Excerpted from the book Completing our Streets: Barbara McCann’s views of bicyclists’ place in the “complete streets”:

This is the constituency that started the complete streets movement and that has the most passion and energy for wresting space and resources from the automobile. While highly visible in transportation debates, in the United States they usually have the smallest mode share.

This is largely because, until recently, they had no street space at all. Riders were few because of the perceived risks of sharing the lane with cars and buses — and because riding on the sidewalk with pedestrians doesn’t work either. A few bicycle advocates have long argued that the best way to increase riding and safety is to teach people to ride comfortably with cars in traffic (called “vehicular cycling”), but the vast majority of advocates are now pushing for more dedicated space on the roadway. They base their work on international research that clearly shows that dedicated space is the key to increasing bicycle use. This is particularly true for women, who in the United States make up only about one quarter of the tiny fraction of utilitarian cyclists. In countries with the most bicycle-friendly streets, and the highest share of trips by bicycle, this striking gender imbalance disappears.

The League of American Bicyclists rewards a systematic approach to including bicycles in transportation planing through its Bicycle Friendly Communities program; a complete streets policy is required to gain top status. Cities all over the country have been gradually adding painted bike lanes and trails for the past two decades, and a new generation of facilities is aimed at making riding a clearly safer option for people who otherwise wouldn’t ride bicycles, especially for children and families. The industry group Bikes Belong (made up of manufacturers and retail bike store owners) is promoting the Green Lane Project, an initiative to help cities install protected bike lanes, safer intersection treatments, and other innovations. The growing political clout of the bicycle industry and the advocacy movement means more resources and more space.

Bicycling is reaching a tipping point, rapidly shifting from a marginal subculture of recreational riders and diehard male commuters into a significant mode of transportation. Nationally, the share of people who bike to work grew by 64 percent between 1990 and 2009, with far higher increases in many cities. Identifying as a “bicyclist” is no longer necessary: bikeshare systems — which rent bicycles in half-hour increments from kiosks placed throughout a city — eliminate the need to even own a bike. Opening in cities around the world, they function essentially as transit systems in which the vehicles are bicycles.

Much of this activity is in ore cities, but bicycling’s greatest potential may be in suburban areas where it is simply too far to walk from homes to other destinations or even to reach public transportation. Low-income workers already know this, but they travel under the radar of transportation experts.

Barry Barker, of the Louisville transit agency, says that when he was preparing to put bike racks on the city’s buses years ago, he would make jokes about serving “the spandex crowd.” But once they were installed, he says, “what we quickly learned was the extent to which year-round, the bike is a form of transportation for minority, low income individuals in Louisville. This is probably the most significant thing we’ve done for access to jobs.” Yet, the challenge in these areas remains creating safe space for bicycles when cars are traveling at high speed.

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