Skip to content.

Bike Walk Life

News and commentary from the world of biking and walking.

A satellite map showing parking lots.

Parking lots, our nationwide addiction

The average American is suspicious of, if not hostile to, public transportation spending. Sometimes these feelings are practical concerns based on past failures, and sometimes they’re ideological. But that opposition all goes out the window once we discuss parking lots.

Joe Cortright of Strong Towns and City Observatory published this satirical blog post recently: Where We Embrace Socialism in the U.S.: Parking Lots. It responds to accusations that the newest federal spending program is un-American because it’s “socialist.”

That’s not accurate, of course. Socialism is well-established in the U.S., at least for car storage—something that is near and dear, certainly to Republicans. You think otherwise? Before you denounce socialism, Senator Rubio, consider this perspective.

Comrades, rejoice! In the face of the counter-revolutionary, neo-liberal onslaught, there’s at least one arena where the people’s inalienable rights reign supreme: parking.

By a coincidence of timing, a few days later my local newspaper reported that our city council has approved $52 million to help fund a new parking garage.

Columbus Council unanimously approved a modification request Tuesday for additional TAD [Tax Allocation District] funds to support the construction of a shared underground parking facility and “certain public infrastructure improvements,” according to the agenda item, for Riverfront Place, a 7.5-acre, mixed-use development by the Bradley Company.

Last March, the council approved $38 million in TAD funding for the project. On Tuesday, the council approved an additional $14 million.

I’m not especially knowledgeable about this project, and I’m sure that it must have some benefits that justify unanimous approval and $52 million of public funding. But it also seems to support Cortright’s point. We love it when our government spends money on parking. This particular story may be local, but it’s one of many identical stories that happen regularly throughout our nation.

To put this story in context, here’s the area they’re talking about in Google Maps’ satellite imagery:

A satellite map of the Columbus, GA downtown.

And here’s what it looks like with all of the existing parking spaces highlighted. Parking lots are red, and on-street parking is orange:

A satellite map of the Columbus, GA downtown with parking spots highlighted.

This is a quick-and-dirty, conservative depiction of the actual parking usage. One of those red rectangles is a multi-story parking garage, and at least one of the buildings has a parking deck underneath it, which I did not highlight.

Something else that the satellite caught, and which is not abnormal: about half of the parking space is not being used.

Contrast these facts with our city’s latest parking garage project, and it’s obvious that something is off, like we’re living in two different realities. In a town where parking lots consume half of the land, and where half of those spaces go unused, how do we need more of it? How are our public economic development funds necessary to subsidize this? If parking lots really did contribute to our economy, then it seems like our coffers should be overflowing by now, considering how many of them we’ve already built.

I recognize that there are probably nuances to this project that I’m ignorant of. I’m sure someone can list the benefits it will bring, why this parking garage definitely will justify the tens of millions of dollars it costs to build, even when other parking doesn’t. But whatever those details are, they would have to be really compelling to outweigh what I’m seeing in the big picture.

This pro-parking mindset we see across our nation is the mindset of an addict. When you’re addicted to something, then you can never get enough of it. The more of it you consume, the more you desire it. Even if you begrudgingly acknowledge its downsides, you can’t help yourself from rationalizing it anyway: “just one more parking lot, and I’ll be good,” “maybe parking lots are bad in some ways, but I really need this one,” and so on. Like an addict, we always think we need more parking spaces.

Now, to connect this back to the topic at the beginning of the post, we know how quickly the mood would change once we talk about subsidizing almost any other transportation project. We’ve all seen what happens as soon as we try to fund bike lanes or bus routes.

And maybe biking and walking projects have their flaws too. But if you really do oppose monolithic, expensive, ideologically driven transportation spending, then bike lanes aren’t your enemy. Start by defunding parking lots. You’ll quickly realize how much Americans really do love big government transportation plans as soon as you try to take free parking away from them.



A photograph of three homes, chicopee.
Photo credit: Chris Arnade, from his "Walking America, part 1."

Chris Arnade's "Walking America" blog shows what it's like to walk through American towns.

Chris Arnade has been writing about America’s poor communities for a while now. His book, Dignity, is was one of my favorite books in recent years. Now he’s started a new blog on Substack called Intellectual Inting, where he is publishing a series of posts called “Walking America.”

He has two parts in the series so far:

Arnade doesn’t discuss biking or walking, at least not the same way that I do on my own blog, but our interests intersect. He goes out to meet the “back row” population, his term for people who have been left behind in our shifting economy and culture. He looks for an honest glimpse at what life is really like for them.

One could easily connect his observations to an essay about how our car-centric transportation policy contributes to the “back row” and “front row” division, but I’m not interested in that right now (for once!). What strikes me about his “Walking America” is his process. He goes out and literally walks through communities that most people drive through, or drive past, and he sees things that most outsiders would never notice.

In his words from part 1:

From a car whizzing by on I-90, the three [towns] blur together as a chunk of the urban bleh that fills much of America. One filled with fast-food franchises, strip malls, failed urban renewal projects, and with residents who need to work harder, get more education, and do less crime.

But walking forces you to slow down and talk to the people living there. You get to see beyond the bleh, and watch the endless string of tiny dramas that make up a city, and most people’s lives.

I think this is a lesson for anyone who wants to help the back-row population (to borrow his term) or who wants to advocate for mobility equity. Human society necessitates walking among, not driving through, to understand. A human habitat is one that facilitates walking.

If you haven’t yet, you should try walking from one side of your city to the other and see what you notice. The things that you end up noticing from that perspective are probably the things that you should focus on.


"Coffeeneuring Challenge: C+1" graphic.
Image credit: Chasing Mailboxes.

Coffeeneuring Challenge 2021, "c+1" edition, begins on October 18th

Coffeeneuring is back for 2021. That’s the just-for-fun challenge where you play by riding your bike to get coffee a couple of times a week for six weeks. As far as these kinds of challenges go, it’s one of the most low-key and accessible.

You can the whole rules and guidelines on Chasing Mailboxes here.

What is the optimal number of coffeeneuring rides you can complete during the Coffeeneuring Challenge? The rules say seven, but I venture to say it’s really c+1 — always one more than what you’ve done so far.

[…]

The basics of the challenge are this:

  • over the course of 6’ish weeks,
  • ride your bike to 7 different places,
  • at least 2 miles round trip each time,
  • drink 7 cups of coffee (or similar), and
  • collect some proof of your coffeeneuring (either photos, Strava tracks, journal entries, etc.).

I look forward to participating again this year. Honestly, there’s little reason for me not to since the challenge is so simple and fun. Thank you, Chasing Mailboxes, for organizing this year after year.


Biketober is coming to Atlanta again next month

Biketober is an annual month-long event held in the Atlanta area every October (in case its name didn’t make that clear). It’s a just-for-fun competition where participants earn points for riding their bicycles.

Read more at the official Biketober website.

Some local groups are hosting their own events for it. For instance, you can see Be Active Decatur’s announcement about it here.

Pattie Baker, of Traveling at the Speed of Bike, has made a calendar of Biketober events.

And if you’re not in the Atlanta area (like me) then there’s still the 2021 Coffeeneuring challenge coming up on October 18th. We have no shortage of excuses to get out and ride our bicycles this fall.


"Good morning!"

One big rule of bicycle etiquette is to warn other people when you approach to pass them. Most cyclists around here shout “on your left.” I use a bell, since I don’t like shouting at people, but either one works. This past week, I encountered another technique in the wild.

As I was biking down the street, a man behind me shouted, “good morning!” just before he rode past.

It was an ordinary situation, but it stuck with me. Perhaps this says something about the culture of my town, but I’ve never noticed a bicycle rider say “good morning” (or afternoon, or evening) to alert me of their passing. The politeness of the phrase felt refreshing.

In our post-etiquette world, we have a tendency to reinvent old courtesies as soon as we realize they aren’t so obsolete after all. Most of the time, our reinventions are woefully utilitarian. Case in point: “on your left” to signal that you are approaching someone on their left.

Riding a bicycle in our towns can already feel dismal and oppressive at times. Why not add some charm and politeness to it? As much as I enjoy ringing my bell, I may start adding some more classic courtesies to my repertoire.


Riding bicycles and social resistance

BYCS posted an article about “the inherent resistance of cycling” by James Crossley. It summarizes how riding a bicycle goes against the grain of mainstream society, and so is an act of “resistance.”

When someone makes a voluntary choice to cycle despite the danger, this is a choice to put oneself in a position of vulnerability. While usually vulnerability equates to weakness, when that vulnerability is voluntary it becomes a challenge to a biased and inequitable mobility system that idolises strength and power. It questions ingrained urban hierarchies that too many take as scripture, and in doing so shows solidarity with those who cycle in adverse conditions for lack of other options.

I will note that riding a bicycle is only “inherently” resistant by accident of our present moment in history. The domination of car transportation is a deliberate design choice by our society. If we didn’t prioritize cars in our communities, and if biking, walking, and all other forms of transportation could compete on equal footing, then the dynamic would be much different.

But Crossley is correct, at least about our current culture. This is why I don’t always encourage everyone to bike commute even though I’m a huge proponent of bike commuting. It is, unfortunately, not for the faint of heart. Most people don’t want their daily commute to be an “act of resistance.”

We have many steps to take before we can make biking and walking first-class mobility options, but one of them is having enough people who are willing to shoulder the burden of resisting mainstream car culture. I think it’s important to be honest with ourselves about what our “resistance” is like, and why we do it.


Library book bikes got more popular in 2021

Book bikes are a growing trend for public libraries. They allow library staff to perform bookmobile-style outreach on two, or usually three, wheels. This past August had the second annual “Book Bike Week,” and interest doubled since last year.

Public Libraries Online has the whole story here.

According to David Kelsey, ABOS [Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services] President, “Book bikes are a valuable library outreach vehicle that are essential in connecting communities with books and materials from across the United States and around the world. Book bikes have the unique capability of popping up in neighborhoods and other community gathering places, providing library service to individuals who may never walk through the doors of a library building. Not only do book bikes meet library patrons at their point of need, but book bikes also celebrate and promote health, movement, exercise, and getting outdoors.”

In its second year, interest in Book Bike Week has doubled, with over 100 book bike programs across the United States and around the world submitting photos, testimonials, tips and tricks to this year’s social media celebration.

The Public Libraries Online article also has information about how your library can acquire and make use of its own book bike.

I’m slightly timid about putting too much weight into exact numbers right now, since 2020 and 2021 have brought so much disruption that has yet to settle. However, it’s hard to see this as anything but good news. Let’s hope that book bike usage continues to grow in 2022.


Technological utopias and mobility

I recently found a research paper signal-boosted by No Tech Magazine. One of its messages is that technology-based utopias can only succeed within narrowly defined systems. This quote struck me:

For instance, one liter of semi-skimmed milk, bought in a British supermarket, has an energy content of 380 kcal. However, to think of the milk in terms of energy also evokes the far-reaching social and environmental contexts that bring milk to the market.

[…] We might include the energy content of processed cattle feed, electricity used to run milking machines, cooling tanks, water boilers, and lighting, energy inputs in alkaline and acid detergents, diesel for tractors, and a wide range of other energy technologies used in production.

You can read the whole paper here: “System boundaries as epistemological and ethnographic problems: Assessing energy technology and socio-environmental impact” by Gustav Cederlöf and Alf Hornborg.

While many people will agree that our daily mobility uses far too much energy, few of us can comprehend its complete cost. To fully calculate the cost of driving your car down a block, we must add the cost of infrastructure, bureaucracy, land use, maintenance, policing, and not to mention human health and ecological damage. The list goes on. Driving a car can only be considered cheap and energy-efficient as long as we don’t consider the larger system.

Pseudo-utopian visions of all-electric vehicles doesn’t change that big picture. A car, no matter it’s energy source, will always be an inefficient and costly form of mobility.

Biking and walking are antidotes to this problem. Walking down the street relies on no more energy or infrastructure than what our ancient predecessors had. We must be open to embrace low-tech, or no-tech, solutions to our modern crises.


First study of bicycling’s economic impact in Georgia reports a $496 million value

Georgia Tech partnered with Georgia Department of Transportation to create the state’s first-ever report of bicycling’s economic impact. It shows that bicycles create close to $500 million in value.

You can read the announcement and the report on GA Tech’s website here.

[Shatakshee Dhongde’s] analysis shows that Georgia’s biking industry has a total annual impact of more than $496 million and employs 4,529 people. Breaking down these numbers reveals that bicycle-related businesses generated $361 million, trail construction created $124 million, and events and organizations accounted for $10 million.

I haven’t read the complete report yet, but it appears conservative at a glance. According to the executive summary:

Based on the existing literature, the report undertakes an economic impact analysis of the following categories:

  1. Bicycle-related businesses.
  2. Bicycle trails.
  3. Bicycling organizations and events.

These categories don’t seem like they can encapsulate all of the economic benefits that bicycling offers. For example, a bike commuter can create economic value without ever visiting a bicycle-related business or attending a bicycling event. The most often-cited economic advantage to bike commuting is in how it saves the commuter money. Bicycles are not just consumer goods, but can be tools that generate value for their riders as well. That is valuable but not measurable in the same way that business revenue is.

The report also contains a stark reality: a mere 0.2% of Georgia’s population rides a bicycle to work. This isn’t completely an accident. Our towns have been deliberately designed to prioritize car transportation at the expense of all other options. This car-oriented design is much more expensive than most alternatives, especially bicycling. In order to fully realize the possible economic benefits of bicycling, we need a radical shift in our culture and our infrastructure.

Pattie Baker has a nice take on the report:

The economic growth opportunity in our state is astronomical if and when we create safe-access-for-all that meets NACTO guidelines. Therefore, no more greenwashing with too-narrow, unprotected paint-on-the-road or disconnected networks with frequent blockages! They are direct barriers to achieving our economic potential, at a time when that is needed more than ever.

Nonetheless, it’s unarguably valuable to have reports like this. I hope that in the future we’ll get to see more bicycling research for Georgia and for other regions where it’s currently lacking.


Pedal Power with Pattie, a newsletter by the creator of Traveling at the Speed of Bike

Pattie Baker, of Traveling at the Speed of Bike fame, is starting a newsletter series in September called Pedal Power with Pattie. It’s designed to align with her bike classes.

You can subscribe here.

Welcome to Pedal Power with Pattie — a series of seven fun and helpful free weekly newsletters September 2 — October 7, 2021. They will align with my proprietary Pedal Power with Pattie classes, designed to encourage you to ride a bike while centering your power and joy!

Along with this newsletter, Pattie has a blog post highlighting her “You Go, Girl!” free resources. These include Metro Atlanta bike routes, profiles of people advocating for inclusive bicycling, the aforementioned newsletter, and more.

It’s always great seeing people use their creativity to spread their passion for bicycling like this.


Alphonse and Gaston comic titled "You first, my dear." Dialogue: "You first, my dear Gaston!" "After you, my dear Alphonse!"
Source: Alphonse and Gaston on Wikipedia.

Illegal courtesies: what they are and how to handle them while biking

Illegal courtesies are when car drivers try to do something nice to bike riders, such as stopping to let them pass, but in doing so they are actually behaving illegally and dangerously.

BikeAthens has a short (under one minute) video on how to deal with illegal courtesies:

Anecdotally, I’ve observed illegal courtesies increase in my city as we built more bicycle infrastructure. Sometimes it feels like a “good” problem to have. After all, wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone was too polite to each other?

Alphonse and Gaston comic titled "You first, my dear." Dialogue: "You first, my dear Gaston!" "After you, my dear Alphonse!"

(Source: Alphonse and Gaston on Wikipedia.)

Unfortunately, we can have too much of a good thing. These seemingly-polite actions create dangerous situations, and they force bicycle riders to make uncomfortable decisions. To accept such a courtesy means illegally biking into traffic, and to reject it means being rude.

When a car stops unexpectedly, someone on a bicycle usually isn’t able to tell why it stopped or when the car will unexpectedly start again. There may be other cars driving nearby, and there’s no telling whether or not they will also stop. Accepting the driver’s kindness puts the bicycle rider at risk of a crash.

Like the video says, people on bicycles should always reject these courtesies, even if it seems rude. The kindest thing that drivers can do is simply drive predictably and obey the traffic laws.


Thoughts on the proposed Bicycle Commuter Act of 2021

If the Bicycle Commuter Act of 2021 passes, it will provide bike commuters a benefit worth up to $81 per month. I think this is positive, yet far from what we really need.

You can read about the bill on People For Bikes’ website here.

I’m afraid that this post may sound negative, so I want to make it clear that I’m in favor of any legislation that makes life better for bicycle commuters, this included. Only a tiny percentage of people in the U.S. bike commute. If an $81/month benefit is what it takes to nudge even just a few more people to start biking, then that’s a success.

However, I’m also skeptical of its effectiveness. There was a previous Bicycle Commuter Act, which was suspended in 2017, and I’m not familiar with any data on how it helped more people start bike commuting. It was a benefit offered through employers, and no employers I worked with ever participated in it.

One thing I do know, and there is a wealth of data to support it, is that fatalities among pedestrians and bike riders continuously increased over the past decade. In places with dangerous streets, which is almost everywhere now, then biking is simply out of the question for a reasonable person. This reality can’t be fixed with $81 per month.

I would go so far as to say that $81 is probably the minimum amount you would need to offer the average person in exchange for them to just try bike commuting once. Most people, in my area at least, probably wouldn’t even accept that deal.

I hope the best for this bill, but, whether it passes or not, we need to keep focusing on the real problems: our deadly-by-design streets, our lack of bicycle infrastructure, and our culture that prioritizes automobile comfort over human life.