You’d be hard pressed to find a better metaphor for the sorry state of our bike infrastructure than the Mayor announcing the return of bikeshare by riding an e-scooter over the barely visible remains of a sharrow worn away by car traffic. So—as someone who enjoys metaphors and is often very angry about how dangerous it is for me and my family to bike around Syracuse—I took dark pleasure when that exact thing happened last week.
Here’s the Mayor riding down Westcott Street, and if you squint hard enough you can just make out two parallel lines of worn white paint right in front of him. Those faded painted lines are what pass for bike infrastructure in the neighborhood with the highest rate of bike commuting in the entire City.
That’s not going to cut it. For bikeshare to live up to its promise, City Hall needs to build out the infrastructure that can keep people safe as they make their way across town.
Bikeshare’s return to Syracuse is good. Making e-bikes available for minimal upfront cost and without the hassles of storage, security, or maintenance gives a lot of people another good option for getting around town, and that makes people more free.
Adding e-scooters is also good. They were already growing in popularity as a cheap, easy way to get around, and they will make the program accessible to people who might be intimidated by bkeshare’s heavier, more physically demanding e-bikes.
But, for many people, bikeshare won’t eliminate the main barrier that’s keeping them from getting around Syracuse by bike: Syracuse’s streets are too dangerous for people on bikes! Almost necessarily, bikeshare is for people who don’t bike much now and probably aren’t very comfortable riding on city streets. It’s scary riding a bike and getting buzzed by a 2-ton truck because the driver is on their phone or maybe just pissed at you for being on the street. People who bike often out of necessity know this and develop strategies to avoid these kinds of situations, but it’s not reasonable to expect that most people will tolerate that level of danger and discomfort.
Just putting bikes and scooters out on the street isn’t enough. In order for bikeshare to truly be a new practical transportation option, people need to feel safe riding bikes and scooters on Syracuse’s streets.
This means Syracuse needs bike infrastructure specifically designed to be inviting to new riders who aren’t necessarily used to riding in cities. Low-stress cycling is an infrastructure design approach that’s become national best practice because it increases access to city biking by making the experience safe and comfortable. You don’t have to be particularly comfortable on a bike, you don’t have to have planned your route out in painstaking detail beforehand, you don’t have to maintain total alertness the entire ride in order to get where you’re going safely. This is infrastructure that welcomes novices, forgives mistakes, and generally treats biking as the legitimate activity for anybody rather than a specialized hobby for hardcore enthusiasts.
In other words, low-stress cycling infrastructure is the perfect complement to a bikeshare program designed to increase the number of people getting around by bike.
There’s a lot that goes into low-stress cycling infrastructure, but here are two main points: riders need to be protected from the stress of travelling near heavy vehicular traffic, and riders need easy access to a citywide network that can get them where they need to go without long detours.
In practice that means a lot more bike lanes and paths protected from vehicular traffic with some physical object like bollards or a curb—not paint—and laid across the City so that people can easily move within and between neighborhoods. The Creekwalk and Empire State Trail are very good examples of this kind of low-stress infrastructure, and they should form the backbone of a larger citywide network.
This should not be hard to implement. The Mayor has expressed interest in better bike infrastructure, but he often says the problem is money. Well, the American Rescue Plan gave City Hall $123 million to spend on Covid recovery, and Centro is running skeleton service because Covid caused structural changes in the nature of work that are making it hard for them to hire bus operators. City Hall is well within its rights to use that money to improve transportation infrastructure for people without reliable access to a car, and they should do so immediately to complement the return of bikeshare.
Bikeshare has the potential to expand access to a cheap, convenient, sustainable method of transportation. That’s good because people need better options for getting around in this town, now more than ever. But in order for the program to live up to its potential, City Hall has to make Syracuse’s streets safer. That’s going to require an investment in low-stress cycling infrastructure like protected bike lanes and multi-use trails. People need to feel comfortable using bikeshare even if they’ve never ridden in a city before, even if they haven’t been on a bike in years. That’s the only way for bikeshare to succeed.