Challenging Dogma - Fall 2011

Saturday, December 24, 2011

National Complete Streets Coalition: Bicycle Policies Revised to Improve Social Equity and Increase Use of Bicycles to Combat Obesity- Jessica Leslie


Across America, rising levels of obesity are causing public health concerns. Obesity is a serious threat to health because it increases the risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. There are also numerous psychological and social consequences. Severe obesity is a prevalent public health problem and it disproportionately affects women and minorities[1]. Obesity is caused by a larger intake than output of energy. Therefore, many programs have been developed to encourage adults and children to exercise more.[2]

A missed opportunity for daily physical activity is the commute. The majority of Americans travel by car. The current environment encourages this passive behavior with policy and infrastructure that serves cars over pedestrians and cyclists. Active commuting reduces chances of becoming obese[3]. Bicycling has been shown to be more effective at controlling weight than walking[4]. Therefore, provisions need to be developed to make cycling an attractive and easy form of travel.

In the US, over 30% of citizens are obese; whereas, Germany has a 13% obesity rate and the Netherlands has a 10% obesity rate (a third of US at 10%).[5] This is correlated to bicycle policy and infrastructure. Both Germany and the Netherlands have bike centric policies and infrastructure. In Holland, 25% of trips are made by bicycle and in Germany, its 9%. The US has a meager 1% of all trips made by bicycle. Evidence suggests the average American could lose 13 lbs in the first year of replacing the car for a bike in their daily commute[6] There is a distinct difference of infrastructure; in America the policies are focused on developed shared facilities for bicycles such as bike lanes. In Germany and the Netherlands the policies are bike-centric with separated facilities such as cycle tracks. Cycle tracks are bike paths dedicated for bicycle use and have physical barriers from pedestrians and motorists.

Women have different priorities and concerns when choosing their commute. These concerns must be addressed with policy and infrastructure to provide an environment where women feel bicycle commuting is comfortable and accessible. A higher prevalence of obesity in women than men indicates a need for policies and programs that encourage physical activity targeted at women.

Women make up a very small portion of cyclists in America. The highest users are children and young men. The reasons for this disparity must be addressed if women are going to be able to increase physical activity levels by cycling.

Intervention to critique Complete Streets

The National Complete Streets Coalition is an advocacy group in the US promoting the street designed for all users, not only drivers. It was founded in 2005 as a coalition of advocacy and trade groups. The specific elements of a Complete Streets vary case by case, but include pedestrian infrastructure like sidewalks and crosswalks, traffic calming measures, bicycle facilities, and mass transit accommodations. The Complete Streets policies are recommended to increase the safety, health and economy for citizens of the community. As of 2011, Complete Streets’ policies have been adopted by 175 public agencies and 39 states. Legislation has been introduced into the US Congress that new federally funded road projects must use Complete Streets recommendations[7].

Complete Streets recommends bicycle facilities such as bike lanes and wide shoulders. These recommendations are based on the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials guide for the development of bicycle facilities, which does not include cycle tracks[8]. Cycle tracks have been widely ignored by the US reflective of the community of bicycle advocates involved. The policies are based on the belief that cyclists are safest when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.

The Complete Streets Coalition has been successful and has had a mostly positive influence on the safety and accessibility of streets. Unfortunately, they encourage cycling on streets with traffic, which alienates large group of riders who are not comfortable in that environment. Frequently, the users most in need of the physical activity opportunity are specifically women. Complete Streets claims to be for everyone. It’s designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops, and bicycle to work.[9] The promoted policy for doing so is flawed and ignores the citizens most in need by encouraging streets designed to include bicycles only with bike lanes.

It is clear from the low rates of bicycle commuters, especially women, that bicycle lanes do not adequately address the needs of the citizens. The program must specifically address the reasons for the lack of female bike commuters with correct infrastructure promotion.

Argument 1: Obstacle of ownership effect

In order to examine how psychology of ownership affects bicycle use on roads, one must understand the roots of the current policies. The basis for classifying bicycles as vehicles comes from a violent beginning. Bicycle law has had a turbulent history. It began in Massachusetts when fist fights between horsemen and cyclists led to laws declaring bicycles ‘carriages’ with all rights to the road, (based in Boston, League of Wheelmen[10]). Conditions continue today with tensions documented by newspapers as “turf wars” between motorists and cyclists[11]. Cyclists have the rights to the road on paper, but the aggressiveness and safety issues of sharing space with cars traveling at high speeds has led to perceptions of cyclists as reckless rogues. Both parties claim ownership to roads, which leads to conflict.[12] This policy was implemented based on the assumption that bicycles would be treated fairly if they had ownership of the roads; however, this is negated by theory of ownership and possessiveness and can explain why cyclists, still, are viewed as second-rate users.

The act of claiming space instantly induces psychological ownership and possessiveness on the road. The advocates of bike lanes and shared roads believe that the safest form of cycling is as vehicular cyclist. When cyclists behave and are treated as a motorist in traffic. A basic skill taught for vehicular cycling is phrased, ‘take the lane’; when a cyclist must enter the center of the road to make a left-hand turn. This move is difficult for novice cyclists, or when travelling with traffic at high speeds. Simply by being on a shared road with motorists, the choice for car or bike instantly identifies one as an insider and one as an outsider. When a cyclist encroaches on motorists’ space, or even if the mere presence of a bike is on the road, the motorist is set to defend the rights from that outsider. Conflicts between drivers and cyclists; therefore, are based not on reasonable emotion but in possessiveness and subject to the ownership effect.[13]

The possessive self is a barrier to conflict resolution. People value the arguments they are associated with, and place more value on beliefs and values identified with self than even identical arguments identified with others; especially when conflict is anticipated. Negative perceptions and polarization are placed on the person posing the threat[13].

Bike lanes do not provide the necessary boundaries to prevent ownership effect. The drivers experience a form of ‘loss aversion’: seeing their roads narrowed to accommodate an outsider that is an inherent threat to their choices, believes, and attitudes. In the US, cars dominate the infrastructure and dangerously outnumber bicyclists. Therefore, an effect of possessiveness is the belief system common among drivers, in which cars belong and the bikes intrude. As intruders, the cyclists are responsible for any risks associated with sharing the road and should reduce those risks by ‘getting off the road’.[14]

The recommendation for a policy for bike lanes and wide shoulders does not account for the psychology of the American anti-bike culture. Bike lanes are mere markings on the road. Without physical barriers, the ownership effect will always demean cyclists to a second-rate road user. Sharing the road is not an option because cyclists are vulnerable and drivers perceive them as a threat to their self-identity.

Argument 2: Hierarchy of Needs

Physical exposure of cyclists creates dangerous situations; especially when competing for resources with hostile, aggressive drivers at fast speeds. As direct consequence of the laws of biomechanics, and the fragility of the human body, cyclists are vulnerable in traffic[15]. Cyclists have higher crash rates than other road-users due to the nature of cycling: it is easier to fall and lose control of the bicycle. In crashes, cyclists are unprotected (except for perhaps a helmet).

In the US, very few trips are taken by bicycle (1%), and yet each year more than 500,000 people are treated in the emergency room. 700 die from a bicycle related injury per year[16]. Due to the higher percentage of children using bicycles, they are most likely to be injured. Though car crashes causes over 30,000 deaths a year[16], in the US, there is a perception that riding bikes is less safe. This is related to the false security people feel in cars. On a bike, the entire body is exposed making the rider very vulnerable. Cyclists are at much higher risk of injury than motorists if impact occurs. Common types of bicycle crashes involve interactions with motorists, such as ‘dooring’: when a cyclist traveling next to parked cars, hits an opening driver’s door. Motorist-bicycle incidents are most fatal to the cyclists at speeds greater than 20 miles/hour[17] and involve conflicts at intersections or head-on collisions. Clearly in a fatal incident, the motorist is not harmed and only the cyclist is at risk. Vehicular cyclists are defined by the interactions with motorists; however, there is not fair ground since the cyclist must always defer or put his/her life in jeopardy.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid depicts his theory of motivation by dividing needs by increasing complexity. The needs are organized into a hierarchy of importance with the most basic and fundamental at the bottom. An individual must satisfy the most basic needs before considering the higher ones. Safety, in the second most fundamental level, must be fulfilled before one can fulfill other needs. Therefore, in choosing an active commute or exercise, which is a need higher in the pyramid, the behavior environment must be safe.

Bicycles are considered vehicles and offered all rights to most roads and expected to follow traffic laws. This does not consider the differences in perspective for a cyclist. A cyclist has different needs than a motorist. The modern road system is designed for cars and does not account for vulnerability, flexibility of behavior, instability on the bike, or different ability levels since there is no standardized bicycle-drivers license. A cyclist makes conscious effort and is highly motivated to minimize energy expenditure that results in unpredictable behavior from the perspective of other road users[15]. The support for riding with traffic as opposed to against traffic is based on the statistics that the most common fatal crashes are from head-on collisions between motorists and bicycles. Therefore riding with traffic is the safest way to cycle in the current environment, but not the best solution to the overall safety problems. As with helmets, these solutions are not primary. They do not prevent the conflict; they merely reduce the injury after the incident. These provisions do not encourage cycling effectively.

Most importantly, the current policies do not reflect the preferences of women, who are in need of more physical activity. Women do not feel safe cycling on shared roads. Studies show women of all skill levels prefer separated paths.[18] This is attributed to characteristics of risk aversion common among women. Women have a different perception of safety and tend to perceive negative consequences of sharing roads with vehicular traffic more than men do.[19] Women are more likely to bicycle if they believe drivers in the community behave safely towards cyclists. All cyclists are most likely to pick routes to avoid high traffic speeds and congestion. Novice cyclists, the ones no doubt most in need of more physical activity, would be unlikely to use a shared road to bicycle on because safety is more important than exercise. Bike lanes and shared roads do not satisfy the basic need for safety and are; therefore, ineffective in nudging people into more physical activity by bicycle use.

Argument 3: Socio-Ecological Model

The socio ecological model examines people’s interactions with their physical and sociocultural environments. This model addresses environmental and social cues that influence behavior. The physical environment and social environment are critical in women’s decisions to use a bicycle. As demonstrated, the physical environment must be safe for women to consider bicycling. But, the socio-ecogical model includes influences at the individual level such as attitudes, preferences, beliefs, and self-efficacy. Social-environment factors include the cultural norms of the community as demonstrated by the collective behaviors of its residents. Communities with higher levels of bicycling tend to have more gender equity, as demonstrated in the Netherlands, where women make 55% of bicycle trips.

Currently women in the US make 0.5% of all bike trips. Men cyclists outnumber women 2:1. This gap leads women to view cycling as abnormal because so few women participate. In terms of social environment, research has shown that those who exercised with one or more significant others were more likely to reach recommended physical activity levels.[20] A positive social environment is likely to influence behavior. Therefore, to increase physical activity levels, more women need to participate with friends in family. Women are unlikely to identify with the bicycle community that is dominated by men. It is integral to change the social environment to increase use of bicycles among women. Since women do not use the established bike lanes, it is unlikely that creating more will increase ridership.

Interplayed with socio-ecological theory is the self efficacy: the confidence one must have that he will be able to do an action and that doing so will have good outcomes. Research shows interventions to increase physical activity are more successful if self-efficacy theory in the development.[21] Most women do not feel confident bicycling with traffic. Complete Streets is not campaigning policies that address this. Building more bike lanes is not going to change how women intrinsically feel about their capabilities.

Proposed Policy Change

Policies are organizational statements or rules that are meant to influence behavior. They may be explicit or implicit and their effects can be intentional or not. Most importantly, they are sociocultural influences because people make them to respond to perceived needs and desires of the larger population (since they are able to encourage or discourage healthy behaviors[22]).

Complete Streets; therefore, must amend its policy guidelines to explicitly state the safest, most attractive forms of bicycle facilities. The emphasis on bike lanes must be changed to cycle tracks and other forms of separated bicycle facilities to develop an environment that is safe and attractive for all levels of cyclists. The default form of infrastructure needs to begin with cycle tracks, as the ideal condition, then work down to shared roads. If building a cycle track is not feasible: design a protected bike lane, move the bike lane to the right side of the street to avoid ‘dooring’, put in traffic calming measures, and ensure that the environment will reflect the needs of the entire population. Since cyclists are vulnerable users of the road, their safety needs to be placed above others.

The policies must encourage bicycling by discouraging cars. The US has not effectively moved away from the car-centric ideals. Only the easiest no-conflict measures have been enacted. With better policies centered on bicycles, the US would drastically increase ridership.

Substantial increases in bicycling require an integrated package of many different, complementary interventions, including infrastructure provision and pro-bicycle programs, supportive land use planning, and restrictions on car use[23]. Bicycle education outreach targeted at women is needed to promote use of bicycles. Direct involvement of women is necessary to change the trend in ridership.

Cycle tracks eliminate ownership effect

First, Complete Streets must change the recommended bicycle facilities from shared to separated. Cycle tracks create a specific, specialized environment for cyclists. This eliminates conflict between users of the roadways. Traffic travels at unsafe speeds. In the US, residential neighborhoods have posted speeds between 25-35 miles per hour. These speeds are much too fast for a bicycle to safely travel along side. [17] The laws are continued because of lack of political support and valid research. Vehicular cycling, biking as a vehicle in the roadway, was the solution for cyclists to make the best out of poor conditions.

Without separation of traffic and bicycle-centered policies, there is natural competition between motorists and cyclists for use of the same roads. As demonstrated by ownership effect, this cannot successfully continue. Motorists are accustomed to owning the streets. Without separate facilities and better policies, the bicycle will never achieve its full capacity as demonstrated by countries that rely on bicycles. Many European cities have implemented policies to directly restrict car use in favor of walking and bicycling[24]. Danish cities give cyclists priority on certain streets and bicyclists are exempt from many turn-restrictions.[25] These measures directly give ownership to cyclists that make the cyclists the main owner of the street.

Conflicts between cyclists and motorists are subject to rapidly increase in severity, since the person owns the vehicle and it represents an extension of the self. The vehicle can become part of the persona and reflect deeper values and beliefs. Though the reasons for using either car or bike are similar (speed, efficiency, convenience), the owner extends the positive values only to his vehicle and deems the others negatively. This contributes to the conflict between them and lack of respect for the opposition.

Hierarchy of needs, meeting safety

As illustrated, cyclists are unprotected in traffic and travel at low speeds and mass. This makes them vulnerable and they can suffer very severe consequences in crashes with other road users. Preventing crashes between fast and slow traffic is one of the most important requirements for sustainable safe road use. The sought-provisions must be targeted at the physical separation when possible and reduction of impact speeds, if not.[15]

Safety increases with cycle tracks. Countries where women frequently commute by bicycle have cycle tracks. Studies show that separated bicycle facilities are safest by reducing interaction between motorists and cyclists. When two-way cycle tracks are compared to reference streets without bicycle facilities but considered alternative bicycle-routes, the cycle tracks were found to have lower crash rates[26]. One-way cycle tracks may be even safer. The built environment providing purpose-built bicycle-specific facilities reduces crashes and injuries among cyclists. This evidence must be the basis for future engineering guidelines for infrastructure design

Women must perceive the environment as safe if it is going to encourage them to increase levels of physical activity. The separated facilities are safer or as safe as riding in a bike lane, but preference must be shown to separated bike facilities to coincide with the indicated ideal environment for women to increase bicycle use.

Cycle Tracks and the Socio-Ecological Model

A main feature of ecological models is the specification that intrapersonal variables (interpersonal and cultural factors) influence behavior along with the environment. Within this are the theories of social norms and self-efficacy. Pro-bicycle programs should be targeted to women, specifically in low-income social networks/social support theories. Within the community, long-term behavior change depends on the level of participation and ownership felt by those being served[27].

In the US, cycling’s most popular in children and young men, then falls for each age group to just 0.2% of those 65 and older. In Europe, where policy and infrastructure encourage cycling, the full spectrum of ages uses bicycles. In the US, women account for merely 0.5% of cyclists[25]. This is drastically different from those European countries where women make 50% of bike trips (55% in the Netherlands). This exemplifies how the US’s current standards do not consider women. Continuation of the implementation of bike lanes and shoulders as rallied by Complete Streets will only widen this gap. Cycle tracks and bicycle-centered policies with adequate infrastructure are present in the countries with largest age range of riders and female cyclists.

The social norms theory is highlighted in ecological models. For one to choose a behavior, they do so within context of their peers’ views and choices on that behavior. Cyclists do not have preferable image in the US. A renegade image is associated with disobedience of traffic laws, and perceives cyclists as an alien presence on roads intended for cars[25]. Women are not represented in the bicycle community, especially lower socioeconomic levels. These women are at the highest risk of being obese. They are in greatest need of interventions encouraging physical activity, and currently there are few role models to follow in using bicycles for commuting. Bicycles, while affordable, are viewed as an elitist sport and used for transportation only among white, upper class.[28] Women are not being adequately served by the current policies and use of shared facilities. Without separated facilities, the number of women bicycling will never reach the numbers need to change social norms.


The current obesity epidemic presses the issue that our country cannot continue on this path without serious detriment to the majority of citizens. The lack of infrastructure and policy to promote the ease of bicycle commuting for every member of society presents a social equity issue that cannot be denied. The current method of vehicular cycling is not working to engage the majority in bicycle-use for activity. Without reform, the obesity levels will continue to rise, complemented by lack of physical activity.

[1] “Obesity and Overweight for Professionals: Data and Statistics: U.S. Obesity Trends | DNPAO | CDC.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 26-Oct-2011].

[2] “Obesity and Overweight for Professionals: State Programs: Program Highlights | DNPAO | CDC.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 26-Oct-2011].

[3] B. E. Ainsworth et al., “Compendium of physical activities: an update of activity codes and MET intensities,” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 32, no. 9, pp. S498-504, Sep. 2000.

[4] A. C. Lusk, R. A. Mekary, D. Feskanich, and W. C. Willett, “Bicycle riding, walking, and weight gain in premenopausal women,” Archives of Internal Medicine, vol. 170, no. 12, pp. 1050-1056, Jun. 2010.

[5] “Obesity statistics - Countries Compared - NationMaster.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 14-Dec-2011].

[6] M. L. Grabow, S. N. Spak, T. Holloway, B. Stone, A. C. Mednick, and J. A. Patz, “Air Quality and Exercise-Related Health Benefits from Reduced Car Travel in the Midwestern United States,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Nov. 2011.

[7] LaPlante, John N. and McCann, Barbara, “Complete Streets in the United States.” Transportation Research Board 90th Annual Meeting, 23-Jan-2011.

[8] “AASHTO_1999_BikeBook.pdf.” .

[9] “Complete Streets» Complete Streets FAQ.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 15-Dec-2011].

[10] S. H. Aronson, “Sociology of the Bicycle, The,” Social Forces, vol. 30, p. 305, 1952 1951.

[11] “Brownsberger introduces bikes in crosswalks bill «Boston Cyclists Union.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 11-Dec-2011].

[12] Guy buzzes me, then gets out of his car to try to pick a fight. 2011.

[13] C. K. W. De Dreu and D. van Knippenberg, “The possessive self as a barrier to conflict resolution: Effects of mere ownership, process accountability, and self-concept clarity on competitive cognitions and behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 89, no. 3, pp. 345-357, 2005.

[14] McCarthy, Deborah, “‘I’m a Normal person’: An Examination of How Utilitarian Cyclists in Charleston South Carolina Use an Insider/Outsider Framework to Make Sense of Risks,” Urban Studies Journal Limited, pp. 1-17, Sep. 2010.

[15] F. Wegman, F. Zhang, and A. Dijkstra, “How to make more cycling good for road safety?,” Accident Analysis & Prevention, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 19-29, Jan. 2012.

[16] “CDC - Bicycle Related Injuries.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 14-Dec-2011].

[17] J.-K. Kim, S. Kim, G. F. Ulfarsson, and L. A. Porrello, “Bicyclist injury severities in bicycle–motor vehicle accidents,” Accident Analysis & Prevention, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 238-251, Mar. 2007.

[18] C. Emond, W. Tang, and S. Handy, “Explaining Gender Difference in Bicycling Behavior,” Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, vol. 2125, no. 1, pp. 16-25, Dec. 2009.

[19] C. Emond, W. Tang, and S. Handy, “Explaining Gender Difference in Bicycling Behavior,” Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, vol. 2125, no. 1, pp. 16-25, Dec. 2009.

[20] B. Giles-Corti and R. J. Donovan, “Relative Influences of Individual, Social Environmental, and Physical Environmental Correlates of Walking,” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 93, no. 9, pp. 1583-1589, Sep. 2003.

[21] L.-L. Lee, A. Arthur, and M. Avis, “Using self-efficacy theory to develop interventions that help older people overcome psychological barriers to physical activity: a discussion paper,” International Journal of Nursing Studies, vol. 45, no. 11, pp. 1690-1699, Nov. 2008.

[22] J. Sallis, A. Bauman, and M. Pratt, “Environmental and policy interventions to promote physical activity,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 379-397, Nov. 1998.

[23] L. Yang, S. Sahlqvist, A. McMinn, S. J. Griffin, and D. Ogilvie, “Interventions to promote cycling: systematic review,” BMJ, vol. 341, p. c5293-c5293, Oct. 2010.

[24] J. Pucher and R. Buehler, “Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany,” Transport Reviews, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 495-528, 2008.

[25] R. S. Tolley, Sustainable transport: planning for walking and cycling in urban environments. Woodhead Publishing, 2003.

[26] A. C. Lusk, P. G. Furth, P. Morency, L. F. Miranda-Moreno, W. C. Willett, and J. T. Dennerlein, “Risk of injury for bicycling on cycle tracks versus in the street,” Injury Prevention, Feb. 2011.

[27] D. S. Morrison, M. Petticrew, and H. Thomson, “What are the most effective ways of improving population health through transport interventions? Evidence from systematic reviews,” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, vol. 57, no. 5, pp. 327 -333, May 2003.

[28] “Are urban bicyclists just elite snobs? - Dream City -” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 06-Dec-2011].

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