What if your design rider is wrong?

Tonight at the 20s Bikeway SAC meeting, the PBOT Project Manager was giving the group some perspective and background. One thing he mentioned was the concept of the ‘design rider’.

Surveys in Portland have shows that the population roughly breaks down into four categories: people who will ride anywhere, anytime (~1%); people who are enthusiastic riders and tolerant of mixing with auto traffic on smaller streets, but don’t feel comfortable on big fast roads (~8-12%); people who would like to ride (more) on the street, but don’t feel comfortable doing so because of safety concerns (~50%); and people who probably won’t ride, even if it’s an attractive option (~35%). Also known as the strong and fearless, the enthusiastic and confident, the interested but concerned, and the no way, no how. Cute, huh?

Let’s imagine that this classification is valid. I have some quarrels with it, and others have proposed equally reasonable but completely different ways to divide up bicyclists, so this is not a given, but I have another point that I want to focus on.

Portland has pretty much gotten the enthused and confident going, because there are pretty decent bikeways and connections throughout most of the city — a mix of low-traffic routes with bike lanes on larger roads and various treatments at critical connection points. Great, but where do we go from here if we want to reach our 2030 Bike Plan goal of 25% of trips being by bike? You can’t accomplish that with only 10% or so of people riding.

Obviously, we go to the “interested but concerned”, since “no way no hows” are unlikely to care what we do. So new bikeway projects are intended to focus on designing bikeways for the “interested but concerned”. Like the “P-vehicle” for engineers, the interested but concerned rider is the “design vehicle” or “design rider”. Their main concern is greater safety, and they don’t feel very comfortable mixing with cars. The general thrust of a project aimed at this kind of attitude, as described tonight, is that it should involve low-traffic streets wherever possible, and separated facilities if it’s not possible. There’s still a stated principle that the route should be direct and provide good access, but there’s a lot of focus on side-street routes.

Not coincidentally, I think, this is:

  • already a mechanism that Portland is big on;
  • cheaper than doing main-street bikeway treatments;
  • politically far easier than handling issues relating to repurposing the constrained space on main streets. (Which, I’ll grant, Portland has a much bigger problem with than most cities, because of our narrow streets.)

You can’t completely avoid main streets, because there are pinch points and major destinations, but even in those areas, side street options are a major focus. We had at least six side-street alternates presented to us tonight over a 9.5-mile route, and it would have been more except that there are existing bike lanes in some areas.

Here’s the question I want to pose: what if this design rider, who wants side street routes, is, like the P-vehicle, actually just a construct of the engineers? What if that rider doesn’t really want side street bike routes? What if they just want safe bike routes that are separated from car traffic, and can’t imagine any other kind of separated route because they hardly ever see one? What if they were asked, originally, “Would you rather ride on a side street than a main street?” with no mention of any changes to either one, and they naturally thought of existing streets? A What if they would really want properly-designed physically separated in-road bike facilities (cycletracks) if they had ever seen one in action? I’ve had this particular conversion experience myself. I used to be very skeptical of downtown cycletracks. “We don’t need those, riding in the lane downtown is fine.” Then I went to Vancouver, and I was like “What the heck was I thinking? These are awesome. We totally need them.”

Thinking in terms of “Where would I put a side-street bikeway to get people through this area?” is almost inevitable once you’ve spent any amount of time in Portland, because you’re used to them, and they are pretty pleasant as things go. I certainly enjoy and make use of them myself, and there are rational arguments for them (less pollution, more shade, quieter, more comfortable for groups and kids, consider them Portland’s narrow main streets’ ‘extra lanes’). But there is another paradigm, one that comes with its own advantages — automatic wayfinding, easy access to destinations, through roads, directness, optimal topography (usually), options that persist beyond the dense grid network of the inner eastside. What if we were discussing a cycletrack on 30th/33rd? 39th? 15th? Broadway (NE or SW)? Hawthorne? It is possible to create a bicycle network by adding bikeways to main streets. And maybe, if you asked people who might ride if they liked the option, and showed them pictures and interactive demos of it, they would say: Yes, that sounds great! I just never knew it was possible.

One thought on “What if your design rider is wrong?

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    November 25, 2013 at 10:50am

    Well said. This sort of goes back to how Portland started with building bike lanes on main streets, more people saw that they were being used and thought: I could try that. Seeing bike facilities of any type from where their trip started to “nearly” where the trip ended is a great thing. I wonder if we did a poll of Dutch or Danish people living in Portland if they would say they need cycletracks. Once you get to riding on the neighborhood greenways and get comfortable with your bicycle, surely that % of enthusiastic but confident will grow.

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