Jealous? Of Denmark? Why, yes!
September 22, 2012 10:27 AM   Subscribe

Danish bicycle superhighway. How could something like this get built in a US city? And what could an average citizen do to support such efforts?

To be more specific, what exactly is the US process by which something like this could be made? How could it come about? Just a general overview of (or a link to somewhere that explains) the studies, city council meetings, funding sources, and other miscellaneous municipal actions that need to take place to build something like this. Assume we're in a relatively bike-friendly city.

Also, what could a nonspecialist citizen do to draw attention to/enable this process? Getting bikes out of the way of both cars and peds like this seems to be the best option for all three.
posted by Ndwright to Law & Government (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The most important and difficult step is acquiring the right-of-way. That means condemning private property and paying market value for it. (Which is required by the Fifth Amendment.) Doing that in a city these days is titanically expensive, and the process is a slow one because a lot of the condemnations end up in court.

Given the generally poor economic situations in most cities and states these days, it's unlikely any government would be able to come up with that kind of scratch.

There's a lot more of this kind of thing in the US than you may realize, though. The basic approach has been to convert old unused rail lines into bike paths, especially commuter rail lines. (Collectively this is known as "Rails to Trails".) The big advantage of this approach is that the right of way already exists; no condemnation proceedings are needed (except to acquire the track itself).

One of the best examples is the Minuteman Bikeway west of Boston. That one used to be a commuter rail run by the T, but a big section of the track was wrecked by rain during a hurricane and the T decided it wasn't worth trying to repair it. The track sat unused and neglected for a few years, and then the state came up with the money to convert it into a bike path.

And it works as a commuter route, too because it runs through Arlington and Lexington and ends at the Alewife Red Line station. People ride their bikes to Alewife and then take the Red Line the rest of the way into Cambridge or Boston.

But putting in an entirely new bike route through an area where there isn't already a right-of-way would be fantastically difficult -- and expensive.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:45 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Building something like this in an American city is going to take a really big process. And the answer is going to depend a lot on which city and state you want to build this in.

At an extremely high level of generality, and off the top of my head, here are the things you'd need to do it:

- Legislative and executive approval, certainly at the city level, probably at the county level, and possibly at the state and federal levels. To win these approvals, you'll probably need some kind of lobbying campaign. You will certainly face opposition from anti-tax activists, people whose property would be affected, and people who just don't like bikes and bikers. This project would be a many-year endeavor, and you'd have to maintain at least some legislative and executive support until the project is completed because the government has lots of ways to stop the project even after it gets started.

- Cost, feasibility, and environmental studies. These can be quite expensive to produce because they require many hours of work by experts.

- Substantial funding to acquire rights-of-way, pay lawyers, conduct studies, and eventually, to actually build the thing. Chocolate Pickle has this covered.

This project is way too big for one individual or a small group of people. I think I'd start by looking around your city for an already-existing organization that might be receptive to the project and that has the political knowledge to start building coalitions in support. Obviously if your city has organizations of cyclists, that's a great place to start, but you'll probably want to branch out to other established civic organizations.
posted by burden at 11:01 AM on September 22, 2012

In our city, unusually wide roads that are not main arteries are turned into bike routes. The remaining road is still usable by cars, but the amount of traffic is low and the bike land is wide enough that it's safe for cyclists. This is an average rust belt city, the type that was ridiculed in the blue thread, so that shows how possible such a project is anywhere and how possible are grander projects in more cyclist-dense cities.

I'd say the average citizen can best help by riding his or her bicycle everywhere and encouraging others to do the same - projects to some degree will bet on growth of cycling but the base implementation is going to be proportionate to existing cycling to some degree (prudently.) Talk to your alderman, mayor, etc as they probably are not hostile to the idea and would move on it sooner with support, and do the other usual political things.

Quite possible there is already a consultant's recommendation for this and you'll want to work with that rather than proposing something completely different.
posted by michaelh at 11:05 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ride your bike everywhere you go. Wave to the people you are. Join your local bike advocacy group. Lobby your elected representatives at all levels.
posted by fixedgear at 11:13 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's something similar already in progress: the East Coast Greenway. There's still a lot of busy roads to contend with, but it's a start. I've biked a lot of the Massachusetts portion of the Greenway, and I fantasize about doing the entire length someday.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 11:49 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, what could a nonspecialist citizen do to draw attention to/enable this process

Check with your local planning department (even in a small place there will be a lead person on transportation issues, and in a big department there might even be a dedicated bicycle/sustainability person) and/or the city council/mayor's office to see if there is a bicycle planning board that you can apply to join. It's the opposite of glamorous work, but it's a necessary step in generating and vetting ideas and making sure they are fed into the system.

Similarly, many places already have one or more bicycle advocacy groups that always need members, funding, and energy.

To be more specific, what exactly is the US process by which something like this could be made?

In very general terms, there are several paths that can feed into this. One is top-down, where the legislature or governor's office mandates bicycle planning and route construction. One is what I'll call technocratic, where the transportation engineers and planners start including bicycle planning into their models and budgets, often with pressure from both city council and citizen's groups. And the third would be straight up advocacy and grassroots organizing.

In real life, things tend to be a mishmash: there's a new state mandate to incorporate bicycle routes; a city councilmember who has been getting calls from constituents creates a bicycle planning board that holds public hearings and reports to the planning director; existing bicycle advocacy groups have already been having meetings with transportation planners about routes and intersection planning; a federal roads grant includes a mandatory set-aside for bicycle paths...

If you think of it as a synergistic process like that with a lot of moving parts and a lot of potential barriers, you can see how there are dozens of effective ways to be involved. As mentioned above, land access is probably the hardest part if you want to create an entirely new pathway, and is why virtually all bicycle routes are built within existing right of ways rather than from scratch. (Fortunately, existing right of ways tend to go where people already want to go, so this is not a disaster.)

Lastly, there is a huge role in doing the research to find best practices examples to present to city council and planners -- it can be a lot more powerful to show how another city has already solved some of these issues (including resolving the intense opposition bicycle planning tends to generate) than it is to just imagine stuff.
posted by Forktine at 11:53 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

In NYC we have the Ocean Parkway Bike Path. It was built in the 1830s though and designated a landmark in 1975.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:10 PM on September 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Wikipedia says Minneapolis' Cedar Lake trail is the first bicycle highway in the US, it dates back to 1995 and connects downtown Minneapolis with several western suburbs along some railroad tracks. If you want some interesting reading, look up the history on what it took to get the last piece of the trail constructed underneath the new baseball stadium. We also have the Midtown Greenway, which crosses the entire east-west length of Minneapolis, much of it in an old rail trench below grade. So yes, rail to trail is the model for bicycle highways in the Twin Cities.

The Midtown Greenway has its own grassroots advocacy organization that lobbied for years to get it built, and grassroots bike and parks organizations worked with city/regional parks boards to get other rail trails built. The city of Minneapolis is pretty progressive in building its bike infrastructure, even if they don't build it the way cyclists always want. You can check out the city website to see their planning process. There was big drama last year about hiring a full-time bicycle/pedestrian transportation coordinator, and then more drama when the new, flashy bike bridge broke this summer along the Greenway.

The next phase of trail discussion here is moving toward issues with funding trail maintenance and repairs. Resurfacing bike trails and fixing bridges cost money, and that money is not funded in a sustainable manner, since construction is usually funded by one-time federal or state grants. Gas taxes go toward ongoing road maintenance in Minnesota, but it doesn't cover bike trail maintenance. So when the money runs out, the trails will get bumpy, and who knows what will happen if local governments are as continuously strapped for cash as they are today.
posted by Maarika at 4:01 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks guys, really helpful!

(Also, depressing. Time to attend a city council meeting, I guess. . .)
posted by Ndwright at 6:17 PM on September 22, 2012

My city, Palo Alto, has a road that's blocked off to through traffic and designated for bicycles. It's great because people who live on the street can still drive to their homes, but the traffic is low enough and there is a critical mass of bicyclists that it's safe and quick.

If there's a road in your town with lots of parallel streets in the same direction this might be an easier project to push through than construction of a new trail from nothing.

Here's a consultant report about Bryan St. for the City of Palo Alto.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:12 PM on September 22, 2012

There is now a Cross-County Trail in Fairfax County, VA that stretches 40 miles from north to south, from the Potomac River to the Occoquan River. Fairfax County has a population of more than a million people and is close to D.C., so you can imagine this took some doing. It is not a rails-to-trails project (though it intersects with the Washington & Old Dominion trail, which is) - instead, it takes advantage of the green space in the county's stream valleys. There are some broad details about its planning on the Fairfax County website about the trail. The planning process started in earnest in 1997 and I believe the trail was finished in 2006.
posted by jocelmeow at 1:34 PM on September 23, 2012

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