I have often lamented the lack of physically separated bike lanes in Durham, North Carolina—but a transportation-geek friend of mine reminds me that they're hard to implement in many newer American cities where every house has a driveway.
But what about the countryside?
Having recently raved about how awesomely hellish it was to drive in Helsinki, I am also struck by how easy it is to bike in the Finnish countryside, not least because many quiet country roads have well-maintained, physically separated bike lanes/footpaths which get used regularly for both transportation and recreation—often over reasonably long distances. True, many Finns are at least as dependent on their cars as their American counterparts, but they at least have options. And the amount of bikes I see on Finnish roads—bikes being ridden by Finns of all shapes, sizes and ages—suggests many people exercise that freedom of choice.Having previously lived in the North Carolina countryside for several years, and watched (mostly poor) people traverse dangerous grass verges on the side of a busy road, it seems to me that many rural American communities could benefit from similar bike infrastructure.
Here are just a few of the reasons why bike lanes/footpaths are at least as important in the countryside as they are in the city:
Ease of implementation: Try putting a physically separated bike lane in a dense urban environment and you'll need a whole lot of resources, some serious planning and a tolerance for long committee meetings. In the American countryside, however, where land is plentiful and the roads are wide, it really shouldn't be that difficult to evoke eminent domain, purchase some extra land and add a little asphalt for human-powered transport—so long as the political will were there. (You might have to contend with the anti-Agenda 21 crowd though...)
Health: It's a sad fact that people in the American countryside are less healthy than their urban counterparts. By encouraging more active lifestyles, bike lanes and footpaths could be a first step to redressing this mismatch.
Social inclusion: In most American communities, it is the poor, the elderly and the disadvantaged who are least likely to have access to a car. In fact, carlessness is like second class citizenship outside of major urban centers. Reliable and pleasant bike/walking infrastructure would be a big step for social inclusion and even economic empowerment, allowing people a safe, easy, economic and healthy way to move about.
Environment: It goes without saying that more bike journeys means less pollution, a reduction in oil dependence etc. That's important in the city, but it counts double in the countryside where journeys are longer and car-dependence is more entrenched.
Relocalization: When you get people out of their cars, their shopping habits change. The small Finnish village we are staying in isn't just remarkable for its bike lanes, it's also remarkable because it still has a village shop, a small pizza restaurant, and several other locally-owned businesses—despite being a few kilometers from a large number of big box stores. I suspect these businesses benefit tremendously from a culture where many people will bike to their local store, rather than drive to the mall.