Thursday, December 24, 2009

Are the Burbs Better for Bikes?

It's a complicated question whether low density suburban development serves the interests of bike riders better. I'm back in suburbia visiting the folks, and I rode my bike for the first time in a while yesterday.

It really comes down to traffic and street design. The fewer cars on the road, the more slowly they drive, and the more separated I am from them, the less intimidating biking feels to me. We have evidence that sidewalk riding is dangerous, so now that feels intimidating to me too. If suburban streets have less traffic on any given stretch (but more car dependence overall) doesn't that make it politically easier to build a stretch of bike lane? Doesn't relatively low traffic at any given point make it less intimidating to ride? Are suburban streets really like this generally, or am I just generalizing from my own limited experience?

On the minus side, suburban development definitely puts your destinations farther away on average and locks people into the habit of driving for damn-near everything, which reinforces the car culture.

I rode a mile and a half to the bank yesterday because I have space to store a bike at my folks' house, because I can make the trip completely on residential streets on a fairly direct route, and because I had a place to lock my bike near (but not at, shamefully, given the size of the parking lot) my destination.

I'm sure cities are better for pedestrians, transit, and the environment than suburbs, but I'm not completely sure that they're better for bikes. So maybe a bike rider can lend me his/her insight on the subject.


  1. I'm going to give my insight from biking in Houston, which isn't really suburban, but thinks it is. In Houston, we have lots of quiet, single-family house and tree lined streets that are actually quite pleasant to bike on. There are few cars in the first place, and the ones that are there usually have to go pretty slow because of speed bumps and on street parking. The problem is that this network doesn't really extend anywhere useful. If you want to go shopping, you end up having to either cross or get on one of the connector roads where traffic is moving at 45 to 55 mph. I think in most of suburbia, that's the case. While it might be a more pleasant place to ride, in general, it's much harder to make it a lifestyle.

  2. When I was reading the first sentence, I was thinking "Better than what?" There's rural riding in addition to suburban riding. There are also different kinds of suburbs, and different kinds of roads in the suburbs. It also depends on time of day.

    I would also disagree very much with the idea that "The fewer cars on the road, the more slowly they drive." People drive faster when there aren't other cars in front of them.

  3. From my experience in the suburbs of Portland, there are two main problems - one is what Zakcq mentioned, that there are some neighborhoods that are nice for riding in, but they are completely residential, and they are only connected to places that have shops, restaurants, entertainment, etc by highways or large roads with 35-40mph speed limits.

    Second is that where there is more mixed use development, the streets are large, busy, and there often are no shoulders/bike lanes/etc.

    I recently purchased a bike (a 1953 Raleigh) from a guy out in a suburban area of Portland. My wife and I drove there, and I was going to ride the bike home. I test rode the bike around his neighborhood, and it was great, but then on the way home, as soon as I left the little housing development, I was on a two-lane road with a 35mph speed limit and literally no shoulder, it was just lanes, about 2 inches of pavement past the stripe, and then gravel dropping off into a ditch. This road then led to a highway, and there was nowhere else to go.

    Thankfully there were buses running on the highway, so I just walked the bike (very quickly) across the road and over to the highway, put the bike on the bus, and rode the bus in closer to the center of town, got off, and had no problems whatsoever riding from there.

    At least from a Portland perspective, it's much more convenient, practical and feels much safer riding in the city than it does in most of the suburban areas. Distances are shorter, people are used to seeing cyclists on the roads, streets are smaller and traffic is calmer overall in the center of the city than in the suburban areas, plus there is a significantly higher level of cycling facilities, bike parking, bike shops, etc.

  4. Thanks for the input guys.

    Cap'n, let me clarify. I don't think fewer cars necesarily means lower driving speeds. I mean fewer cars makes me feel safer and lower car speeds make me feel safer. That's why I like biking on residential streets as long as they go close to somewhere useful.

  5. The issue with suburbs is whether the neighborhood was developed over time or by single developers. Developers will make it all culs-de-sac and have arterial roads be the only way to get anywhere. In WA, downtown Kirkland is like this. Often one can bike short distances (1 mile) but anything else requires convoluted routes and difficult roads to get places.

    My current area is more connected and I don't have as many issues with running into highways, arterial roads with no bike lanes, or just roads that don't connect to anything.

    On my old suburbs on LI, NY, I was able to ride 35 miles to school if I wanted to. There is a full grid with rare developments who blocked streets (the pit in Northport), but even those areas were traversable by bike as they just put up barriers to block cars. I could go everywhere and it was pretty easy compared to farther West.

  6. I am going to have to disagree. I used to commute by bike over 45km daily, from the semi-rural to urban. Suburbs are not better for bikes. The wider roads mean people speed more than the older neighbourhoods and the lack of grid makes it harder to get anywhere.

  7. I think Corey points out the difference between 'burbs. He is on the West Coast of Canada, a region with the "modern" suburb development. Wide arterials, limited connections and car-centric.

    My old stomping grounds in Long Island, NY (Northport, Brentwood, etc) were all grid, narrow roads, easy to get around. The day I got a bike in 1974 was the day I got my freedom and I rode around to visit friends and just explore for miles around. Later I would find that even long distance riding was easy since the area was developed pre-interstate. There is always 4-10 ways to get anywhere on Long Island.

    Out here in WA state, I find that many neighborhoods are arterials connecting culs de sac developments. Blech. Not bike friendly.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Duncan has a good point about types and eras of suburbs. Older grid-based streetcar suburbs do make for good cycling, newer cul-de-sac variety do not. Of course, the former can be made even better through work like Portland's bike boulevards.

  10. The problem with suburbia at least in LA is the distance. In LA we have suburbs that are pretty far (20 miles) away from job centers. It's just a wasteland of houses with nothing, not even a place to eat or even a bus stop. It's just not reasonable, but in smaller cities maybe. In LA you find most of the cyclist live in the Metro section of LA a few on the very edge of the Eastside, Westside, but in large part most cyclists in LA live in the METRO part of the city owing to the distance. I'm talking about people who ride their bike to work on a regular basis.