Are Bikes the Answer to Urban Traffic Congestion?

A South China Morning Post editorial suggests that if more Chinese urbanites used bicycles for their commutes, the severe traffic congestion in China’s cities could be eased. Currently, Guangdong is considering limitations on vehicle use to help reduce crowding on its streets.

Unlike mass transit and road construction that take time and money to construct, bicycles can offer an immediate respite from traffic for individuals. However, expecting government to create incentives for increased bike use may be unrealistic if they clash with car manufacturers and commuters:

Conflicting interests are difficult for any government to deal with. In the mainland’s case, it involves balancing a policy of using vehicle production to boost industrial growth with ensuring that cities are liveable and function properly. The car industry is the catalyst for a plethora of spin-off industries that boost job creation, meet consumer demand and lay the groundwork for export markets. But cities are where factories, offices and workers are located and they need to be efficient and safe.

While bicycle commutes in many cities can be faster than car commutes as observed in Birmingham, England, congested roads that are not well-designed for shared use of bicycles and automobiles often pose dangers to riders.

Vauban, Germany has instituted a unique, local solution to city transportation, creating a community where car parking is very expensive, and only available on the outskirts of town. CBS’s Jim Sciutto, in a Good Morning America segment, suggests that Vauban’s solution is representative of the “city of the future.”

The New York Times reports:

Vauban, home to 5,500 residents within a rectangular square mile, may be the most advanced experiment in low-car suburban life. But its basic precepts are being adopted around the world in attempts to make suburbs more compact and more accessible to public transportation, with less space for parking.

The article states that only 30 percent of Vauban’s residents own cars and suggests that many of them view this lifestyle as an improvement for their health and well-being. It remains to be seen whether this policy will be successfully adopted in other cities, but University of California-Davis Professor Jeff Loux suggests that this city’s policy could successfully be transferred to the United States, but adjusting to increased housing density would be a big change for many Americans.

Whether or not the Vauban policy is adopted by other cities remains to be seen, but it is an example of successful use in policy variation between cities. If increased bicycle were mandated or incentivized in Germany at the national level, it would be extremely costly with benefits accruing only to those who wanted to give up their cars for bicycles. Vauban was completed in 2006 after 20 years of planning, and all of its residents selected to live there with the knowledge of its policy environment; decreased car use was not forced upon any residents.

If any US communities opt to follow a model similar to Vauban’s, they should do it at the local level and follow their example of allowing residents the opportunity to live in car-free communities rather than implementing “the city of the future” from the top down.