Build It and Bikes Will Come

2014 911 bike stNew York separated bike lane. (Photo: Spencer Thomas)Did you see the baseball movie Field of Dreams? Even if you didn’t, you’ve probably heard the phrase “If you build it, they will come” — which it immortalized.

Well, how about “If you don’t build it, they won’t come”?

When it comes to bicycles, cars, and public transportation, both sayings are true (even though one is decidedly catchier than the other).

I recently moved back to Madison, Wisconsin after spending eight years in San Diego, California. I used to bike to work when I lived here before and bike for fun on the weekends. Now that I’m back, I’m commuting by bike once again.

In San Diego, my bike sat in my backyard for so long that both tires went flat, the pedals rusted, and a few spiders decided it was a fine place to build their webs.

San Diego is a city of freeways. Parking downtown is tough, but for the most part, Southern California is built so that its residents must drive wherever they need to go. Certain neighborhoods are walkable if you aren’t going far, and you might choose to take the trolley instead of attempting to park if you go to a Padres game.

I thought about commuting by bike on occasion, but there are so many freeways that I had no idea how to do it.

Had there been better bike trails, I realize now that I’m back in Madison, San Diego would have been ideal for biking. The weather there is perfect every day — unlike in Wisconsin.

Now that I’m back in Madison, I feel I have no choice but to bike and use the bus. There’s no free parking on campus, and my grad student stipend doesn’t allow for a large parking budget.

I’m not a natural cyclist. I actually kind of hate biking. The seat hurts my rear end, my muscles aren’t adapted to biking up hills, and I’m always running late in the morning, making it extra inconvenient that I need to allot enough time to get somewhere car-free.

Also, my bike doesn’t have anywhere to stash my morning coffee.

Even with my bad attitude, I’m still biking. Because, you see, Madison built bike trails but didn’t build ample parking. The city and the University of Wisconsin campus have bike bridges to cross over or under busy roads and plenty of bike racks everywhere you go. The bike routes are even well-marked with road signs, making it easy to find your way around even if you’re new.

If cities wish to encourage citizens to be more active and cut down on driving, they must remember that if they build it, we will come. Robust public transportation networks with reliable, frequent schedules and bike trails allowing bikers to easily get around will bring results — especially when driving and parking options are lousy and limited.

Who would sit in traffic or pay a fortune for parking when they could read the newspaper on a bus or bike past fields of wildflowers instead?

An approach like Madison’s still allows residents free choice, but it gently guides us in a certain direction — away from our cars. The same can be said for cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, where driving and parking are often miserable but subways, buses, and walking are convenient.

All US cities can get Americans out of our cars and onto our bikes — but they need to build the right stuff first.