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DesignIdeation: Bike Infrastructure

Bike-sharing and e-scooters have ushered in a new era of transportation in cities — the era of personal mobility. These accessible alternatives to driving are increasing in popularity, but some communities are not prepared to meet the demand for active transportation infrastructure. Beth Poovey, PLA (BP) and Gabe Dobbs, PE (GB) have joined forces to challenge the way cities weave pedestrian-friendly infrastructure into their communities. Together, they have made it their mission to create places where every mode of transportation is respected. 

Below, they share their thoughts on their new partnership, e-scooters and the model for successful bicycle infrastructure in America.

What sparked your passion for active transportation and bicycle infrastructure?

BP: Before I was a landscape architect, I lived in the Netherlands, which is heaven for cyclists. While I was there, I cycled everywhere — to and from work, to see friends, running errands, etc. I loved the idea that bikes were used for transportation, rather than recreation. Living in the Netherlands showed me that the way you experience a community by bike is incredibly different than by car. My goal is to use active transportation to create bike-friendly communities in the U.S.

GD: Initially, I didn’t get into the industry thinking this is what I would be doing. As a kid, I loved to play with Legos and laid out cities for my Lego people. I realized early on that was what I wanted to do with my life and landed upon civil engineering. I’m not as well-traveled as Beth, but I have been to the “Europe of North America”, Vancouver. It’s the mecca of active transportation and it’s easy to get around by bike intuitively and safely. It’s amazing to be connected to destinations in your city within a five minute bike-ride, and I want to play a part in designing pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure in my own community.

What about working together are you most excited for?

BP: We bring together very different skill sets. Gabe has the unique ability to balance engineering and planning, while I specialize with the overall vision and details of the design. LandDesign has been focusing on active transportation for a while. With the addition of Gabe, we can take our expertise to the next level, while also having fun and enjoying what we do. We see the difference active transportation can make in our communities, and bring a shared energy and perspective that can make a positive change.

GD: Beth and I are creating something new and it feels like the first day of school. Before coming to the firm, I would see Beth at public meetings, specifically the Charlotte Rail Trail comes to mind, and it was a circus! There were clowns, pizza and beer, and I thought to myself, there’s no way this would be put on by a consulting firm, much less anything related to infrastructure. That’s why it’s easy to stay engaged and passionate — it’s organic. Now I’m just excited to see what we can accomplish.

What are some examples of places that have successfully integrated bike infrastructure?

BP: If we look at Vancouver and the Netherlands, they have been investing in bike/ped infrastructure for a lot longer than cities in the U.S. Plus, they are very dense which makes it easier to bike or walk. Sprawling cities like Charlotte, NC that have less density and destinations within close proximity, are more complex. We can’t use that same model. We have to create bike facilities that are fitting for these communities. So, what does that look like? We don’t have an answer, but that’s what Gabe and I are working towards — designing the best walking and biking infrastructure for each unique place.

When LandDesign was working on the Cross Charlotte Trail, one of the ideas we had was inspired by Dutch infrastructure. We wanted to incorporate colored paths so you can physically see the difference between vehicular, biking and pedestrian transportation. It’s an intuitive option that is an investment in all forms of transportation. More and more of our cities are realizing the benefit of investing in bike infrastructure as a form of transportation, and LandDesign can influence the creation of cities where cycling is a viable alternative to vehicular transportation.

Why aren’t mid-sized American cities there yet?

BP: The lack in funding for bike infrastructure. For a long time, funding has gone to vehicular transportation and there is only so much funding for infrastructure within a year. Until bike infrastructure becomes a priority, we, as designers and planners, need to determine what the solution is in the meantime. We are starting to look at how e-scooters and temporary bike facilities are influencing a shift away from driving alone for every trip.

GD: In Charlotte specifically, there has been a phenomenon with people using scooters more than bikes, and you either love them or hate them. As a matter of fact, a recent study showed that Charlotte is in the Top 5 U.S. cities for using e-scooters to replace single car trips. This is huge! The City of Charlotte, for example, still allows scooters on sidewalks in certain areas, even though private companies do not allow it. We believe that sidewalks should be reserved for walking, and a day of progress would be restricting scooters to road use, because there’s a comfortable and safe place for them to ride.

What design solutions are we exploring?

BP: We are looking at the e-scooter trend as a viable form of transportation other than an automobile, while also trying to understand what this means for humans. In terms of health, biking serves as a form of exercise, but e-scooters take that away. We are questioning the impact of this trend to our health and whether scooters provide the same benefits to communities as biking. Ultimately, the benefits of scooters outweigh the negatives because they get us out of cars, but there are some interesting side effects micro-mobility has on the future of active transportation. 

Additionally, this trend will impact how we plan for accessibility and will change open space and comprehensive planning in general. Today, our plans aim to have accessible open space every quarter of a mile, so everyone can feasibly walk to a park. But with the accessibility scooters are creating, that could change the way we plan for parks and open space.

GD: This is the era of personal mobility. Communities that are designed to get you to your end destination within 30 minutes without a car, is the end goal. E-scooters are helping us achieve that level of personal mobility by increasing our range to get to places faster and without worrying about where to park our cars. At the end of the day, this is progress.   

Does the perspective of bike infrastructure as an amenity, rather than a necessity, need to change for progress to happen?

BP: The inherent bias within our U.S. transportation systems is that cyclists are a lower priority than cars. This mindset will change over time as communities are exposed to bike infrastructure. However, in order to make progress, we need to quicken the transition of thinking. The easier we make biking, and the harder we make driving, the faster the mentality will change. Ride sharing (Uber, Lyft, etc.) is playing a role in changing this mindset, but we have yet to determine if it is hindering or advancing the mentality change.

GD: We are questioning what role cities play in managing ride sharing, e-scooters and personal mobility over the next decade. Uber and Lyft have increased our accessibility options, but every ride adds more traffic to our roadways. I am monitoring how many cities will adapt to Smart City models that are being tested across the country. This idea of a digital twin, an AI system that controls traffic, water and power systems — how will that impact active transportation? It has the potential to make driving a lot easier, and falsely show that there isn’t a need for bike infrastructure.

Are there opportunities to educate the community on the benefits of bike infrastructure?

BP: Open Streets is a great example of an event that educates communities on the benefits of biking and walking. The event is held twice a year and streets are shut down to allow cyclists and pedestrians to freely explore neighborhoods. It’s a great event, but we need to have that impact every day. Education plays a part in changing the perspective around biking, but we need the infrastructure in place so cyclists can bike safely.

GD: Absolutely! For example, Sustain Charlotte hosts Biketoberfest each year, where anyone can ride around Charlotte and check out local breweries, restaurants and vendors. Events like this are ways to show communities how easy it can be to use cycling as a form of transportation, while also having fun.  

There are some that believe education is the sole solution to gaining support for bike infrastructure. Education is a component, but the only way our cities can tackle the challenges surrounding active transportation is through intuitive infrastructure that can be built quickly and affordably. It’s difficult to say what needs to be, or should be, but a reasonable goal is to strive for creating a community where every mode of transportation is respected.