Juxtaposition of Fantasy and Reality

Yesterday morning as I was cruising the news feed, I watched a 1950s animation of futuristic highways, then read an article about a Broward County bikeway lacking safe and efficient crossing where it intersects major streets.

This is the Disney vision of future transportation in 1958:

It’s a utopia of luxury and ease created by technology. It’s also a fascinating exaltation of speed, individualism and exurban isolation. Disney’s future people have been spared having to walk more than 5 steps, and yet they are all so skinny. And everyone drives, but there are no traffic jams. Yet as wild a fantasy as it is, you may notice a few things that have come true. Some which are not so fantastic.

Now take a look at the AASHTO vision of 21st century transportation in 2007. There is narrative about a new vision, transit and livable communities, but still an emphasis on relieving congestion and increasing capacity of roads. Good points are made about the need for public investment in transportation infrastructure. The actual trajectory of that 1950s motoring vision—the basis of which was individual convenience—has been influenced by a hyper-individualistic populace that has not wanted to invest in the common infrastructure required for it. Hmm.

Sadly, the fantasy of individual convenience through motoring has, in may respects, played out as a decrease in quality of life—degrading communities and robbing us of personal time, financial resources and health—yet we’re still pursuing it.

Bicycle fantasies need a reality check too.

We hear a lot about the biketopian vision — a separate system of bicycle highways on greenways with tunnels and bridges. These dreams are modeled on the Netherlands where rural bike paths were developed before automobiles as a way to create smoother pavement for bicycles. There are some in the US that work — the Boulder Creek Path, parts of the Pinellas Trail and Cady Way are examples. I’ve seen a few fantasy versions over the years, as well.

But too many of our bikeways are like the trail in this sun-sentinel article. Mired in reality, this is the junction of an American bike path and the 21st century version of the 1950s highway vision.

Here are the highlights:

  • The New River Greenway was relocated to the north side of the canal that runs along I-595 to accommodate the westbound lanes of I-595 and S.R. 84, which are moving next to the canal bank as the expressway is widened to increase capacity.
  • There are no crosswalks where the trail intersects six- to eight-lane, divided north-south streets so trail users have to travel on sidewalks over the North New River Canal to the crosswalks and traffic signals at State Road 84.
  • DOT doesn’t want pedestrian signals allowing cyclists to cross directly because it’s too close to the existing traffic signals at S.R. 84 — it would disrupt car traffic.
  • Officials considered overpasses to carry the trail over cross streets, but decided against them because of the cost and challenges in making them accessible for people with disabilities.

People sometimes misinterpret my emphasis on road-riding and taking back our place in the traffic mix to mean I oppose bike paths. I don’t. I’m a realist. The safest and easiest travel is usually found on roads (in a regular travel lane). It’s easier to cross a busy road on another busy road than on a bike path which receives no priority.

I am a fan of paths on their own right-of-way if they are designed properly. I use them when they suit my direction of travel. While I don’t think they will ever comprise a separate bicycle transportation network in the US, they can be a nice enhancement to access and quality cycling (for recreation and transportation). But they can’t even be that when they’re hamstrung by priority given to traffic flow on the roads they have to cross. It is a waste of money and impervious surface to pave a canal bank with the mentality that you can’t inconvenience motor traffic at crossings and can’t afford to make it efficient to use.

As long as we’re collectively locked into the highway-centric mindset, all other modes will be an afterthought—subordinated to the fantasy of motoring convenience.

The good news is anyone can learn to drive a bike on the roads with ease and safety. Right now.

19 replies
  1. Mighk Wilson
    Mighk Wilson says:

    Building overpasses for the trail would have certainly been “expensive” within the context of a trail project, but those costs would be insignificant within the context of an expressway widening. Since the expressway was the cause for moving the trail, they should have included it in the bigger project.

    On the other hand, the old trail (a glorified sidewalk, really) subjected users to the same conflicts as they have now.

    I rode that original path some years ago. It was a miserable experience.

  2. NE2
    NE2 says:

    The mention of the Pinellas Trail reminds me of a planned project where Tyrone Boulevard crosses over it. The bridge was built back when it was a rail line and needed to be flat. Plans for its replacement will make the roadway flat instead and have the trail go up and down.

  3. Fred Oswald
    Fred Oswald says:

    Nice article, as usual. One elaboration:

    “We hear a lot about the biketopian vision — a separate system of bicycle highways on greenways with tunnels and bridges.”

    This vision of a “biketopia” (bicycle utopia) often turns out to be a distopia, — a counter-utopia.

    Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dystopia offers this:
    “Many dystopias found in fictional and artistic works present a utopian society with at least one fatal flaw,[7] whereas a utopian society is founded on the good life, a dystopian society’s dreams of improvement are overshadowed by stimulating fears of the “ugly consequences of present-day behavior.”[8] People are alienated and individualism is restricted by the government.”

    — Fred

  4. Robo
    Robo says:

    From traveling the cosmos for generations looking for utopia I have come to solid conclusions.
    1. biodiversity is paramount to the running of all things
    2. The genetic code and 92 elements are universal
    3. We are some of the few beings that can think and manipulate space, time and materials.
    4. We as a species understand little of what is both essential and important.
    5. Health and activity are essential, the bicycle and our feet are universal, proven, reliable, sustainable and diverse in forms.
    6. All systems evolve back to sustainable states by way of entropy.
    7. Pedalship is waiting, gotta go.

    • bencott
      bencott says:

      i like your style, in all its enigmatic glory, but i don’t understand the concept of “biodiversity”. please elaborate.

      • Mighk Wilson
        Mighk Wilson says:

        I speak Robo (a little), so I’ll elaborate for him:

        Nature doesn’t put all her eggs in one basket. The Great Plains originally had dozens of species of grasses. Now we cover them with monocultures; all corn, all soybean, all wheat. We’ve done the same with our roads; all cars; we cyclists and pedestrians are those original grasses; just weeds they can’t seem to get rid of.

        Monocultures are very susceptible to disease and need heavy inputs of energy to sustain.

        Nature also dislikes segregation. Species are interdependent. By living with one another, they are strengthened. Yes, species compete, but they also collaborate. And since motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians are really one species, collaboration is our true tendency.

  5. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Keri wrote:

    “The good news is anyone can learn to drive a bike on the roads with ease and safety”

    Kevin’s comment:
    I won’t let my 9-year-old daughter ride on Orlando’s roads. Not too many parents would – just look at how many children don’t ride to school every day.

    My 73-year-old mother, who lives in Naples (Fla, not Italy, alas) refuses to ride on the roads there. And so does everyone else in her knitting group.

    Your “everyone” turns out to be less than 2% of the population, mostly male and mostly between the ages of 16-35.

    Meanwhile, Dutch people over 65 years of age make 24% of all their trips by bicycle.

    • Mighk Wilson
      Mighk Wilson says:

      Yes Kevin. We’ve heard it before. More times than we can count.

      You also wouldn’t let your 9-year-old daughter cross one of “our roads” on foot. And I would agree. Your grandmother also wouldn’t want to cross one our roads on foot.

      So bicycling is beside the point. Cycle tracks are beside the point. The problem is we have huge roads that are hostile to many users. In order for them to be made hospitable, we need an entire reworking of our transportation system, both physically and culturally.

      We’ll get right on it.

      • bencott
        bencott says:

        agreed. we’re laying the groundwork in a hostile environment. on the other hand there are a handful of us who manage to safely use bicycles as transportation, and not all of us fit the stereotype. it’s not really that difficult.

    • JohnB
      JohnB says:

      I would not let my 9-year-old son ride unaccompanied on a busy Orlando road with or without a bicycle lane unless I was confident he could handle himself in traffic. At that age, that’s questionable. The bike lane will not make him safer.

      I’d also have reservations about a 73-year-old if she has physical limitations or maybe never held a driver’s license. But a bike lane will not help her on a busy Orlando road either.

      So you think only 2% of the population is within, say, 16[*] and 65[**] years of age, physically able to control a bike, and capable of learning to handle it as a driver? You undersell humanity.

      [*] Driver’s licensing age seems a good minimum.
      [**] Using average retirement age in the U.S. as a COMPLETELY ARBITRARY upper limit. (Obviously many people older than this are still completely capable.)

      But as a Facebook friend of mine said yesterday morning: “It’s 2011. Where’s my flying car? They said there’d be flying cars!” 🙂

      • Keri
        Keri says:

        There is an 84-year-old woman in Audubon park who never had a driver license. She has always used a bike for transportation and still does.

        • Kevin Love
          Kevin Love says:

          There is a 38-year-old woman in Toronto who has never had a driver’s license. She happens to be my wife…

      • Kevin Love
        Kevin Love says:

        And yet, in places ranging from Osaka to Amsterdam, nine-year-olds cycle to school every day. Just a routine thing. No big deal. Eveyone else is doing the same thing.

        Here’s a video of children arriving at their local elementary school:

        • MikeOnBike
          MikeOnBike says:

          Kevin, you seem to be assuming that the only kinds of roads we’re talking about are multi-lane expressways, and that’s where all the elementary schools are located.

          My kids were cycling to school unaccompanied by around age 9, on the ordinary residential streets between our house and their school.

          They also bike to the junior high and high schools, both of which are across a four-lane arterial from our neighborhood.

  6. Mighk Wilson
    Mighk Wilson says:

    We can all point to individuals that vary from the norm, in one direction or the another.

    Metro areas are very complex systems, with equally complex subsystems:
    Street network, land use configuration, density, road culture, enforcement culture, tax policy, parking policy, demographics, climate, terrain … the list goes on … all contribute to mode choice.

    The street network near downtown Orlando is much more connected than the outer suburbs. Distances to destinations are much closer. A good tree canopy matters here in Florida, and the older areas do better there, too. Younger adults are moving in. Result: more people prone to cycling in closer proximity to destinations, with cooler streets and without the need to get on high-speed arterials = more cycling. (The bikeway system downtown is so sparse as to be irrelevant.)

    Parking is “free” and plentiful nearly everywhere in the ‘burbs. Our suburban arterials are designed for 50 mph, are devoid of shade trees, and there are no alternative routes for many of them. Nobody is going to narrow them down and reduce their design speeds or their posted speeds. Nor are they going to spend $1 million per mile for barrier-separated bikeways and give those bikeways a separate signal phase.

  7. JohnB
    JohnB says:

    Finally watched this. Wow.

    Best line: “Advances in technology will give us more leisure time.” LOL! That seemed to be a common belief back then.

    Then they predicted the car will be guided by a punch card system! Computer programmers everywhere chuckle.

    My wife was amused at how Father will program the car for its destination, then later Father goes to the office, while Mother and Son go shopping.

    One of the most amazing things about that video was all the predictions made using the verb “will”, as opposed to, say, “might” or “could”. Mighty certain of themselves, weren’t they?

    Makes me wonder just who came up with these predictions, and how they were arrived at. Did a bunch of scriptwriters just read a few issues of Popular Science or something?

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