Jane Jacobs was right about the need for safe bike lanes—in 1985

Cities worldwide working to do their part in the global race to meet climate change goals also face twin local crises of housing affordability and increasing commute times.

In order to both cut vehicle emissions and expand access to job centers and in-demand walkable neighborhoods, many are taking a second look at a proven method for encouraging bicycle travel to ensure residents have viable alternatives to driving: dedicated cycling infrastructure.

Kids enjoying a protected bike lane in Austin, TX (image public domain, credit to Adam Coppola Photography)

Protected bike lanes separate riders from car traffic, creating a safer and more comfortable route for cyclists, sidewalk users, and drivers alike. In an address to the Spokespeople Conference on Bicycle Advocacy in Toronto over 30 years ago, Jane Jacobs, the iconoclastic journalist best known for her writing on city life and development, spoke on the value of a safe environment for biking.

From her classic early descriptions of the “sidewalk ballet” of people on the street in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, to later work on the city as both economic engine and ecological phenomenon, Jacobs constantly emphasized the interconnection and interdependence of social groups and economic actors who do not always consciously recognize their connections.

This speech, excerpted in part from Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, further describes her vision of cooperation and coalition-building among people with different stated priorities, but common goals and shared material interests. In her words, “the interests of cyclists are identical with the interests of other groups who are deeply concerned about the quality of life in cities and suburbs.”

Jacobs then listed the following groups, all possible allies who would stand to gain from better biking infrastructure and a reduction in car dependence.

  • People who care about cities and suburbs as safe and pleasant places to bring up children;

Despite facing regular scorn as “just a mother” with no formal city planning education, Jane Jacobs never shied away from the importance of safe city streets to the wellbeing of children. Kids are often at far greater risk than adults of traffic harm or respiratory problems caused by air pollution. Not only do children, especially poor or nonwhite children, disproportionately benefit from cleaner air and safer traffic, cities should aim to empower young people with the freedom to walk or bike to school and around town.

  • People who care about the tranquility of residential areas and the dangers of them to environmental degradation;

Car dependence worsens traffic, including in residential neighborhoods where people have no option but to drive to work, school, or errands. The noise and tailpipe pollution from roads with heavy vehicle traffic harms neighbors’ health and lowers nearby property values.

  • People who value ravines and other city oases of nature, and care about protecting them from paving, traffic, and noise;

The Interstate-5 Rose Quarter project in Portland, OR is a recent example of the threat to natural and recreational spaces that highway building and road expansion have posed since well before the 1960’s freeway revolts, in which Jacobs played a part by rallying the preservationists of Greenwich Village. This relatively minor proposed intrusion on the bike path and riverfront pales in comparison to the amount of wilderness and agricultural land damaged or destroyed by highways or the sprawl they enable.

  • People who care about the quality, convenience, and financial resources and soundness of mass transit;

Especially given the expansion of bike and scooter share systems, a strong network of bike facilities also makes public transit more useful to more people. With the option to bike to and from a bus or train stop, each stop is convenient to a larger area of the city, attracting more riders. Popular routes justify more transit investment and better service, a virtuous cycle I described more here.

  • People who care about the mobility of children, the elderly, and those too poor to own a car;

Non-car mobility choices are an essential lifeline for anyone too old or young to drive, or who cannot afford the burdens of car ownership, and for many people with disabilities. People with disabilities bike at similar rates as non-disabled, and the fact that “two-thirds of cyclists with disabilities find cycling easier than walking” reveals the need to challenge assumptions about who cycling facilities are “for.” A built environment that is comfortably accessible to all road users is key to ensuring a high quality of life for people of all ages and abilities, including families with children.

  • People who care about combatting emissions that help cause acid rain and other pollutants;

This reference to acid rain was timely for the 80s—decades of pollution from coal plants and vehicle exhaust combined with atmospheric moisture to create hazy urban smog and rain showers that damaged forests, threatened wildlife, and dissolved historic buildings at an alarming rate. Tailpipe exhaust fills the air with ozone, particulate matter, and other toxic substances that are proven harmful to heart and lung health.

  • People who care about profligate wastes of energy, and the consequences of that waste for ourselves and the planet.

The modern reader also knows that internal combustion engines contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, so reducing the need to drive around cities is a key strategy for tackling climate change. On top of this environmental imperative, the substantial costs of fuel, maintenance, healthcare for traffic injuries, and subsidies to highways all represent economic motivation to reduce the time, money, and resources wasted on car dependence.

“All these superficially different interests converge,” Jacobs wrote, because “they all amount to trying to keep cities and suburbs as high-quality places for people,” not only for cars. Bike lanes are not just about bikes; they demonstrate a community’s commitment to ensuring diverse mobility choices that are safe and efficient for everybody.

This diversity of benefits is comparable to the “curb cut effect” where technology designed to assist disabled people, like wheelchair-accessible crosswalks or closed captions, makes life easier for many more people than the original intended beneficiaries.

Jacobs closes the address imploring the cycling promoters to expand their understanding of what constitutes bike advocacy, and connect their needs to the needs of other marginalized and underserved groups. Safer streets bestow a wide range of benefits on a wide range of city residents, and building coalitions between interests groups may be the first step to realizing a truly diverse, interconnected transportation system:

At present, cyclists don’t have much clout in pushing for the facilities and city qualities they need and want.

I think they would have more clout if they pedaled along with their many, many potential allies, getting aid from those allies in support of cyclists’ needs, and in return helping their natural allies in their battles for better quality of city life: working in mutual support with people who care about [the natural environment], or about traffic lights where schoolchildren cross, or about threats of expropriation to their workplaces or homes [for road expansion], understanding that the specific needs and desires of city cyclists can be furthered only within a broader context of the city as a decent place for people to live and get around in.

Law and Sustainable Cities — Legalize Walkable Neighborhoods

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