By Kelsey Bridges
Across the Unites States communities are trying to integrate active transportation into their downtowns, but many of these towns are struggling to create infrastructure in suburbs that were designed for automobile use. The built environment in auto centric locations is segregated by zoning, streets are wide with high speeds, and distances to basic amenities may easily be 10 miles away or more. Does this mean that bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure cannot function in today’s suburban landscape?
No. While most of the active transportation discussion has revolved around bicycle sharing and infrastructure in urban environments, most of the population does not live in these areas. The suburbs are still growing faster than cities, which means there is still a lot of work to be done in order to provide transportation alternatives in the nation’s suburbs. Fortunately, there are examples of successful implementation of suburban active transportation infrastructure.
The Netherlands is often praised for its bicycle infrastructure, having the highest number of bicycle commuters in the world, but not all of their infrastructure is located in the urban core. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the United States and the Netherlands have almost the same urban population as a percentage of the total population: Netherlands, 84.9% and U.S., 83.7%. This information was collected from each country through national sources, such as the census or population register, where each respective country is responsible for defining the characteristics of what is urban. Despite differences that may arise in defining urban in the United States and the Netherlands, there are land use patterns that are similar in each.
There are many suburban areas in the Netherlands that mirror many U.S. intersections, such as intersections with three or four lanes, which are typically not conducive to bicycling. To address this issue, engineers designed bicycle lanes separated from the road by wide grass buffers, as well as bicycle stop lights that are coordinated with traffic lights to give bicyclists the right of way. By doing so, the Dutch have made suburban bicycling safe.
Critics argue that it is not a division land uses that have limited bicycle infrastructure, but rather that there are not enough bicyclists in the suburbs. While bicyclists tend to be more common in denser environments, 15% of motor vehicle trips are less than a half mile, meaning if infrastructure were in place, people could bike or walk.
New Jersey has taken several steps to improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. NJDOT has a bicycle and pedestrian master plan, first adopted in 1995, which outlines a vision and plan of action for improving the bicycling and walking experience. The plan outlines specific needs such as zoning changes that accommodate Complete Streets concepts, increased shoulder roadway maintenance, and community design recommendations. NJDOT partners with bicycle advocacy groups across the region to increase connectivity and safety. In particular, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia has a section that focuses on biking in the suburbs through bicycling clubs and building trails. New Jersey has over seven bicycle clubs that bike through suburban areas: the Bedminster Flyers Cycling Club, the Bicycle Touring Club of North Jersey, Central Jersey Bicycle Club, Doubles of the Garden State, Jersey Shore Touring Society, Morris Area Freewheelers Bicycle Club, and the Outdoor Club of South Jersey. More bicyclists on the road, especially in suburban areas, will help change the culture of bicycling in New Jersey to include access to all areas, not just urban centers.