Bike Lanes as Status Symbol

The Museum of Islamic Art. Photo by Josh Cohen.

In July, Pacific Standard Magazine published my article “A Bike Ride Through Qatar.” It is part first-person narrative about my experience riding with the ex-patriot cycling club Qatar Chain Reaction, part reporting on the country’s efforts to build a world-class bike infrastructure network in Doha and other cities, and part attempt to place those bike infrastructure plans into the context of Qatar as wealthy, ambitious Gulf state. I’m proud of how it came out and you should definitely go read it.

One angle of the story I wish I had space to dig deeper into is Qatar’s motivations for building great bike infrastructure. The party line is that they recognize that their car-only transportation system is wholly unsustainable and bike infrastructure fits into their medium-term Vision 2030 master plan for the country’s economic, social, human, and environmental development. And though that very well may be true, it seems unlikely that it is the whole story.

As a young and extremely wealthy nation, Qatar holds itself in very high regard and spends a lot of money cultivating an image to match. The Museum of Islamic Art was designed by famed starchitect I.M. Pei, who was brought out of retirement to design the gorgeous building. Education City–home of the Doha’s eight western university campuses–is similarly an homage to the world’s most famous architects with buildings designed by Rem Koolhaas, Arata Isozaki, Legoretta+Legoretta and others. Doha has a highly-advanced research hospital, gleaming skyscrapers, beautiful parks, and hosts international sporting events. In other words they have created, built, and procured or are in the process of creating, building, or procuring all the edifices of a great, international metropolis.

Which begs the question, are bike lanes now considered de rigueur for great cities? Or perhaps more to the point, are bike lanes now a status symbol for cities to boast about the same way they might point to their great institutions of art, culture, and civics? Given the rate cities such as New York, Chicago, London, Munich, and many others have been building bike infrastructure (and increasingly building out really nice infrastructure rather than just slapping paint on the street and calling it a day), I wouldn’t be surprised if bike lanes are seen as a status symbol by Qatar and other governments around the world. When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he was going to make his city the best cycling city in the US he did so in part because he wanted to attract hip, young, entrepreneurs from places like Seattle and Portland.

As I wrote in the Pacific Standard article, there is strong evidence that the “if you build it they will come” approach to bike infrastructure works. You need safe infrastructure to encourage people to ride (as city planner Brent Toderian cleverly said on Twitter about building bike lanes, “it’s hard to justify a bridge by the number of people swimming across a river.”). Nonetheless, it’s a bit difficult to imagine cycling really catching on in a country with 100+ degree temperatures half the year and 73 and 69 percent obesity rates among Qatari women and men respectively. (Though that too might be a chicken and egg scenario where obesity rates can be attributed in part to current infrastructure that discourages biking and walking). Given that, it’s unclear whether Qatar cares if people actually use the bike lanes they’re building or if they just want to be able to point to the fact that they built them.

Ultimately, the underlying reasons don’t really matter. Whether cities like Doha, Chicago, Paris, and the like are building bike lanes because they truly believe in the value of bikes-as-transportation or because bike lanes are seen as chic urban accessories du jour that every city must have, the fact is bike infrastructure is getting built. In turn that means bicycling will be safer and more accessible to a broader range of users, which means more people will be riding, which means healthier and happier people and environments. And that’s pretty great.

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