We often hear that “the greenest building is the one you already have.” The idea is that the up-front carbon emissions released during the production of a new building can outweigh many years of emissions from the old building. So in many cases retrofitting an old building makes more environmental sense than replacing it with a new “state-of-the-art” facility.
But should we say “the greenest transportation infrastructure is the one we already have?” Yes, in the sense that by far our biggest transportation infrastructure item is our network of paved roads. And rather than rushing to construct a new infrastructure – with all the up-front carbon emissions that would entail – we should simply stop squandering most of our road lanes on the least efficient mode of transportation, the private car.
While new light-rail systems, subways, inter-urban commuter trains all have their place, simply giving buses preference on existing roads could improve urban quality of life while bringing carbon emissions down – long before the planning and approval process for new train lines is complete.
Steven Higashide’s new book Better Buses, Better Cities is a superb how-to manual for urban activists and urban policy-makers. The book is filled with examples from transit reforms throughout the United States, but its relevance extends to countries like Canada whose city streets are similarly choked with creeping cars.
Given the book’s title, it is ironic that few of these reforms involve improvements to the bus vehicle itself (though the gradual replacement of diesel buses with electric buses is an important next step). Instead the key steps have to do with scheduling, prioritizing the movement of buses on city streets, and improving the environment for transit users before and after their bus rides.
Higashide begins the book by noting that buses can make far more effective space of busy roads:
Add bus service to a road and you can easily double the number of people it carries – even more so if buses are given dedicated space on the street or if a train runs down it. When you see a photograph of a bus in city traffic, there’s a decent chance that the bus is carrying more people than all the cars in the same frame.” (Better Buses, Better Cities, page 3)
Buses move more people than cars even on congested streets, but the people-moving power of a street really soars if there is adequate dedicated space for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users:
From Better Buses, Better Cities, by Steven Higashide, page 3
Frequency equals freedom
Which comes first – a bus route with several buses each hour or a bus route with big ridership? Municipal politicians and bean counters often argue that it makes no sense to up the frequency of lines with low ridership. But many surveys, and the experience in many cities, show that potential riders are unlikely to switch from cars to buses if the bus service is infrequent. In Higashide’s words,
The difference between a bus that runs every half hour and a bus that runs every 15 minutes is the difference between planning your life around a schedule and the freedom to show up and leave when you want.” (Better Buses, p. 23)
There is thus an inherent tension between planning routes for frequency, and planning routes for maximum coverage. The compromise is never perfect. A small number of high-frequency routes might get high ridership – as long as the major destinations for a sufficient number of riders are easily accessible. A route map with meandering service through every area of a city will provide maximum coverage – but if service is infrequent and slow, few people will use it.
In any case, overall bus network plans must be updated periodically to reflect major changes in cities, and Higashide provides case studies of cities in which transit restructuring was accomplished with very good results in a short time period.
Still, adding several buses each hour doesn’t help much if the streets are highly congested. Instead the result might be “bunching”: a would-be rider waits for a half hour, only to then have three buses arriving in a row with the first two packed full.
He emphasizes that “making buses better can start with redrawing a map, but it has to continue by redesigning the street.” (Better Buses, p. 37)
To emphasize the point he cites declining average speeds in most US cities since 2012, with New York City buses crawling at 7.6 mph in 2016. “Among the culprits,” Higashide writes, “is the enormous increase in Uber and Lyft rides; Amazon and other retailers have also led to a doubling in urban freight traffic associated with online shopping.” (Better Buses, p. 44)
Traffic stopped at Church Street and Park Place near the Financial District in Tribeca, Manhattan. Photo by Tdorante10 via Wikimedia Commons.
Effectively restricting some lanes to buses is one strategy to make transit use an attractive option while making better use of road space. Others are the introduction of advance traffic signals for buses, or “bump-out” bus stops that allow buses to travel in a straight line, rather than swerving right to pick up passengers and then waiting for a chance to move back out into the traffic.
Transit planners often overlook the pedestrian experience as something that’s out of their realm, Higashide says. But a large majority of bus users walk to the bus, and then walk from the bus to their destination.
Unfortunately the dominance of autos in American cities has resulted in streets that are noisy, polluted, frightening and unsafe for pedestrians. In addition transit stops often have no shelter from scorching sun, cold wind or rain, and transit-using pedestrians may have very good reason to feel unsafe while they wait for a bus or while walking to or from the bus. Higashide gives welcome attention to these issues.
Finally, he discusses the rapid progress made by activists in cities where “pop-up” projects have introduced ideas such as dedicated bus lanes. Transit agencies, he says, “have to discard ponderous project development processes that result in 5-year timelines for bus lane projects and try tactical approaches that change streets overnight instead.” (Better Buses, page 11)
The people most likely to need better bus services are least likely to sit through years of public consultations. But pilot projects on specific street sections can demonstrate the many benefits of bus prioritization – for transit users, pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers and businesses alike. Higashide discusses pop-up projects which have been introduced in weeks instead of months or years, and have proven effective so quickly that they were adopted and expanded.
That’s good news for city dwellers, and good news for the rest of us too. With such an urgent need to cut carbon emissions, fast, we can not afford to spend ten or fifteen years waiting for huge new transit infrastructures. Likewise we shouldn’t put our hopes in a vast new fleet of electric cars, which will clog streets just as thoroughly as internal combustion cars do today.
In his conclusion, Higashide turns his focus directly to both the social justice and carbon emission implications of transit choices. Speaking of Green New Deal policies, he says “what they choose not to fund is as important as what they do fund.”
Federal policy must make it harder to build new roads, recognizing that highways are fossil fuel infrastructure as surely as oil and gas pipelines are and that their construction often directly harms neighborhoods where black and brown people live, so that suburban residents can get a faster trip.” (Better Buses, page 128)
We don’t need more lanes of pavement. We need to make room for buses on the pavement we already have.
Photo at top: Chicago Transit Authority buses at 87th St, photo by David Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons
Why is car culture so dominant in North American life? Is it a matter of personal preference, or is it the result of extensive advertising?
Those are important factors – but University of Iowa law professor Gregory H. Shill says that auto dominance has also been cemented by a myriad of laws that favour drivers and discriminate against non-drivers.
“There exists a vast system of legal rules that offer indirect yet extravagant subsidies to driving, artificially lowering its price by offloading its costs onto non-drivers and society at large. Rules embedded across nearly every field of law privilege the motorist and, collectively, build a discriminatory legal structure with no name.” (Shill, “Should Law Subsidize Driving?”, 2019, page 3)
The paper discusses privileges for drivers in, among other areas, criminal law, civil liability, the method of setting speed limits and the lax enforcement of those limits, mandated dedication of public space to parking, zoning laws that favour low-density development, use of general tax revenues to cover nearly the entire costs of road construction and maintenance, and vehicle safety standards that ignore vulnerable road users.
This promotion of driving coincided with the financial interests of the largest industries – car-making and petroleum extraction – and Shill argues that it also worked to maintain racial segregation.
Far from a dry legal treatise, Shill’s paper is one of the best studies you will find of the social costs of car culture in the US. A great deal of his analysis applies in Canada as well.
Get off the road, idiot!
People in North America now take for granted that cars have the right of way on public roadways, while pedestrians and cyclists enter these streets at great personal risk. But when this grand theft by auto of public right of way was beginning, the reaction was widespread revolt.
“In cities, the contemporary reaction in the 1910s and 1920s was one of fear and outrage: whereas the street had previously been a relatively safe place for people to amble, with the tacit approval of local authorities it had in a very short period of time been transformed into a wildly dangerous place where motorists killed and maimed large numbers of people with impunity. Urban pedestrians, and especially children, suffered disproportionately. A class element predominated as well, as cars were a luxury at this time and many children killed in urban streets were poor.” (Shill, 2019, page 21)
Toronto Telegram, May 26, 1934. The lead says “KING OF THE KILLERS! Greatest menace to human life smirks at law – total penalty for thirty-one killings is merely four and one-half years in prison.”
Many people were deeply offended that well-to-do motorists not only killed pedestrians, but typically paid no or minimal legal penalties for doing so. As Shill documents, this pattern remains true today. And where regulatory remedies seemed to be called for, the response was generally to create greater legal tolerances for errant drivers.
He notes that there was a serious move to install automatic speed limiters in cars – in the 1920s – but the forces of “motordom” mobilized a campaign of public relations and legal changes. One result is that the term “jaywalking” was enshrined in law as an offense, and another is that speed limits were rapidly raised to favour heavy-footed drivers. (Though it was already clearly understood that speed kills.)
A new method for setting speed limits became standard across the country: the limit is set as the speed under which 85 per cent of drivers will drive on a given road in “free flowing traffic”. As Shill explains, this standard method promotes fast vehicle movement but is counterproductive to public safety:
“if the speed limit on a given residential street is 30 mph, but 85 percent of drivers travel on the road at or below 40 mph, the speed limit will be raised to 40 mph. If raising the speed limit prompts drivers to drive even faster, such that 85 percent now drive 45 mph, the speed limit will be raised again.” (Shill, 2019, page 14)
Finally, there are few places in the country where speed limits are actually enforced; rather, a wide allowance is expected and accepted by both drivers and law enforcement, such that drivers driving only five or 10 miles/hour above the speed limit are seldom ticketed.
Although technologies for automated detection and ticketing of speeders have been known for many years, this way of enforcing the law is often outlawed:
“So dissonant are social attitudes towards speed limits that some jurisdictions do not permit and in some cases expressly forbid automated enforcement of speed laws. They are ironclad suggestions.” (Shill, 2019, page 10)
Shill contrasts the systematic tolerance of speeding and other driving infractions with harsh treatment for transportation-related offenses by non-drivers.
“[T]he maximum penalty for a parking meter or HOV [High Occupancy Vehicle] lane violation is a ticket, while boarding a subway or light rail without paying can trigger not only a fine but arrest. … [D]elaying 50 bus passengers by temporarily parking in the bus lane is punishable by ticket, but boarding that same bus with an expired pass can trigger jail time.” (Shill, 2019, page 73-74)
The institution of sprawl
The widespread adoption of automobile ownership a century ago immediately created a new problem. Auto owners would not own a space in which to store their cars in all the places they might visit. As Shill notes, a free market system could have met this need through charging whatever the market would bear, in each location – but that would have imposed significant costs on motorists, thereby lessening the demand for cars.
In response, cities and states rapidly changed laws to provide free public space for the storage of cars – and in the process they redefined a common word:
“By the 1920s, city parking authorities ‘began cutting down street trees and widening streets to accommodate the volume of cars, thereby replacing the original meaning of parking as a place for trees and greenery with parking as a place for automobiles to stop.’” (Shill, 2019, page 23, quoting from Michele Richmond, The Etymology of Parking, 2015)
This free use of space, Shill notes, is not for just any use:
“street parking is reserved for cars. Try ‘parking’ a picnic table, tiny home, or above-ground pool there and you will soon discover that motor vehicles are generally the only type of private property that it is lawful to store for free on the public street. The car yields to nothing in its consumption of public subsidy.” (Shill, 2019, page 48)
Devoting a big share of residential street space to fully subsidized parking was not enough. Zoning rules across the country also mandated that new buildings – apartments, office complexes, retail developments – must also include generous amounts of parking space.
Shill discusses such zoning rules extensively, as part of a web of rules that systematically favour low-density development where regular car use is a necessary part of daily life – at great cost to public budgets, and even greater personal cost to those who can’t afford cars.
A human sacrifice every six minutes
As Shill explains, the capture of right of way by cars has always been bloody and it has always been discriminatory, since non-motorists on the roads (now termed “vulnerable road users”) are disproportionately poor and visible minorities. But of course motorists themselves also pay with their lives at a high rate.
Today in America the great majority of adults are drivers and car-owners, yet even among drivers there is a deadly class division. The American auto industry strongly favours large, heavy vehicles which sell for a much higher price and bring a much larger profit margin. The saturation advertising campaigns for these vehicles feature, on the one hand, their awesome power and their thrilling speed, and on the other hand, the extensive safety features that supposedly keep the cars’ occupants in a cocoon of security.
Ironically, though, the bigger and heavier the cars get, the deadlier are the roads – particularly for vulnerable road users, but also for drivers of smaller cars.
The auto industry originally secured a loophole for “light trucks” in order to escape fuel efficiency standards. The ubiquitous “Sport Utility Vehicle” falls into that category, and so do the hulking, four-wheel-drive, four-door pickup trucks you now see scattered through the parking lots of every suburban grocery store.
With their high front ends these vehicles kill pedestrians and cyclists at a particularly high rate. Whereas a pedestrian or cyclist struck by an old-fashioned sedan will typically be hit at the legs, and will be lifted up and onto the hood (“bonnet”) of the car, the same vulnerable road user will be hit right in the vital organ zone when struck by a “light truck”, and will likely be knocked down and run over. The result:
“Research shows that a pedestrian is 3.4 times as likely to be killed if struck by an SUV or other light truck than if hit by a passenger car.” (Shill, 2019, page 58)
But drivers of lower-priced cars also share the social costs:
“SUV-to-car crashes are also far graver. ‘In frontal crashes, SUVs tend to ride over shorter passenger vehicles, crushing the occupant of the passenger car.’ In head-on collisions with SUVs, drivers of passenger cars are between four and 10 times more likely to die than in collisions with other passenger cars.” (Shill, 2019, page 64-65, quoting from Tristin Hopper, “Big Cars Kill”, National Post, July 31, 2015)
There is no natural law that says car safety ratings should take into account only the safety of the car’s occupants while discounting the safety of other road users. In fact, in some countries the legal framework governing car design is quite different:
“The United Nations has issued a regulation designed to protect pedestrians, which had been adopted by 44 countries—many of them our peers in Europe—as of 2015. The United States has taken no action.” (Shill, 2019, page 63)
Here too, US law offloads the social cost of driving, in this case the social cost of driving high-frame vehicles, onto the general public.
“The car’s needs are given priority over the right of society to health and welfare, affordable homes, and economic vitality. Car supremacy claims one human sacrifice every six minutes‡, bakes the planet, and enforces race and class inequality. It is not endemic because it is just, it is ‘just’ because it is endemic—and blessed by law.” (Shill, 2019, page 76)
He adds that “The task of repealing car-centric laws that justify and solidify bad outcomes is formidable. If it succeeds, it will take the labor of more than one generation.” I sincerely hope he is wrong about that timeframe.
Graphic at top of article is adapted from an anti-jaywalking poster produced by the Public Art Project of the Work Projects Administration (WPA). Students of history will recall that the WPA was a prominent job-creation agency of the New Deal. Let’s hope that the Green New Deal will not sponsor propaganda boosting continued auto dominance.
‡One human sacrifice every six minutes refers, of course, just to the casualties in the United States. Worldwide, about two people per minute die in traffic accidents.
Efforts to promote cycling are gathering steam in many cities for a wide variety of reasons. Campaigns may fly the banners of carbon emissions reductions, reducing air pollution for immediate health reasons, promotion of active lifestyles to combat obesity, creation of safer streets for non-auto-driving residents as a social justice issue, reduction of inefficient private-car usage as a way to fight gridlock – or all of the above.
On a recent trip to western Europe I had the chance to compare results of these campaigns so far.
The gold standard on a nationwide level, of course, is set by the Netherlands, the subject of the first two installments in this series (here and here). The Dutch have been working on this in a concerted way for forty years, and they are far ahead of the other countries I visited. Though I haven’t been to Denmark, my observations here are also shaped by the excellent book Copenhagenize, and addresses by that book’s author, Mikael Colville-Andersen, at two conferences I’ve had the good fortune to attend.
I was able to cycle about 100 kilometers each in Valencia and Paris, and 150 kilometers in London. But these are big cities and my rides weren’t nearly enough to cover all areas. My observations are also based on a single visit, so I’m not trying to write any sort of “report card” on how successful these cities’ recent programs have been.
Yet in observing which efforts are working well so far, which are showing promise, and which ones seem seriously flawed, I hope these reflections are of use to people in many other cities. Although our geographic and political situations vary a great deal, nearly all cities in industrial civilization have been dominated by car culture for a few generations, and we face many common challenges as we work back towards cities that are safe for everyone who could and should be moving about our streets.
Stealing bike lane space from pedestrian sidewalks
In both Valencia and Paris, I was immediately struck by the extensive use of paint-on-pavement to signal that “bikes belong here”. Any recognition of the rights of cyclists is a welcome first step. But in both cities, there were prominent examples of “cycle lanes” that did little or nothing to make streets either safe or convenient for cyclists, and instead were setting up more conflict between pedestrians and cyclists.
The core of Valencia has many wide arteries with relatively wide sidewalks as well as multiple lanes given to cars. Rather than carve some space out of the street for a protected bike lane (e.g., by eliminating a car lane, narrowing all car lanes slightly, or taking away some car parking space), planners have instead painted a bike lane on the already well-used pedestrian sidewalk.
This is quick and cheap and risks less pushback from the motorists’ lobby. But it results in terrible bike lanes, which wind and curve around light poles and bus shelters, and force cyclists to merge with pedestrians as they cross intersections and then sort themselves into separate areas on the sidewalk when they get to the other side. The pedestrians, quite naturally, amble into the painted bike lane frequently; many of them no doubt have strolled the same sidewalks for decades, and find it difficult and more than a little annoying to now keep in mind that cyclists might be whizzing by in what used to be a safe space for distracted walking.
Cycling these areas, then, is only slightly faster than walking – and cycling to work would not be an attractive option for most people with a commute of more than a kilometer or two.
Outside of the oldest central core of Valencia (where streets are very narrow and quiet) many side streets are just big enough for three car lanes plus narrow pedestrian sidewalks. Planners have so far chosen to make many of these streets one-way, with car parking on both sides. This leaves no room for a bike lane and guarantees slow movement for everybody, whether in car or on bike or on foot.
The obviously necessary – but obviously politically challenging – course would be to take some street space back from cars and allocate it to cyclists, while preserving sidewalk space for pedestrians. This would make both walking and biking more pleasant and safe, and would promote a gradual shift to active transportation rather than reinforcing car culture.
In Paris I saw the same timid steps to create bike lanes on busy arteries without taking away any space from cars, with similar results. The wide Boulevard de Rochechouart and Boulevard de Clichy, near the train station Gare du Nord, both feature six or more lanes devoted to cars, plus a wide park-like median for pedestrians.
With such an expansive street allowance bequeathed to them by citizens from previous centuries, could planners find a sensible way to allocate a few meters for a protected bike lane? Alas, the car space has apparently been deemed sacrosanct, and bike lanes have been painted through the formerly pedestrian-only medians. Because of many obstructions in these medians, the bike lanes shift positions frequently – on one block there may be two uni-directional lanes at the outside edges of the median, while on the next there is a bi-directional bike lane in the center of the median.
Not surprisingly pedestrians wander across the bike lanes or stand there chatting or checking their phones, and the angry ringing of bike bells and the squeak of bike brakes adds new notes to the chorus of car horns. Cyclists unfamiliar with the routing must also find the shifting cycle lane after crossing each intersection, and that can be difficult to do while also dodging cars, taxis and delivery trucks. For a bicycling tourist the whole scene may be quaintly amusing, but it would not make for a pleasant or convenient ride on any regular basis.
Routes through recreational areas
Both Valencia and Paris do have new features that make cycling a very enjoyable, calm and safe activity in particular recreational or scenic areas. This doesn’t do a lot to encourage residents to take up biking for daily commutes, but it does help make the city a more attractive place in leisure hours.
A striking feature in Valencia is the major linear park through the heart of the city, occupying the shallow valley of the Turia River which was diverted in 1969. This park is now widely used by cyclists of all ages, who travel through the park to the spectacular Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències and other attractions.
Spacious paths for cycling and walking wind through the Turia River valley (above and below). Largely free from motor traffic, these areas offer safe recreational cycling for people of all ages, within a few blocks of dense urban districts.
On the sparsely populated south-east flank of the city, there are also some excellent cycle routes connecting the core city with the port district.
Bike route near the Valencian suburb Natzaret, with Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències in the distance at upper left.
In Paris a new initiative has been both warmly welcomed and hotly contested. In 2016, city council approved the banning of motor vehicle traffic on a formerly busy, 3.3 kilometer roadway on the “right bank” of the River Seine. (A similar roadway was closed to motor traffic along the left bank of the Seine in 2013.)
This roadway (shown in the photo at the top of this article) provides great views of and access to many of the city’s most famous sights. Popular with walkers, runners and cyclists, the spacious route has also proven an immediate hit for people taking advantage of the new dockless scooters.
High-profile initiatives like the Seine roadway transformation will have little direct impact on daily transportation of most Parisians, beyond those who live or work very close to these routes. To be truly effective, a good bike route network needs to connect most residents safely to most of the destinations they normally access. Yet as first steps toward that network are concerned, it would be hard to find better places for Paris to begin than on the right bank and left bank of the Seine.
Bikes and buses: a natural fit?
In several cities on my European tour I found myself riding in “bikes and buses” lanes. On one level, this makes sense: cities wanting to smooth the passage of both public transit and active transportation might do so by setting aside a lane on a main artery for the shared use of bikes and buses. With relatively little traffic in that lane the buses can move more rapidly and thus attract more users, while also giving some official encouragement to cycling.
But is a bike-and-bus lane likely to attract new cyclists, beyond those who are already willing to brave city traffic? I don’t have the numbers, but I certainly have my doubts that people who are today unwilling to ride in car traffic will feel comfortable tomorrow in sharing a lane with even bigger buses.
In my head, I can rationalize that bus drivers are trained professionals and are much less likely to be careless, drunk, or driving while texting than the average car driver. Yet after nearly 40 years of frequent biking in busy cities, I still find it a scary adrenalin rush when a full-size city bus thunders by with inches to spare and then pulls over right to the curb in front of me.
Nowhere did the “bike and bus lane” paradigm seem more obviously flawed than in central London, where buses are nearly as numerous as taxis.
As luck would have it, my route each morning and evening in London neatly coincided with one of the much ballyhooed new “cycle superhighways”. These are painted a distinctive blue, protected for significant stretches by curbs between cyclists and cars, and they extend radially out from central London.
These routes are no doubt a significant improvement for city cyclists, and I was glad to be able to ride one into the central city each day. Yet the first time I started to relax and enjoy the ride, I was shocked to suddenly find myself turfed out into a bus-and-taxi lane.
An example of the “Cycle Superhighway” suddenly merging into a lane for buses and taxis (during rush hour) and for all motor traffic (during all other hours).
For the benefit of riders who have never seen a city bus before, a yellow sign proclaims that “This bus pulls in frequently”. If you can focus on this little yellow sign while you are being abruptly cut off by a vehicle 1000 times your weight and size, you can understand perfectly what is happening.
Though these interruptions to the bike lane were only a block or two in length, they also happened several times along the five kilometers I rode the CS2 (Cycle Superhighway) each morning and evening.
I can only imagine how frightening it would be to a first-time city cyclist who might venture out on this “protected cycle lane”, perhaps with a young child following, only to find themselves suddenly dodging buses.
In this respect the Cycle Superhighways fall short of basic standards that would be followed for any cycle route along any arterial road in any Dutch city.
This is likely one reason the Cycle Superhighways have failed, so far, to attract many riders beyond the young, fit and brave cyclists who would be riding anyway, regardless of specific bike infrastructure. On the stretch of “Superhighway” I rode frequently, weaving around buses and into the general traffic lanes is a necessary skill, unless you are content to make frequent stops and then wait patiently while many passengers embark and disembark from the bus ahead of you.
On two mornings I kept a mental count of how many cyclists passed me compared to the number of cyclists I overtook. When I maintained a pace of about 20 km/h, 8 or 10 cyclists overtook me for every one that I overtook. Nearly all of them appeared to be about half my age, though there were no children riding their own bikes, and I recall seeing only one young child being carried on a parent’s bike. This, of course, was an entirely different demographic than I had become used to while riding in Dutch cities.
The cycle riding population became more varied in the central core, with many people riding the reliable and widely available, but relatively heavy and slow, bike-share bikes. These trips tend to be short, and on many core city streets traffic is moving very slowly anyway, so biking probably feels safe enough to a much wider group of people. (Not safe in every way, mind you – there were a surprising number of cyclists wearing face masks as a defense against the polluted air.)
While the most congested streets in central London see significant use by cyclists of varying age on sturdy bike-share bikes (above), bike lanes on busier arterial roads into the core are still predominantly used by young, athletic cyclists on fast bikes (below).
The limited success so far of the Cycle Superhighways brings to mind an important principle for urban programs aiming to increase the number of cyclists:
Don’t build bike lanes for those who are cycling now. Build them for people who aren’t cycling now.
Changing a car-dominated city to a place where people of all ages feel secure in routinely biking to work, school or shopping is a difficult chicken-and-egg problem. You don’t get most urban dwellers to start riding bikes until there is wide network of safe biking spaces, connecting most people to most of their common destinations. But it’s hard to get politicians to spend political capital championing the transition to safe and clean transportation, when there are so few people biking.
It’s encouraging, then, that London’s cycling-promotion efforts go far beyond the high-profile but sparse network of cycle superhighways. As discussed in the excellent short film Cycling London’s Bicycle Super Highways, there is an accompanying push to create “Quietways” throughout London’s residential areas. This program, which simultaneously calms motor traffic while creating hassle-free routes for cyclists through residential areas, has the potential to connect many residents’ homes with major arteries. And it is only when people can safely get through and out of their own neighbourhoods on bike, that significant numbers of new riders will join those already using the protected lanes along major arteries.
As Chris Kenyon of employer association CyclingWorks says in the video,
Our road system actively excludes certain groups from taking part in active transport. … we see fewer women, fewer older residents, and almost no children whatsoever, able to cycle in our streets. We think this is an issue of social justice. … Councils need to say, if active travel is important as a health strategy for the capital, then how do we make sure it’s available to everybody?”
Iain Simmons, Assistant Director of City Transportation, is also clear that the current preponderance of fast athletic riders is not the desired long-term goal:
Ultimately, here in the city, we’re looking for something where actually everybody slows down. A good speed for vehicles and cyclists to go is about 10 miles an hour, because the differential between them, and someone who is walking along at 3 miles an hour in the pedestrian lane, is actually more easy to understand and deal with. Try and bring that civility, and that calmness, into people’s journeys.”
Traffic calming, then, is paramount. It is worthwhile recalling that even in The Netherlands, with their vast network of protected bike lanes, most urban streets neither have nor need specific cycling infrastructure; planners just need to ensure that car traffic on side streets is low speed and low volume, and then biking can become a safe and convenient option for people ages 8 to 80.
Just do it
Finally, it is important to remember that not all of the transition to safe active transportation is led by municipal officials. Much of the leadership comes from ordinary citizens, who conclude that cycling is a sensible option in spite of an almost complete lack of dedicated cycle infrastructure. This is especially true where previous reliance on private cars has resulted in daily patterns of gridlock, and bikes are just as fast or faster than cars whether bikes are promoted or not.
On my first morning in Paris I was cheered to see a great variety of cyclists out on the streets creating unsanctioned patterns of mobility: turning traffic-snarled one-way streets into contra-flow cycling lanes, for example, or detouring around stalled traffic by taking whichever lane had some free space at the moment.
The next morning I came across several signs warning that due to construction, circulation through the Bastille area was “difficult”. When I approached the massive, multi-spoked traffic circle in front of the Bastille opera house, I was startled to see cyclists weaving through the creeping chaos of tourist buses, cars, delivery trucks and motorcycles. After watching this pageant for 15 minutes or so I realized it wasn’t so difficult after all, and I got back on my bike to join the parade for a few laps. In closing, then, here is my brief tribute to the Parisian avant-garde.
The Netherlands has a worldwide reputation as a bicycle-loving country – but bikes account for only a small proportion of kilometers travelled.
While the Dutch have given far greater official support to bicycling than other industrialized countries have, the dominance of car culture is still a fact of life in The Netherlands.
The government publication Transport and Mobility 2016 includes the section heading “The Dutch and their sacred cow” – and the authors aren’t referring to the bicycle. Rather, they note that over half of the adult population, and 71% of households, owns a car. This proportion rises to 84% of rural households, and 90% of high-income households.
Using figures from 2014, the publication states that 28% of trips made are by bicycle and 18% are by foot – but these trips tend to be short. Overall, 73% of kilometers traveled within the country are by car, with 9% by bike, 9% by train, 3% by other land-based public transport, and 3% on foot.
What are the most promising ways to shift a significant portion of this travel to carbon-emissions-free or low-carbon modes? Trips for education only account for 7% of kilometers traveled, and 80% of Dutch students under 15 already bike to school, so additional improvement in that category will be hard to achieve.
Commuting is the biggest single category of kilometers traveled. In common with other countries, the Dutch spend a disproportionate amount on roadways to accommodate more cars. But unlike most other countries, the Dutch are also investing substantially in infrastructure that makes it possible for more people to get to work without getting into a car.
Steel wheels and rubber tires
Building the Cycling City, published by Island Press, August 2018
Cycling is the most common form of transportation in the country for short trips – 3 to 5 km – but most commutes are significantly longer than that. Fortunately, the country has also maintained a highly effective train network, and trains and bikes are now working symbiotically.
The Bruntletts note that “the nationwide [rail] system serves over 1.2 million passengers each and every day, half of whom bookend their train travel with bicycle rides.” (Building the Cycling City, page 140)
A small infrastructure program has been essential in promoting bike-train trips. Because the train system is already well used, there is no room on trains for bikes at rush hour. Therefore people are encouraged to keep one bike at home to ride to the local train station, and another one on the other end to pedal from the train station to the workplace. (That’s one reason the country now counts more bicycles than people.)
To be secure in this practice, people need safe bike parking adjacent to all train stations. Thus you can now find bike parking facilities at every train station – for hundreds of bikes in smaller towns, thousands of bikes in small cities, or tens of thousands of bikes in bigger cities.
This covered bike-parking facility is in the northern city of Groningen, adjacent to the train station.
The most impressive of these efforts is in the southern city of Utrecht. A large university town just a short train ride away from Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Leiden and Den Haag, Utrecht boasts the country’s busiest train station. To ensure that many of the rail passengers don’t need to rely on motorized transportation to get to or from the station, the station is now the site of the world’s largest bike garage, in a complex which holds 22,000 bikes and will hold 32,000 when completed.1
A state-of-the-art bike parking garage in downtown Utrecht. Gently sloping ramps wind from the street up through the three levels of parking, and electronic signs at the ends of aisles tell cyclists where free spaces are located.
The largest of the facilities holds 12,500 bikes of standard or close-to-standard sizes, while a separate facility can accommodate delivery bikes and bakfiets – long bikes with a large box that can hold up to three children. The garages are fully sheltered from weather, are constantly monitored, and most are open 24 hours a day while some sections are open “only” from 6 am to midnight. With so many cyclists using the facilities, it also makes sense to have a service and repair shop on site.
This attention to the needs of people with bikes may sound expensive. But clearly a 12,000-bike parking facility is far less expensive in both Euros and land area than a comparable-capacity car parking garage, or the kind of bus terminal that would be required to get all those people in and out of the train station by bus. And making the bike-train combo safe and convenient pays big dividends: Transport and Mobility 2016 notes that “An inhabitant of Utrecht differs from the inhabitants of the other provinces in making the most trips as well as the most kilometres by bicycle and train.”2 (Emphasis mine.)
During my first week in The Netherlands, I was bent over the handlebars fighting a fierce wind when an elderly woman, sitting bolt-upright in the breeze, passed me with little apparent effort. I thought, “Wow, these Dutch people are really fit!” After the same thing had happened several more times, I caught on and learned to recognize electric-assist bikes3 by their characteristic battery location.
The Bruntletts note that
“Despite its mostly flat terrain, the Netherlands has emerged as the world’s largest pedelec market per capita, with electric bikes making up almost a third of new bicycle sales in 2016. Denmark is a close second ….” (Building the Cycling City, page 50)
There is a very good reason that The Netherlands and Denmark are such good markets for electric-assist bikes: they have the infrastructure that allows safe riding on an extensive network of protected bike lanes. Citing European Cyclists Federation development director Kevin Mayne, the Bruntletts say “the places with the best bike infrastructure are the ones that sell the most pedelecs, and the global e-bike market won’t fulfill its potential without great places to ride.” (Building the Cycling City, page 87)
But with safe infrastructure and traffic conditions in place, pedelecs have the potential to get people out of cars for longer commutes, not just short rides.
Within the city of Groningen where distances are small, cycling already has a 61 percent modal share, which the city hopes to increase to 67 percent. The Bruntletts write
“What would be more impressive would be to increase the current 12 percent of people arriving by bike from outside the city …. E-bikes will play a crucial role in any such increase by lengthening the average commute distance from eight kilometres to twenty kilometres with very little additional effort from riders.” (Building the Cycling City, page 64)
Elsewhere in the country, a small network of snelfietsroutes (“fast cycling routes”) are being built between major residential and commercial centers. Designed not for scenic appeal but with the straight-forward goal of promoting efficient bike commuting from city to city, these routes also appeal to cyclists who may not be up to an athletic workout five days a week, but would still like to bike their long-ish commutes. Electric-assist bikes have already proven very popular on these inter-city routes.
In general there is no need for specific public infrastructure to support pedelecs, if there is already a comprehensive network of safe lanes for ordinary bikes. Yet the presence of charging stations could make even longer rides practical – for example, the kind of rides that would use most of the battery power on a one-way trip, requiring a re-charge before the return trip. Some employers are now providing charging stations in bike garages at work, and I spotted this station outside a popular restaurant along a well-used cycling route.4
Public bike-charging station in Stellendam, South Holland
As with parking garages, charging stations for bikes take up much less space than charging stations for an equivalent number of cars. And since e-bikes consume far less energy than e-cars, charging infrastructure is far less technically demanding and far less expensive. (Pedelec batteries are rated in Watt Hours while electric car batteries are rated in KiloWatt Hours.)
Post-script: follow the red-brick road?
As Melissa and Chris Bruntlett so engagingly document, The Netherlands has done far more than other industrialized countries to safely integrate bicycles into their overall transportation system, with great results for public health and for the vitality of their cities. One result of the national habit of cycling is that the transportation sector in The Netherlands is accountable for just one-fifth of the country’s carbon emissions, compared to one-third in the US.
While the Dutch have a commanding lead when it comes to effective promotion of everyday cycling, they have achieved this in the context of a transport system where cars remain dominant. Most households own cars, most kilometers are traveled by car, and many features of daily life and of the national landscape will be entirely familiar to people living in other car cultures.
Outside the core urban areas, a hierarchy of speed rules just as it does in many other countries – the spacing is just tighter. The US Library of Congress report “National Funding of Road Infrastructure: Netherlands” states
“According to European statistical sources, the highest motorway density in Europe is found in the Netherlands (78 km per 1000 km² on average in 2009), Luxembourg (59), and Belgium (58).”5
Motorway interchange near Schiphol airport
As noted earlier, more affluent citizens are more likely to own and use cars for their commutes, and they also tend to commute longer distances. For a small, densely populated country which clearly values its farmland, the motorways take up a surprising amount of space in rural areas. Furthermore, dedicated high-speed car-and-truck lanes also impose their geometry on slower-speed travellers. While cycling through the countryside, for example, you need to find the infrequent roads that cross the motorways, where you may bike up and over the dedicated high-speed transport lanes. Likewise if you’re pedaling a bikeway alongside an expressway, you need to take a detour each time you come to an interchange, with a wide curve around the sprawling clover-leaf interchanges. These impositions on cyclists and other low-speed travellers are deemed necessary to allow uninterrupted high-speed travel on the expressways.
But what if, as a world community, we finally embark on the serious kind of energy and lifestyle revolution that is needed to adequately reduce carbon emissions? Or – a more likely scenario in our current political scene – what if we run short of cheap fossil fuels without finding a technological miracle to allow our high-energy lifestyles to continue with low-intensity fuels such as solar and wind-power? What sort of challenges will we face in transforming our transportation infrastructures?
The Netherlands will clearly have a head start in such a transition. Yet as I cycled through the countryside, it often struck me that there too, the road system is astonishingly overbuilt. Frequently I found myself biking on a dedicated bike path, beside a two-lane service road, beside a multi-lane expressway, with another service road and bike path on the other side.
A generation or a few from now, when our descendants have through choice or necessity transitioned to a low-energy, and therefore low speed, transportation system, will they still need or want to devote such wide swaths of countryside to transportation? And if not, how will they repurpose some of those thousands of hectares of heavy-duty pavement?
In my first few days biking through The Netherlands I wasn’t always happy that many bike lanes are routed along old, somewhat rough brick roads – the surface just wasn’t as smooth, fast or comfortable to bike on as a well-maintained asphalt surface.
But then I reflected on the almost endless repairability and reusability of those brick roads. From my own work experience I know that “recycling” asphalt and concrete pavements demands large amounts of high-intensity energy resources. But in The Netherlands I saw workers with simple hand tools re-laying old bricks and re-creating good-as-new roads.
I won’t be around to see it, but in the long term my guess would be that the centuries-old red brick roads of The Netherlands will be the ones that are renewed for centuries to come.
3 While the “electric bikes” now seen in North America most often don’t require the rider to pedal at all, the variety common in The Netherlands has a motor which only kicks in while the rider is pedaling. These electric-assist or pedelec bikes thus amplify a rider’s strength, but don’t allow completely effort-free riding.
4 On the downside, ubiquitous availability of charging stations could lead more people to rely on the battery-assist mode almost exclusively, resulting in a steep drop-off in the exercise levels and health benefits of e-bike converts. See discussion of a recent European study at “Riding e-bikes does not lead to health benefits”, on A view from the cycling path, September 12, 2018
How would you describe the process in which a small country builds a 35,000 kilometer network of fully separated bike infrastructure – and traffic-calms 75 per cent of their urban streets to a speeds of 30 km/h (19 mph) or less?
One apt analogy is “picking the low-hanging fruit”. While Dutch cycling policy has required only modest annual investment, it has resulted in cities where bikes are used for most short trips – five kilometers or less – which can be pedaled by ordinary citizens from age 8 to 80 with no great effort. Furthermore this policy has helped preserve historic urban centers by removing the need for intra-city expressways or vast parking lots, while also promoting a fit and healthy population.
These are some of the themes that come through in a recent book by Melissa and Chris Bruntlett. Building The Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality provides an excellent overview of the different ways that transportation policy has developed in five Dutch cities. The book also shows how lessons learned there are now benefitting other cities including New York, Calgary, Vancouver, and San Antonio.
This article is based on the Bruntletts’ excellent work, as well as on my own four-week bike tour of the Netherlands in September and October.
Giving priority to the most vulnerable road users, not the least vulnerable
In cities throughout the industrial world in the 20th century, the lion’s share of public space became the domain of people engaged in a dangerous and polluting activity – driving cars. The Netherlands was no exception to this trend.
But by the mid-1970s, spurred in part by a growing number of traffic fatalities and in part by the OPEC oil embargo, a strong reaction to auto-dominance took hold in several Dutch cities.
In the northern city of Groningen, a plan to build big new roads through historic neighbourhoods prompted 24-year-old Max Van den Berg to get into municipal politics. Just seven years later, the city implemented a transportation policy promoted by Van den Berg and allied councillors. Their Traffic Circulation Plan
“proposed dividing the city center to four parts and forbidding cars to cross between those quarters. This made the inner city practically impenetrable with a car, leaving cycling and walking the best ways to get around. The plan didn’t completely remove motor vehicles from the equation – as public buses and delivery vans would retain limited access to parts of the core – but it came remarkably close.” (Building the Cycling City, page 53-54)
One result 40 years later is that distracted walking or cycling is not a capital crime in Dutch cities. Even at rush hour in Groningen, one can walk or pedal through the central city while engrossed in conversation, while focusing on a smart phone, or while writing the next great novel in your head – without fear of being squashed by a car.
The same pattern holds true in many other small- and mid-sized Dutch cities where the urban core is mostly free of the noise, pollution and danger posed by cars. While some cars and delivery vehicles creep through these districts, the drivers know that foot-powered residents have the right of way – not just at crosswalks or traffic lights but all along the length of narrow historic streets.
Above, a “scramble” in Groningen at rush hour, where cyclists going every direction smoothly negotiate their way through the intersection. Below, an intersection in the core of Leeuwarden, the capital city of the province of Friesland.
Today, Groningen’s traffic planning embodies a very basic principle: “pedestrians over cyclists, cyclists over public transportation, and public transportation over cars. Essentially, the most vulnerable users of the city have priority over the least ….” (Building the Cycling City, page 61)
The important but limited role of separated bike lanes
The Netherlands is justly famous for its vast network of protected bike lanes, not only along arterial roads within cities, but also throughout the countryside connecting every village, town and city.
The rules for when, where and how cycle lanes are built are now well defined. Basically, in areas where it is not practical to slow cars so that they travel at close to the speeds of bicycles, separated paths must be installed. In cities, this often means a street-side lane with a curb separating the bike traffic from car traffic. In most cases these cycle lanes run on both sides of the streets. Critically, the urban bike lanes are not carved out of the sidewalks – the realm of pedestrians, who are also to be protected and encouraged – but are achieved by narrowing or removing car lanes.
“Bicycle street. Autos are guests.”
On rural roads with moderately fast cars but low traffic volumes, separate bike lanes are not always installed but cars are expected to – and do, in my experience – pass bikes carefully and courteously, yielding to bikes whenever oncoming traffic makes it impossible to pass safely.
Alongside busier roads with traffic of 50–60 km/hr or faster, there are fully separated bike lanes. Often these run right beside the roads, but there are also many cases where the bike paths diverge from the roads significantly, providing a quieter ride and cleaner air for people on bikes.
A significant component of the system is the system of signage. Bicycle routes are marked by signs at nearly every intersection, with signs that are visually distinct from the directional signs for motorists. This makes it easy for a bike rider to navigate through new areas, without pulling out either a smart phone or a paper map. There are also hundreds of maps on metal signposts showing local cycling routes, with each province maintaining its own set of local route maps.
Above, a roadside sign showing local cycling routes in the northern province of Friesland. Below, a popular cycling route on the coast in the southern province of Zeeland.
All this infrastructure, of course, costs money – but is it expensive? That’s a matter of perspective, and the Dutch do spend more money on cycling infrastructure than other nations. Melissa and Chris Bruntlett write,
“The Dutch cycle because their government spends an astonishing €30 ($35 US) per person per year on bike infrastructure – fifteen times the amount invested in nearby England.” (Building The Cycling City, page 15)
Yet this €30 per person is a very small fraction of what the Dutch – and other nations – spend on auto infrastructure. According to official figures from 2015, “The Dutch government spends a total of 15 billion euros on traffic and transport” each year – meaning the cycling infrastructure expense is a bit more than 3% of the government transport and traffic budget.
For this €30 per capita, the Dutch have been able to preserve the character of their central cities, keep carbon emissions lower than in neighboring countries, and enjoy some of the best health in the world due to an active population and cleaner air. Given the cost of health care alone, the €30 per capita spent by the Dutch government to promote cycling is an astonishing bargain.
While infrastructure such as separated cycle paths is an important component of the cycle strategy, it is important to keep in mind that the Dutch did not immediately launch a major building program when they began to focus on cycling in the 1970s. Furthermore, even today about 75 percent of their roads do not have separate cycle lanes.
In their chapter on Amsterdam, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett explain,
“This cycling utopia was built on traffic-calming rather than bike lanes. Instead of constructing separated cycle tracks on every street, officials started with speed-limit reductions, parking restrictions, through-traffic limitations, and lane narrowing and removals.” (Building the Cycling City, page 93)
Cycle lanes are great, but you’ve got to get from home or office or school to the cycle lane, and that route must be safe before most urban residents will want to bike on a regular basis. If the route to and from a dedicated cycle path remains dangerous and nerve-wracking, only the daring folks who are already cycling are likely to get onto the cycle path.
Traffic-calming on most or all non-arterial roads, therefore, plays a crucial role in laying the groundwork for widespread use of separated bike lanes along major routes. Fortuitously, the cost of traffic-calming methods is generally very low, meaning that is an obvious place to start in a long-term strategy to boost active transportation.
In the next installment, I will look at ways the Dutch are extending the humble bicycle’s reach through an intentional symbiosis with their train network, and through the rapid uptake of electric-assist bikes. A third installment in this series will look at cycling promotion efforts in Valencia, Paris and London, in light of the Dutch example.
In the historic centre of Middelburg, province of Zeeland.
Top photo: mural and bikes in downtown Leeuwarden, Friesland
Subway systems, trams, Bus-Rapid-Transit, high-speed trains, cars – these can all play useful roles in well-designed transportation systems. But we must not forget what still is and what should remain the world’s most important transportation method: walking.
Authors Robert Cervero, Erick Guerra and Stefan Al set out a general framework for transportation planning, in which the metric of “number of cars moved per hour” is replaced by an emphasis on place-making, with intergenerational sustainability, social equity, safety, and decarbonization as essential goals. The introduction to “urban recalibration” is followed by brief case studies from dozens of cities throughout the world.
First, do no harm to pedestrians
“For all the emphasis on cars and transit, walking remains the most globally important mode of transportation,” the authors write. “Globally, almost 40 percent of all trips are made by foot, and the figure is close to 90 percent in many smaller and poorer cities.”
In the Global South as in western Europe and North America, official transportation planning is dominated by the motoring classes, to the detriment of those who want to or have no choice but to walk. But Beyond Mobility cites many reasons why building safe cities for walkers is a global issue:
“Because walking produces almost no local or global pollution, creates no traffic fatalities, costs residents only the food needed to power their legs, has proven health benefits, and requires low infrastructure investments relative to highways or transit, maintaining high walking rates is critically important in the Global South.” (Beyond Mobility, page 173)
The public health consequences of a planning preference for automobiles are especially severe in the Global South, with deaths from air pollution and traffic accidents highest among the very people who cannot themselves afford cars. Therefore a shift in transportation policy is an obvious social equity issue.
In North America, after generations in which urban residents moved away from city cores to widely spaced suburbs, the trend is now reversing. The downtown areas of many major cities are once again highly sought after by residents and would-be residents, leading to huge price premiums for central-city residential properties.
A key reason for this preference is walkability. While time spent commuting by car tends to be stressful and unsatisfying1, a new generation has discovered the physical, emotional and social benefits of routine walking to work, school, shopping and entertainment.
This urban renaissance comes with obvious problems due to gentrification. A big part of the problem is scarcity: particularly in North America, desirably walkable neighbourhoods are now rare, while most urban residents must settle for neighbourhoods where basic services are distant and transportation options are expensive in terms of money, time, and/or personal safety.
Mobility when necessary, but not necessarily mobility
Real estate ads for suburban residences frequently highlight a key selling point – “close to the expressway”. By design, employment zones and residential districts are generally far apart in the post-war North American suburb. That has led to a situation where an important attribute for a residential neighbourhood is how easy it is to get far away from that neighbourhood each morning.
It’s a daunting task to reverse that trend, to change suburban settlement patterns to the point where many residents can work, shop, go to school, visit friends or go out to eat without getting into a car or boarding a train. Yet efforts at “sprawl repair” have begun in many places. Many of these efforts are guided by the concept of “place-making”, a central idea in Beyond Mobility. The authors quote urban designer Jan Gehl: “Place-making is turning a neighborhood, town or city from a place you can’t wait to get through to one you never want to leave.”2
Suburban shopping malls and suburban office parks come in for particular scrutiny. Both facilities are typically surrounded by hectares of parking lots. In theory it should be possible to redevelop these facilities (especially the many shopping centres which already stand vacant), creating more intensive mixes of residential, employment, commercial, educational and entertainment uses. The authors note that “One of the saving graces of huge surface parking lots is they can be easily torn up and rebuilt upon.” More generally, they state that
“Fortunately, suburban landscapes are malleable and for the most part can be easily adapted, modified, and reused. … In many ways, suburbs are the low-hanging fruit in the quest to create sustainable, highly livable, and more accessible places.” (Beyond Mobility, page 89–90)
This optimism notwithstanding, examples of successful suburban reconfigurations are rare in this book. In many cases, the authors note, redevelopment of a particular shopping mall or office complex produces an attractive mini-mix of services in a compact area, but is still too distant from most services to be “the kind of neighbourhood you never want to leave”.
One redevelopment option which is conspicuous by its absence in the pages of Beyond Mobility is what we might call the Detroit option. Instead of replacing empty suburban pavement with more intensive building patterns, perhaps there are some suburban districts which should become less intensive, returning to agricultural uses which would boost the sustainability of an urban area in other important ways.
Cycling receives very little attention in the book, even though two-wheeled, human-powered vehicles are already meeting the need for medium-distance transportation in many cities, with minimal infrastructure costs, many public health benefits, and almost no disruption of the primary transportation method, walking. The chapter on autonomous vehicles is also a bit of a puzzle. Though the authors are “cautiously optimistic” that driverless cars will enable a better “balance between mobility and place”, their discussion highlights several reasons to believe this technology may result in more Vehicle Miles Traveled and a greater disconnection from the social environment.
When it comes to transformational changes to the cores of major cities, however, the book is full of inspiring examples. In cities from San Francisco to Seoul, Bogotá to Barcelona, freeways have been replaced with boulevards, intersections have been reconfigured to make passage safer and more pleasant for pedestrians, single-use office complexes have incorporated retail and affordable housing, “park-and-ride” train stations have moved closer to an ideal of “walk-and-ride” as surrounding blocks are redeveloped.
Many of these urban recalibration efforts have their own flaws and limitations, but the value of Beyond Mobility is an even-handed recognition of both successes and failures. Above all, the authors emphasize, equitable, sustainable and convivial cities can’t be created all at once:
“urban recalibration calls for a series of calculated steps aimed at a strategic longer-range vision of a city’s future, advancing principles of people-oriented development and place-making every bit as much as private car mobility, if not more. … It entails a series of 1 to 2 percent recalibration ‘victories’ – intersection by intersection, neighborhood by neighborhood — that cumulatively move beyond the historically almost singular focus on mobility, making for better communities, better environments, and better economies.” (Beyond Mobility, page 211)
Top photo: Streets of Hong Kong, China, East Asia, photo by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikimedia Commons
1“Behavioral research shows that out of a number of daily activities, commuting has the most negative effect on peoples’ moods.” Beyond Mobility, page 51, citing a Science article by Daniel Kahneman, “A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience”, 2004.
2Beyond Mobility, page 13, citing Jan Gehl, Cities for People, Island Press, 2010.
Mobility is good, so more mobility is better, right? If only it were so simple.
Mobility, after all, is generally less important to people than accessibility. When we go somewhere it’s not the movement that’s valuable, it’s the access to something – a school, shopping, a workplace, a friend’s house or a park – that really counts. That holds true whether we’re walking across the street, taking a subway to work, or navigating suburban traffic in an SUV enroute to the big-box store.
A prioritization of mobility in transportation planning, unfortunately, often has the result of reducing accessibility.1 Particularly in North America, a century-long focus on mobility has resulted in drastic changes to urban and suburban landscapes. As we travel into a new century facing the challenges of climate change and reduced energy affordability, the inherited legacy of mobility-fixation presents major challenges to average citizens and land-use planners alike.
If we look back just over a century, both the bicycle and then the car initially increased both mobility and accessibility for many people. True, it was a thrill to travel at speeds that had previously seemed inhuman. But fast wheeled transportation also opened up many new opportunities for late nineteenth and early twentieth century people. The local school, local stores, local employers were no longer the only options – suddenly many people could easily access opportunities on the other side of the city or the other side of the county.
The increase in accessibility was especially significant to rural Americans whose social worlds had been tightly circumscribed by the distance they could walk or ride a slow horse. There was very good reason that “Of the first million Model Ts that Ford sold, 64% went to the farm and small town market.”2
Yet as quickly as cars increased accessibility for rural people, cars decreased accessibility for a great many city-dwellers, especially those not privileged enough to drive a car. The first change was that on many streets, it was no longer safe to access the other side of the road by foot, as people had done for millennia. If the threat of being run down was not enough, PR campaigns and then laws created the new crime of jaywalking. In busy areas, pedestrians had to walk down the block to a traffic light, wait for their turn to cross, and then double back to the destination. Thus in millions of situations in cities every hour, cars increased accessibility for their drivers while reducing accessibility for people on foot.
A single-minded focus on mobility, however, would introduce far more sweeping changes over time. Once large numbers of people moved through cities by car, big parking lots were needed between stores. Whether on foot or behind the wheel, people now needed to move farther to get where they wanted to go. New zoning regulations separated workplaces from shopping, education and residential districts, requiring people to travel farther.
This mobility focus reached its fullest expression with the mid-twentieth century expressway, AKA “controlled access highway”. All across North America, vast swaths of land were devoted to traffic lanes reserved for high-speed vehicles, with entrances and exits only at widely spaced intervals. Particularly when these expressways slashed through existing cities, they instantly disrupted accessibility in previously thriving neighbourhoods, making a host of urban amenities more difficult to reach for those traveling on foot or by bicycle.
As a general rule we might say that more mobility results in more accessibility, if all other relevant factors remain the same. But when we increase mobility, many other factors do tend to change, either immediately or over the long term, and often the end result is less accessibility.
Can you get there from here?
When looking at maps of North American suburbs and exurbs, an old joke comes to mind. An elderly villager, when asked for directions from his hamlet to a town across the county, answers, “Well, if I wanted to get to [Coventry] [Mariposa] [insert favourite town name], I sure as heck wouldn’t be starting from here”.
But for better or worse, we have to start from right where we are. So in considering the challenges in correcting a decades-long focus on mobility at the expense of accessibility, I’ll conclude this post with a few examples taken from my region.
In the grandly named “Greater Toronto Area”, a heavy reliance on expressways has made the later introduction of commuter rail services both more difficult and less effective. The extraordinary allocation both of land and public finances to expressways encouraged people to commute by car, from far outside the city to jobs in Toronto or its suburbs. But when, inevitably, rush hours lengthened and gridlock became common, belated extensions of mass transit services had to fit into the spaces between expressways, parking lots and major arterial roads. As a result, these transit facilities are neither particularly accessible nor attractive to people who don’t drive.
The Google satellite map below, for example, shows a shopping mall called Scarborough Town Centre, which is attached to a station for a light rail line to downtown.
This “City Centre” concentrates a wide variety of functions including retail stores, restaurants, theatres, office buildings and government services. But because so many people in this area will arrive by car, these functions must be widely spaced to allow many hectares of access roads and parking. Thus the City Centre is not accessible by foot except for determined hikers. Furthermore, the 14-lane expressway Highway 401 is adjacent to the complex, creating a wide separation between this centre and any residential or commercial districts to the immediate north.
As illustrated here, a residence just north of the expressway is only about 800 meters from the train station. But getting past the auto-induced obstacles involves a bike ride of almost 3 km. And it’s not a pretty ride. As shown in the Google Streetview image below, crossing the bridge over the 401 means a noisy, windy, polluted journey over more than a dozen lanes of car and truck traffic.
The need to accommodate car traffic is an even greater handicap for commuter rail stations further outside the city. To the east of Toronto, the GO Transit commuter rail line currently ends on the outskirts of Oshawa, about an hour’s train ride from downtown Toronto. Although several buses bring commuters here from surrounding suburban areas, huge numbers of people arrive by car, and the seemingly endless parking lots are never adequate. The presence of these parking lots, on the other hand, is a barrier to creation of any major, concentrated residential or commercial district within walking distance of this station.
Even for commuters from nearby residential areas in the upper left and right of this image, getting to the station without a car would include navigating the spaghetti-string intersection of Highway 401. (Also shown in image at the top of this post.) Cyclists and pedestrians are seldom seen crossing that bridge in droves.
Recently-built residential neighbourhoods in this area show the same strong emphasis on mobility over accessibility. Here are two examples from the sprawling subdivisions that stretch far to the north of Highway 401.
A small strip mall provides a few services, including a restaurant. As shown here, if you could walk directly to the restaurant from an address just one short block away, you’d only have to travel 120 metres – but as indicated by Google Maps, the actual walking distance is 1 kilometre.
Within these neighbourhoods the intentional lack of a simple grid street plan, replaced instead by irregular blocks, loops and cul-de-sacs, supposedly makes areas like these unattractive to through traffic and therefore quieter. An unavoidable side effect, however, is a major reduction in the number of neighbours or services accessible within a couple of hundred metres. In example below, two neighbours who would be only 135 metres apart in a grid system are instead faced with a 1.2 km one-way trip. In other words, mobility-focused design gives such neighbourhoods poor accessibility for anyone but drivers.
No easy fix
Achieving a transportation mix suited to the coming century will require a focus on accessibility more than mobility. This is a tall order in areas where an expensive, land-use-dominating infrastructure is currently devoted to car culture. It would be comforting to think that this built infrastructure took several decades to construct, and we can now spend several decades fixing the inherited problems. However, the urgency of reducing carbon emissions means we do not have several decades to respond to our current challenges.
Fortunately, there have been citizens’ movements, city governments, urban planners and scholars in many countries who have already provided many valuable lessons. A new book, Beyond Mobility,3 summarizes many inspiring illustrations, and I’ll turn to that book in the next installment in this series.
Top photo: Google Satellite View of intersection of Highway 401 with Stevenson Rd, Bloor St, and Champlain Ave in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.
How do we get beyond the dependency-inducing trap of car culture? After 100 years in which auto-oriented infrastructure has dominated public works spending and reshaped civic life, how can we make our streets safe and healthy spaces?
Colville-Andersen is a Canadian-Danish designer who started photographing people on bicycles in Copenhagen in 2006. This pastime quickly became the popular Cycle Chic blog, and then grew into Copenhagenize Design Co., which has now helped scores of cities improve their urban transportation mix. Copenhagenize, the book, is a great summary not only of the lessons learned by Copenhagen over the past forty years, but also the lessons learned by Colville-Andersen and his associates in many cities over the past 10 years.
First a brief word about what is both the book’s major limitation and its great strength: this is a guide to “bicycle urbanism” – it doesn’t pretend to cover cycling in rural or small-town areas.
In a move away from car culture, urban cycling is definitely the low-hanging fruit. Short trips under about 7 km make up a large proportion of trips within cities. Furthermore, the many costs of car culture – especially air pollution, and crashes that kill and maim – are readily evident in cities, while much-touted benefits such as speed and convenience are typically negated by gridlock. So it should be easy to persuade many average citizens to get out of cars and take to the streets on bicycle – if those streets can be made convenient and safe for human-powered transportation.
Let’s start with “convenient”.
A simple motivation
Extensive surveys have found that most Copenhagen cyclists are not motivated primarily by health concerns, or a concern for the environment, or a desire to save money – they ride bike because it’s the most convenient way to get around their city. This leads Colville-Andersen to stress a basic principle:
“I know exactly what you want. It’s the same thing that I want. Indeed, it’s what every homo sapien who has ever lived wants: a direct line from A to B when we’re transporting ourselves. … This is the most basic principle in transport planning. I call it A2Bism.” (Copenhagenize, pg 146)
Taking the most direct line is especially important when we’re getting around under our own steam. Yet for seventy-five years traffic planners concentrated on giving the best routes to cars, while introducing detours for foot-powered residents. Colville-Andersen sums up both this history of mistakes, and the simple solution, in these simple “traffic planning guide” graphics.
The two graphics on the left summarize the rupture of an ancient pattern of city life by car culture – including, he emphasizes, in cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam.
On the right is the guide used by bicycle-friendly cities in recent decades. While cities in Denmark and the Netherlands have seen tremendous growth in cycling since they adopted this approach in the 1970s, a significant uptick in active transportation has also begun in many other cities, including a few in North America.
All too often in North America, however, new bike routes are added in out-of-the-way locations where they, predictably, serve few riders going about daily tasks like getting to and from work.1 If we were serious about encouraging rather than discouraging cyclists, we would allocate safe space for them on the most direct routes.
The Copenhagenize approach is illustrated at the right side of the graphic above: safe and healthy modes of active transportation are given direct routing, while polluting and dangerous cars and trucks get the frequent jogs and detours.
Cycle-friendly planning isn’t quite as simple as drawing lines on a map or on the streets. While Colville-Andersen emphasizes that good urban cycling infrastructure is far cheaper than what we routinely spend on car infrastructure, we do need to budget for something besides a little paint:
“Hastily painted pictograms in the middle of car lanes are not infrastructure. They are the awkward watermark of lazy politicians and lazier transport professionals.” (Copenhagenize, pg 77)
Where streets must be shared by pedestrians, cyclists, and cars, trucks and buses, and motorized traffic will move more than 40 km/h, mere painted bike lanes will not provide an adequate measure of safety – some sort of physical separation is required. Having a row of parked cars between the cycle lane and the moving traffic is one good strategy. (In North America, however, the order is often reversed, with cycle lanes between the parked cars and moving traffic, precisely in the “door zone” where a driver opening the door of a parked car might knock a cyclist directly into the passing traffic.)
If Copenhagen now illustrates everything in Colville-Andersen’s chapter “Best Practice Design and Infrastructure”, it’s not because the Danes have always got it right. In fact, he says, all the cycle-planning mistakes frequently being made in other jurisdictions have also been made in Copenhagen. Other cities can save a lot of time and money if they don’t try to “reinvent the wheel”.
Waiting at a signalized intersection on a bike lane in Almetyevsk, Republic of Tatarstan
Colville-Andersen gives advice on many specifics: what is the minimum width for separated bike lanes, and when is it time to widen them further; what kind of intersection spacing works to keep cyclists safe from right-turning cars; under what circumstances is a bi-directional cycle lane a good option; how can cycle lanes be safely routed past bus stops. Yet the basic typology for bike lanes is based on just two data points: how many cars does a road carry, and what is the speed. Based on these two issues, he says, there are a grand total of four basic designs:
“Four. There are only four basic designs in Danish bicycle planning. One of these four fits every street in the Danish Kingdom and, indeed, every street in every city in the world.” (Copenhagenize, page 176)
In North America, in spite of a resurgence in urban cycling over the past ten years, no major city yet enjoys a bicycle “mode-share” of 10%. In Copenhagen and in Dutch cities such as Groningen, meanwhile that mode-share is now more than 40% – with the remainder split between buses, trains, cars, and walking.
Colville-Andersen emphasises, however, that “Copenhagen wasn’t always Copenhagen …. This city was as car-clogged as anywhere else on the planet through the 1950s and 1960s.” (Copenhagenize, page 64)
The growth of cycling culture there required massive public demonstrations in the 1970s, decades of work, and leadership by municipal officials with real vision. A key barrier is to get beyond the idea that we shouldn’t invest in cycling, because only a few people are willing to ride bike in our current urban environments:
“That misconception that a city has to build infrastructure for the people cycling now, as opposed to the 20-25 percent of the population that could be cycling, still reigns supreme.” (Copenhagenize, page 199)
Copenhagenize is a superb manual on all the important details of bike infrastructure design and operation. It’s a great ‘how-to’ guide for making cities safe and convenient for active transportation. Indeed, it’s a great book on the factors that, in the millennia before the destructive onset of car culture, made cities very attractive places to live:
“We have been living together in cities for more than 7,000 years. By and large, we used those seven millennia to hammer out some serious best-practices about cohabitation in the urban theater and the importance of social fabric. We threw most of that knowledge under the wheels of the automobile shortly after we invented it ….” (Copenhagenize, page 13)
In the struggle to redemocratize our streets, he says, the bicycle will play a key role: “This most human form of transport represents the perfect synergy between technology and the human desire to move. It is the most perfect vehicle for urban living ever invented.”
photos and illustrations by Mikael Colville-Andersen courtesy of Island Press
The “vehicular cycling” approach promoted by John Forester can be a great help to all of us who have to ride on busy streets dominated by cars. Yet I think there are good reasons why this approach has always had limited appeal.
In this second installment of a two-part essay I compare the vehicular cycling approach to what is arguably a much stronger social force – the Slow Bicycling movement.1 (Part one of the essay is here.)
When I took up urban cycling in Toronto at the beginning of the 1980s, Forester’s insights were just what I needed to hear. I had quickly come to the conclusion that a bicycle was a beautifully appropriate technology for getting around in cities, and I’d be damned if I would accept that most streets should be ceded to cars and trucks.
In his book Effective Cycling2 Forester called his approach “vehicular cycling”, and he helped me to understand that a cyclist in motor traffic is generally safest when behaving like a driver and asserting the rights of a driver.
Take The Lane
Several basic ideas are key. First, an urban cyclist is safer riding on the road than on the sidewalk. That is because at the many intersections – both driveways and cross streets – drivers are not habituated to looking at sidewalks for anything faster than a pedestrian, and they may well turn right into a fast-moving cyclist. When the cyclist stays out in the road, right in the normal line of vision of motorists, the cyclist is seen early enough for the driver to slow down.
Second, a cyclist should not hug the curb, but should take and hold a place well out into the lane. Again, the cyclist should be in the normal line of vision of drivers, and in addition should avoid near-curb hazards such as sewer grates, road-edge potholes, and debris in gutters. It’s particularly important not to weave in and out between parked cars.
When a lane is too narrow to allow a car to safely pass a cyclist within that lane, the cyclist should move right into the middle of the lane, so that a driver will slow down until it is safe to pull around in the next lane.
An extension of the “take the lane” idea is that cyclists should take the appropriate lane. For example, when coming to an intersection with a right-hand turn lane, a cyclist going straight through should move out of that lane into the through lane. When approaching an intersection with a left turn lane, urban cyclists can often safely move right across the roadway into the left turn lane. (These examples assume North American driving conventions; cyclists in Britain would follow the same principles adjusted for left-side driving.)
These lane changes depend on a procedure Forester terms “negotiation”. He urged cyclists to practice turning their heads to make eye contact with overtaking drivers, and in so doing, signaling intent while also verifying that the driver had seen the cyclist. I quickly adopted this practice and found it very helpful, which is partly why to this day I have never got used to using a rear-view mirror on a bike.
There’s a problem with this “vehicular cycling”, however, that goes to the heart of this essay. A successful “negotiation” for a lane depends on the cyclist maintaining a speed fairly close to the speed of the cars and trucks. If you’re riding at 15 kph, you can’t make meaningful eye contact with a driver coming up behind you at 60 kph. Forester recognized this:
“When the traffic is moving more than 15 mph faster than you, negotiation is impossible ….”3
To Forester this wasn’t a big problem – he pitched his ideas to fit and active cyclists – and it wasn’t a big problem for me, 40 years ago, either. Although I have never been athletic, I was in the prime of life, very enthused about cycling, and I could generally keep close to or surpass the speed of city traffic. I didn’t stop to worry about letting motorcars basically set the pace for almost all of the cycling I did.
What’s the risk?
Humans don’t generally like the feeling that they could be crushed at any moment; we’re funny that way. So even though the risk of riding in traffic in most cities is much less than the health risk of being sedentary4, vehicular cycling didn’t catch on all that well, and cyclists’ ranks in North America grew slowly.
As for me, I quickly concluded that the risk of cycling in traffic was relatively low compared to many other common activities.
But I always knew that one careless move – either by a driver or by me – could result in my instant demise. I knew, too, that most of the time when we make the kind of mistakes all humans make on the roads, there are no consequences; just once in a while, there is a confluence of circumstances that gives a particular mistake a deadly outcome.
We can take reasonable precautions to reduce our risks, and then get on with life without worrying a lot about the risks that always, inevitably, remain. For me those reasonable precautions included riding by the principles of “effective cycling”.
When I first heard discussion of having separated bike lanes alongside city streets, I didn’t like the idea. It struck me as a declaration of surrender, a formal ceding of streets to motor traffic. Besides, I thought, a separated bike lane will soon get crowded if indeed it attracts many more people to cycling – and then we’ll all have to ride at the speed of the slowest cyclists. (Much later, I learned that Forester was also a determined opponent of separate cycling infrastructure, for similar reasons.)
For three reasons, my thinking on this took a 180 degree turn – but the turn took years.
First, over the past twenty years it became apparent that separated bike lanes were very popular among cyclists, especially new cyclists. As cities like Toronto, Vancouver, New York and Minneapolis started their modest developments of cycling lanes, the ranks of cyclists, and their effective influence in urban planning, started to grow at a rate that gave real hope for sane transportation systems. In this respect we remain several decades behind cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, but we are finally moving in the same direction.
Second, as luck would have it, I got old. (Or at least, much older than I ever intended to get, back when I was a callow youth of 30.) And as I got old I got slower, especially once I’d passed the half-century mark.
My personal experience, I now realize, was opening me to the views of the “8-80” movement. Popularized by Guillermo Penalosa, 8 80 Cities advocates for urban environments that are safe and pleasant for 8-year-olds, 80-year-olds, and everyone in between.
The vehicular cycling approach, by contrast, is clearly targeted to fit adults in the prime of life. In a recent online discussion with a determined opponent of dedicated cycling infrastructure, for example, I was told that real cyclists “inevitably get in good enough shape to cruise (maybe not average) in the 15-20 mph range.” I had to respond that the days when I cruise at 20 mph are already in life’s rear-view mirror – but I hope to be a “real cyclist” for a good many years, during which I will happily roll ever more slowly.
The final factor in my conversion came while cycle touring, when I took my first long ride on a rail-to-trail route. Though I had never worried much about traffic while biking, after a few days away from all motor traffic I realized how blissfully quiet, peaceful and stress-free the ride had been.
A healthy compromise
For all the above reasons, I am now happy to consider myself part of the Slow Bicycling movement. Does that mean I no longer appreciate the ideas of vehicular cycling? Not at all.
Most of the places I want to go on bike still don’t have dedicated cycling facilities, so I still need to ride in traffic much of the time. When and where I am able to ride at an adequate pace, following “effective cycling” principles makes my rides reasonably pleasant and safe.
Furthermore, I don’t think either the “Vehicular Cycling” or the “Slow Bicycling” approaches are fully adequate to our present predicament.
There is a widespread attitude in North America, energetically promoted by the motor industry generations ago, that cars belong on streets, and bikes don’t. Effective Cycling says that both cars and bikes belong on those streets. I believe that bikes and pedestrians belong on streets, and inherently dangerous cars do not. But I know that I’m unlikely to live to see the day when streets are returned to bikes and pedestrians, when streets are no longer the site of mortal vehicular peril.
In the meantime I think the Slow Bicycling movement, with its push for widespread, convenient and safe cycling lanes for people of all ages, is going to help us grow toward sustainable urban lifestyles, as tens of millions of North American city dwellers feel comfortable in getting out of cars, getting on bikes, and enjoying the outdoors as they move about their cities under their own power and at their own pace.
Photo at top: Toronto cyclists gather at Bloor & Spadina in May, 2009 for a Critical Mass ride. The ride celebrated the approval of bike lanes on a busy downtown route, Jarvis Street. These lanes proved short-lived, as the administration of the next mayor, the late Rob Ford, returned that precious pavement to motorists.
1Though there is no official definition of the Slow Bicycling movement, the Slow Bicycle Movement group on Facebook is a good introduction. Founded by Copenhagen-based urban planner Mikael Colville-Andersen, this group includes in its statement of purpose, “This group/movement is a celebration of cycling, formed as an alternative to the perception of cycling as a hardcore endurance sport/recreational activity. … The bicycle takes us places. It’s those places and getting to them that sums up this group’s spirit.
3Forester, John, (1994). Bicycle transportation: A Handbook for cycling transportation engineers (2nd ed.). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. Quoted in Listening to Bike Lanes, by Jeffrey A. Hiles.
4For example, see the article “Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks?”, Environmental Health Perspectives, August 2010, which concludes “On average, the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks relative to car driving for individuals shifting their mode of transport.”
“For 7000 years,” says Mikael Colville-Anderson, “streets were the most democratic space in the history of Homo sapiens.”
Nearly everything that could be done in public could be done safely in city streets. People walked and talked and argued, children played, markets and festivals were set up – and if a horse-drawn wagon needed a bit of extra room for passage, that could be negotiated too. Except in times of war, carelessly stepping out into a street did not bring the risk of a sudden violent death.
That all changed in western societies in just a few decades, Colville-Andersen said, when the rapidly growing automobile industry launched a successful public relations campaign. “Jay-walking” was painted as a dangerous, foolish and anti-social activity, while the new profession of traffic engineering focused on streamlining streets to facilitate the speedy and steady movement of cars.
Colville-Andersen was speaking in Toronto on February 27 at the Ontario Good Roads Association annual conference. Kudos to the OGRA for bringing him in as a featured speaker, along with panelists Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner for the city of Toronto, and Taras Grescoe, author of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. (in top photo, clockwise from left, Colville-Andersen, Keesmaat and Grescoe)
The discussion focused on the best urban transportation design practices in the world – while also raising difficult questions about why many cities have lacked the political will to implement rational design.
Canadian by birth, Colville-Andersen lives in Denmark and has established an international consulting practice, Copenhagenize Design Co. His firm helps cities around the world in implementing pro-pedestrian and pro-bicycling policies, when they are ready to move away from an overwhelming reliance on cars for everyday transportation.
Design played a big role in cementing the dominance of cars in our reshaped cities by specifying wider – and faster – turning radiuses; ring roads, multi-lane arterial roads and even expressways built right through old neighbourhoods.
The predictable result, Colville-Andersen says, is that most urban dwellers do not feel safe biking on city streets. Just as predictably, he says, biking rates go up rapidly as soon as a usable network of safe infrastructure is established.
It is useless, he said, to exhort people to bike for the sake of their own health or for the health of the environment. In Copenhagen, where more than half the people bike to work or education each day (compared to 14% who routinely travel in cars), neither personal health nor the environment rank high as a motivating factor.
Instead, repeated polls have found that most people choose to bike simply because that’s the quickest and most convenient way to get around Copenhagen.
And that’s no accident – it reflects a 40-year-old prioritizing of active transportation, with the goal of making walking and biking safe and convenient, while making driving less convenient.
Colville-Andersen summarized this process with “The Quickest Planning Guide You’ll Ever See”.
At left is traffic engineering as practiced in most wealthy cities for the past 60 years. Cartoonish in its simplicity, it nevertheless summarizes what many people experience daily. Bike networks are disjointed snippets of little use to commuters on bike. Sidewalks and other walking routes also include frequent jogs to accommodate motorways. Bus routes have continuous runs but often wind around cities wasting their occupants’ time – while car and truck routes are made as straight and fast as feasible.
At right is the prioritizing exhibited in Copenhagen. Bike routes and walking routes are made as convenient and efficient as possible, with public transit routes next in priority. Meanwhile many jogs, detours, narrow lanes and other traffic calming designs intentionally slow motor traffic. This not only makes biking and walking much safer in those inevitable intersections, but also gives drivers daily incentives to stop using their costly and slow cars.
A question of design, or a question of power?
The “best practice” biking infrastructure designs that have evolved in Copenhagen and other European cities result in high rates of cycling, more just societies and more convivial cities. But the political vision required to even consider the Copenhagen approach was a contentious topic in the panel discussion that followed Colville-Andersen’s speech.
In Toronto, far from being willing to intentionally impede car traffic, successive city councils have approved very modest extensions of bikeways only when they have been assured that the bike lanes will not significantly slow down car traffic.
For example, when council debated adding “protected bike lanes” to two busy one-way streets downtown, Mayor John Tory was cautiously supportive “as long as the cycle tracks don’t interfere with commuters”. It was Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat who recounted this anecdote, and who also drew out the implication that in the Mayor’s way of thinking only the car drivers counted as “commuters”.
A recently installed bike lane on Adelaide Street in downtown Toronto. The partially protected bike lane resulted in an immediate jump in bike traffic. But it is also the subject of frequent complaints about taxis and delivery vehicles which cut around the widely spaced bollards and park in the cycle lane – forcing cyclists to swerve out into the traffic.
Thus while Keesmaat enthusiastically backed the major thrust of Colville-Andersen’s design approach, she also emphasized the difficult task of building a political constituency for cycling, so that councils become willing to support transformative action.
The frustration with the glacially slow growth of Toronto’s bicycle routes became especially clear in the question period. One long-time cycling advocate angrily told the panelists they were all missing the point: “we have an automotive industry in this province that dictates how Toronto runs.”
Indeed, auto manufacturing has long been a dominant industry in the province of Ontario, a force to be reckoned with by all political parties. Even the nominally left-wing New Democrats are reluctant to back any measure that could cost jobs in auto manufacturing, as the auto workers union has been one of their most important constituencies.
In an economic system where anything other than steady growth is seen as failure, it is hard to imagine Ontario municipal leaders telling the auto industry “we’re going to intentionally slow down car traffic throughout our cities, so that large numbers of drivers stop driving and switch to walking or biking. Your car sales will go down a lot, but you’ll just have to deal with it.”
When Copenhagen embarked on its transportation transition 40 years ago, the local power dynamics were likely far different. Not only did the transition begin during the oil price spikes of the 1970s, but Denmark had no major automotive or petroleum industries at the time. Copenhagen may have been under the influence of car culture, but the car industry apparently did not have the same financial and political clout that it wields in many other cities or regions.
By the same token, the design approach to bicycle urbanism may turn out to be an important but passing phase. The current design approach, after all, generally amounts to gradually carving out small protected lanes alongside the much larger proportion of urban streets that remain the province of cars.
If fossil fuels don’t remain cheap in coming decades, and the car economy coughs and wheezes until it no longer dominates civic life, there may be no need to set aside small “safe spaces” on city streets. With only a few cars and trucks on city streets there may be no need for separate bike lanes, because the streets will once again become the democratic spaces they were for 6900 of the past 7000 years.
In the meantime, however, we welcome every step forward in providing safe infrastructure, and every additional rider who feels comfortable biking as a result.
The Richmond Street bikeway, on a busy one-way street through Toronto’s financial district, at evening rush hour.
Top photo, clockwise from left: Mikael Colville-Andersen, CEO of Copenhagenize Design Co; Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner, City of Toronto; Taras Grescoe, author of Straphanger.