Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.
Recent reports showing auto traffic already climbing in cities around the country even before COVID-19 travel restrictions have been lifted have caused worry among advocates for more balanced urban transportation. News reports from all over this past week should give them some relief, then, for they contain news of bicycles selling at a white-hot pace across urban America. With gyms still closed and public transit less appealing, many city-dwellers are turning to bicycles as a means to combine exercise with basic transportation.
This development should give further momentum to the movement to reallocate city street space to better accommodate those on two wheels and two feet. And even where shrinking the street space given over to cars hasn’t caught on, transportation planners are moving to make streets safer for all by lowering speed limits across the board. For those who have longed for Americans to regard bikes the way many Europeans do, their moment may have arrived at last.
Sales of Bikes Shatter Records in City After City
“Thinking of buying a bike? Get ready for a very long wait.”
So says The New York Times in the headline of its May 18 feature on soaring bicycle sales in cities from coast to coast. The article cites figures from the NPD Group, a market research firm, that show that overall sales of bikes, bike equipment and repairs doubled in March from 2019 levels. While the greatest rise, 121 percent, came from sales of recreational bicycles, sales of commuter and fitness bikes rose 66 percent and children’s-bike sales went up 59 percent. Individual bike shops report sales running anywhere from two to six times their ordinary pace.
Joining in the trend are sales of electric bikes, which extend the range and terrain bikes can cover for many riders. NPD Group figures reported in the Times article show e-bike sales rising 85 percent in March, and NPD Group Senior Industry Advisor Matt Powell told The Verge that e-bike sales for the first quarter of 2020 rose 90 percent from year-ago levels.
The surge in demand has cleared store shelves of basic-level bikes. Jacksonville bike shop owner Gordon Cooper told The Florida Times-Union that “bicycles are like the new toilet paper.” The disruption of global supply chains caused by the COVID outbreak has led to shortages of bikes nationwide.
A Washington Post article suggests that bike- and scooter-share companies should also benefit from this shift and expand their operations in response to the search for socially safe, healthy and environmentally friendly basic transport.
The surge should also give fresh impetus to efforts to reallocate road space to the benefit of bicyclists and pedestrians. New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told The Times, “We are absolutely confident we are going to see more bike commuting in the months ahead.” A likely response to this rise: Moves New York and several other cities have made to close streets to cars or convert parking or travel lanes for pedestrian and bicycle use will survive well beyond the lifting of all travel restrictions and more cities will seek to carve out space for bike and foot traffic where cars once ruled exclusively.
Austin Moves to Lower Speed Limits Citywide
“Twenty is plenty” has become a rallying cry for advocates for safer streets. The people raising this chant advocate lowering speed limits to levels that give pedestrians and bicyclists a fighting chance for survival in collisions with cars. Lower speed limits, these advocates point out, also reduce injuries and damage caused to the cars and drivers themselves.
In Austin, Texas, 20 is lower than local transportation officials want to go, but they have taken a big step towards implementing a sweeping reduction in speed limits citywide. CBS Austin reports that the city’s Urban Transportation Commission voted May 15 to reduce speed limits on streets in residential neighborhoods to 25 mph citywide. Elsewhere, 35 mph would be the maximum speed limit, with a very few exceptions. Some residential-district thoroughfares would have 30 mph speed limits, as would some non-residential thoroughfares currently signed for 35 to 40 mph.
If the city council votes to accept the commission’s plan in June, Austin would become the first city in Texas to adopt across-the-board speed-limit reductions.
The city transportation department says that speed is the primary factor in 25 percent of fatal car crashes citywide. The proposed 5 mph reduction in speed limits would add 24 seconds for each mile traveled to the length of a car trip, but safer-streets advocates say that the lives saved and reduced damage are far more valuable than the modest time cost.
Cincinnati Residents Vote to Approve Increased Transit Funding
It only took 28 years, but Cincinnati voters finally approved a tax increase to provide more funding for the city’s transit system.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that voters narrowly approved an 0.8 percent sales tax to be used to fund local transit in an election on May 12. Measure 7, which authorized the tax, passed by a margin of only 980 votes out of 134,416 votes cast.
The last time Cincinnatians okayed a tax for transit was in 1972. That was when the voters approved the 0.3 percent earnings tax that this new tax will replace. Measures to raise more money for transit failed on the initial attempt in 1971 and again in 1979, 1980 and 2002.
The tax is projected to raise $130 million a year. $100 million of that will go towards Cincinnati Metro operations and the remaining $30 million will fund road and bridge projects throughout Hamilton County that will benefit transit in some fashion.
On the operations side, the first changes will be extended hours of operation and reworked routes, changes that do not require the purchase of new buses. In subsequent years, Cincinnati Metro will use the increased revenue to launch more east-west crosstown bus routes, expand weekend service and ultimately create a bus rapid transit system.
The changes, which were outlined in the agency’s ”Reinventing Metro” plan, will likely be revised or altered depending on ridership patterns after COVID restrictions are lifted. Cincinnati Metro ridership has plunged 75 percent during the pandemic.
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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.