They already built a bike lane, and no one is using it

There’s a lot of pushback against cycling infrastructure in Los Angeles, and one of the most common arguments I hear from those opposed is that, “we already built a bike lane over there, and no one is using it, so why should we built another one?” I can totally understand why this is frustrating, and why some people see it as a sign of lacking interest in cycling, but before dismissing bike lanes altogether, let’s investigate the reason for this kind of outcome.

In order to draw a comparison, we need something that’s as threatening to a vehicle as a car is to a bicycle. Since there aren’t many things that are a fair match against a 2 ton hunk of metal, I’m going to go ahead and go with a giant boulder. Nobody wants to be crushed by a boulder right? Right. So imagine that for your daily commute by car, you have the option of taking one of two roads. One is a typical highway–boring, traffic-filled, concrete, nothing out of the ordinary–and the other is a pleasant mountain road. The mountain road takes a bit longer, but the scenery is beautiful, and there’s never any traffic. Faced with a choice between the two roads, I imagine that a fair number of people would pick the mountain option. But what if that mountain road was notorious for having unpredictable avalanches, say, once a week? Well then that changes things. You might still get a few brave souls in Landrovers and Hummers taking that road, but even though the chances of you actually being smashed under a boulder are relatively low, your average mom in a mini-van certainly isn’t going to take the risk. After all, this is a commute we’re making every day. The risk adds up.

Now let’s take this a step further and pretend that the city has decided something needs to be done about all these falling boulders. They announce plans to reenforce the hillside. The only caveat: they’re only doing it on one stretch of the highway. What happens then? Once the construction finishes, do more people take the road to work? Chances are what we’d see is a small number of additional drivers who, given the slightly diminished risk, are willing to drive the road, but since drivers still have to pass through a danger zone on both sides of the reenforced section, most people are still going to avoid the road. However, if we continue to reenforce more and more of the road, things start to change.

At a certain critical point, the experience goes from driving a dangerous road with just a few safe zones to driving a safe road with a handful of danger zones. That is the point at which people will truly begin to use it. When only a tiny section of the road is risky, it’s much easier to simply be extra alert and prepared when traveling that section. If half the road was risky however, the level of attention required during the journey would be exhausting, and probably not worth it.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. The reason adding a bike lane to a dangerous length of road might not necessarily increase cycling activity is because even though that section of the road is now safe, it’s still only a small portion of the rider’s commute. The cyclist still has to take dangerous, stressful roads to complete his journey, and the ride as a whole is only slightly less risky than it was previously.

In short, we need to hit the critical point for bike lanes. Only then will cycling become a quality transportation option for the average person. I’ll be the first to admit that there’s quite a lot of work to be done to get to that point, but it’s not an unreachable goal, and the nice part is that each bike lane that gets added into a neighborhood will have a larger positive effect than the one that came before it. All we have to do is give them a chance.