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by Carl Carlson, RLA

A recent New York Times article discussed the opening of a new highway in Denmark devoted exclusively to bikes. The highway stretches 11 miles from Copenhagen to an outlying suburb and is the first of 26 planned routes. Denmark, in particular Copenhagen, is famous for embracing bike transportation. While we wouldn’t think twice about hopping in a car for a short trip, the Danes find the idea of driving short distances absurd and the highway is an attempt to encourage the use of bikes for traveling longer distances. Planners worked with surrounding municipalities to create a building standard for the bike lanes. Addressing concerns that biking longer distances is inconvenient, traffic lights were reset in favor of the bicyclists, air pumps and solar powered street lights were installed along the route, trash cans were redesigned for ease of use, and foot rests were installed in convenient locations. With all this attention to detail, who wouldn’t want to commute by bike?

The question becomes, can we make a system like this work in the U.S.? There is no doubt that our natural environment and personal health would benefit if more people commuted by bike. Not only could we reduce the use of fossil fuel and the amount of pollutants released into the atmosphere, but we could also see serious reductions in impervious pavement requirements, limiting the amount of contaminated stormwater runoff flowing into our watersheds. America’s bike transportation infrastructure is improving constantly but tends to be mostly recreationally focused. The conversion of old railway lines into rail trails has the potential to be ideal for commuting, but requires more planning. Old rail lines go right into the center of most towns, very often traveling through interesting areas, and were built to minimize grade changes. People would get the chance to develop deep connections with their surrounding environment that they can’t get sitting behind a steering wheel, while keeping their bodies healthier.

New York City has been a visible leader in the U.S. for developing bike transportation infrastructure. Bike lanes have been added in every borough, buildings are required to allow workers to store their bikes inside, and a new bike share program is set to begin in early August. However, more can be done. Manhattan’s most contiguous stretch of bike path runs almost the entire length of the west side. Yet it exists only in bits and pieces along the east side making commuting difficult. There are still communities within the city that fight (and sometimes win) to have bike lanes routed around them or even removed.

What if we thought bigger? Instead of ringing the boroughs with bike paths and creating shared and often dangerous bike lanes on city streets, what if we dedicated certain streets to bikes only? The popularity of NYC’s Summer Streets Program is an indicator of how successful bike only streets would be. For a few weekends each summer certain streets are closed to all vehicular traffic and are always packed with bicyclists and pedestrians. What if 7th Ave in Manhattan was closed to vehicles? Down the center would run a dedicated bike lane and a separate pedestrian path. In between the sidewalks and the paths would be bioswales and raingardens collecting stormwater from the surrounding streets and buildings. Every tenth cross-town street would follow suite creating a transportation network and an opportunity for better public understanding of natural hydrologic processes.

While we may not quite be ready for a bike highway or bike only streets, it’s undeniable that relying on cars as our main source of transportation is unsustainable. Places like Denmark have spent a lot of time planning and building for a more responsible future. They are a model for what progress can mean and they have a major head start on us. We should take a cue from them and start planning and building a smarter transportation network for a cleaner American future.