By Roberta Millstein
When I read the Davis Enterprise op-ed on roads, driving, and biking last month (“Infrastructure, what is it good for?”), I was sympathetic. After all, it does seem to make sense to call out the “operative principle” that “if only we make driving (or parking) inconvenient enough, then people will drive less, or slower, or somewhere else.” Indeed, as the op-ed says, we surely don’t want to rejigger our roads and our parking spaces only to increase car traffic and cars idling if the goal is to reduce carbon emissions.
But now I am not so sure.
What made me waffle was a bit of self-reflection; I was biking downtown to meet a friend for coffee and thought to myself, “Fifteen minutes ago I was all set to drive, but then decided not to because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of parking around E Street.”
Then I thought about why it is that I overwhelming bike to the UCD campus, rather than drive. I always tell people that I shouldn’t get any “virtue points” for doing so. Frankly, it’s just easier. If I drive, I have to find a space, which can be a hassle (just dealing with the parking garage can be a hassle), and then I still have to walk to my office. If I have to go across campus for something, I have to walk, which can take a lot of time. In contrast, if I bike, I can park my bike right in front of my building, and then my bike is available to take me to whatever meetings I need to go to.
I bike when driving is a hassle and biking is easier. Perhaps the logic that the Enterprise is denouncing makes some sense after all. Maybe there are times when making driving a pain can motivate people to bike more. It clearly does for me, at least sometimes.
As if to drive the point home, a couple of days after my on-bike reflections, a young woman stopped to chat with my partner and me while we were walking our dogs on their regular dog walk. We’d seen her drive by many times, but this time she had a fancy orange electric-assist bike. (I don’t know if it was hers or a rental; it wasn’t a red JUMP bike). We asked her about it, the bottom line being: it’s quick and it’s easy. She seemed happy with her new work commute.
So where does this leave us? I don’t actually think we should make driving harder. I don’t think traffic does anyone any good (certainly not the planet), and I do worry about the impacts on downtown if we make parking too much of a hassle, especially since biking isn’t always an option for everyone.
Maybe, then, we just need to do what we can to make biking (and other non-driving options) easier. If we can tip the driving/biking difficulty balance, not by making driving more of a pain but by making biking more convenient, that would be worthwhile, yes? But how do we do that?
A friend of mine, Dr. Kristiann Heesch, a Senior Lecturer in public health at the Queensland University of Technology, has published on this very question. One thing that she and her colleagues did was an open-ended survey of recreational bikers (people who bike for fun), asking them what it would take to make them “utility” bikers, or, if they already sometimes bike for utility, what would it take to make them do it more often. Since the challenges of Queensland are no doubt different from those of Davis, I suggest that we repeat this survey, perhaps not limiting it to recreational bikers. (Bicycling, Transportation, and Street Safety Commission, would you like to take this up, perhaps in conjunction with a relevant UCD department?)
Would we find, as Dr. Heesch’s survey did, that concerns about safety were among the issues? I admit that I don’t always feel safe biking through downtown at night, or moving from the bike lane to the left turn lane, again, especially at night. What can we do to improve safety and feelings of safety?
Dr. Heesch’s article also mentions incentives. What kind of incentives could we offer people to bike? UC Davis has its very popular GoClub program, which gives people a limited number parking passes in exchange for committing to biking most of the time. Could we do something like that for employees downtown, or, if not that, then some other sort of financial incentive to bike? Offer tax benefits for bike purchases?
Those are just a couple of ideas. Hopefully, a survey might turn up some others. We could also invest in more transit options. I’d like to see us do that.
Let’s see if we can tip the balance on biking and other non-driving options to encourage these alternative modes without creating climate-worsening gridlock.
 My friend and her colleagues have also published on this issue here: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/79842/11/__staffhome.qut.edu.au_staffgroupb%24_bozzetto_Documents_2015000105.pdf