100% or more. 

Cambridge, Massachusetts, installed separated bike lanes in each direction along a half-mile section of Garden Street. Just a few months later, in the middle of winter, bike volumes more than doubled in the surrounding area, according to analysis by the Boston Cyclists Union. For comparison, bike use in the rest of the city dropped slightly during the same winter months, as bikeshare data indicates.  

Daily bike volumes also increased by 60% to 100% along Washington Avenue in Philadelphia, following a similar safety improvement project. Peak-hour bike volumes increased by as much as 181% on certain blocks. Travel times for vehicles were not significantly impacted. 

This is not a new or isolated trend, and it even seems to scale up when cities make citywide infrastructure improvements. The share of bike commuters increased by more than 150% following Boston’s bike infrastructure expansion around 2010, and bike trips have likely doubled in Chicago—a city that recently installed at least 45 miles of safer bike lanes and neighborhood greenways.  

This is an important lesson to keep in mind, especially for road designers who might push back on the need for infrastructure simply because they don’t often see people biking. Apart from a very small number of “strong and fearless” cyclists, most folks will only take to the streets when they feel safe and comfortable. In doing so, research suggests, they can improve their personal health and well-being while limiting their environmental impacts.  

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