The high cost of speed

Also published on Resilience

Imagine that we used a really crazy method to establish speed limits. We could start by recording the speeds of all drivers on a given stretch of roadway. Then, without any clear evidence of what a safe speed might be, we might argue that the great majority of people drive too fast, and therefore the maximum legal speed will be set as that speed exceeded by 85 percent of drivers. Only the slowest 15 percent of drivers, in this scenario, would be considered to be driving within the legal limit.

If you have a passing familiarity with the legal framework of car culture, you will recognize the above as a simple inversion of the common 85th percentile rule used by traffic engineers throughout North America. Following this guideline, driver speeds are recorded, engineers determine the speed exceeded by only 15 per cent of the drivers, and that speed is deemed an appropriate speed limit for the given roadway. All the other drivers – 85 per cent – will then be driving within the speed limit.

Two recent books argue that the 85th percentile guideline is as arbitrary and misguided as it sounds. In There Are No Accidents, (Simon & Schuster, 2022; reviewed here last week), Jessie Singer summarizes the 85th percentile rule this way:

“Most speed limits are not based on physics or crash test expertise but simply the upper limit of what most amateur drivers feel is safe. A speed limit is the perceived safe speed of a road, not the actual risk of traveling that speed on that road.” (Singer, page 95)

Singer draws on the work of Eric Dumbaugh, who has a PhD in civil engineering and teaches urban planning at Florida Atlantic University. Dumbaugh has analyzed tens of thousands of traffic crashes in urban environments in the US. He concluded that the traffic engineering guidelines used for decades are based on false information, are often misapplied, and result in dangerous conditions on urban roadways. Absent physical evidence of what constitutes a safe driving speed, engineers simply assume that most drivers drive at a safe speed. Dumbaugh doesn’t mince words:

“Traffic engineering is a fraud discipline. It presumes knowledge on road safety that it doesn’t have and it educates people generation after generation on information that is incorrect.” (quoted by Singer, page 96)

The dangerous conditions on roadways have contributed to thirty thousand or more deaths in the US every year since 1946. But the engineers who design the roadways cannot be faulted, so long as they have applied the rules passed down to them in standard traffic engineering manuals.

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer was published by Wiley in 2021.

Similar themes are also a major focus in an excellent book by Charles Marohn Jr., Confessions of a Recovering Engineer (Wiley, 2021). Marohn was trained as a civil engineer, and for the first part of his career he worked as a traffic engineer designing what he saw at the time as “improvements” to roadways in small cities. Over time he began to question the ideas he had absorbed in his education and the guidelines that he followed in his engineering practice.

Marohn is now founder and president of Strong Towns. He has emerged as one of the most vociferous critics of the planning principles underlying American suburbia, and the design guidelines used to justify the arterial roads in those suburbs. He writes,

“The injuries and deaths, the destruction of wealth and stagnating of neighborhoods, the unfathomable backlog of maintenance costs with which most American cities struggle, are all a byproduct of the values at the heart of traffic engineering.” (Marohn, page 5)

These values are held so widely and deeply, Marohn says, that they are seldom questioned or even acknowledged. These values include :

“• Faster speeds are better than slower speeds..
• Access to distant locations by automobile is more important than access to local destinations by walking or biking. …
• At intersections, minimizing delay for automobile traffic is more important than minimizing delay for people walking or biking.” (Marohn, page 12)

Working from his own experience as a traffic engineer, Marohn explains the order in which issues are considered when designing a new or “improved” roadway. First the engineer decides on a “design speed” – a driving speed which the road should facilitate. Next to be established is the traffic volume – all the traffic typically traveling the route at present, plus all the additional traffic the engineer anticipates in the future. At that point the engineer will choose a design based on official guidelines for that design speed and that traffic volume; so long as the guidelines are followed, the design will be deemed “safe”. Finally, the engineer will estimate how much it will cost.

Marohn argues that the questions of whether traffic should move slow or fast, and whether all existing traffic should be accommodated or instead should be restricted, are not technical issues – they are questions of values, questions of public policy. Therefore, he says, issues of the desired traffic speed and desired traffic volume should be dealt with through the democratic process, with public input and with the decisions made by elected officials, not by engineering staff.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Some sins are forgiven

In the early days of car culture, traffic casualties happened at a far higher rate per passenger mile than they do in recent decades. Part of the improvement is due to changes in vehicle design – padded surfaces, seat belts, air bags. Part of the improvement can be attributed to what is called “forgiving design”, at least as applied on rural highways. Examples of forgiving design are gradually sloped embankments, which reduce the likelihood of rollovers if a driver veers off the road; wider lanes which lessen the chance of sideswiping; centre barriers which prevent head-on collisions; straightening of curves to improve sightlines; and removal of roadside obstacles such as large trees which an errant driver might hit.

On highways these forgiving design principles make sense, Marohn believes, but on urban arterial roads they are disastrous. He coined the word “stroad” for urban routes that combine the traffic complexity of streets with the high design speeds of inter-city roads. Stroads feature the wide lanes, cleared sightlines and levelized topography of highways, giving drivers the impression that higher speeds are safe. But stroads also have many intersections, turning vehicles, and access points for pedestrians. This means that the higher speeds are not safe, even for the drivers. And vulnerable road users – pedestrians and cyclists – often pay with their lives.

Most stroads should be converted into streets, Marohn says. “Instead of providing drivers with an illusion of safety, designers should ensure the drivers on a street feel uncomfortable when traveling at speeds that are unsafe.” (Marohn, page 43) To ensure that the mistakes of pedestrians and cyclists, and not just drivers, are forgiven, he advocates these guidelines: “Instead of widening lanes, we narrow them. Instead of smoothing curves, we tighten them. Instead of providing clear zones, we create edge friction. Instead of a design speed, we establish a target maximum travel speed.” (Marohn, page 41)

On a typical urban street, with stores, offices, schools, restaurants, and many people moving around outside of cars, that target maximum speed should be low: “Traffic needs to flow at a neighborhood speed (15 mph [24 kph] or less is optimum) to make a human habitat that is safe and productive.” (Marohn, page 56)

In recent years there has been a substantial rise in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, even as motorist fatalities have continued a long downward trend. The rising death toll among vulnerable road users was particularly noticeable during and following the pandemic. In Marohn’s words we find a good explanation:

“Most [traffic fatalities] happen at nonpeak times and in noncongested areas. … the traffic fatality rate is much higher during periods of low congestion. This is … because the transportation system is designed to be really dangerous, and traffic congestion, along with the slow speeds that result, is masking just how dangerous it is.” (Marohn, 117)

With many businesses closed and many people working from home, there was much less traffic congestion. And without congestion acting as a brake, people drove faster and more pedestrians were killed. That wasn’t intentional, but it was predictable – it was no accident.

* * *

As Jessie Singer explains, we find an extensive matrix of causes that contributes to “accidents” when we look beyond the individual making a mistake. That matrix very often includes racial and economic inequality, which is why poor people suffer more in nearly every accident category than rich people do.

Both racial and economic factors come into play in the current wave of pedestrian deaths. In the major city closest to me, Toronto, pedestrian deaths occur disproportionately among racialized, poor, and elderly people. These deaths also occur most often on wide arterial roads – stroads – in older suburbs.

Marohn’s words again are enlightening: “as auto-oriented suburbs age and decline … they are becoming home to an increasing number of poor families, including many who do not own automobiles.” (Marohn, page 43) When these residents need to walk across four, five or six lane high-speed arterial roads, the predictable result is pedestrian deaths among the most vulnerable. An obvious, though politically difficult, solution is to redesign these roads to bring speeds down to a safe level.

The inequality that contributes to “accidents” is buttressed in most North American cities by an elaborate legal framework telling people where they are allowed to live and work. That legal framework is zoning. In the next installment of this discussion we’ll look at the history and consequences of zoning.


Image at top of page is in public domain under Creative Commons CC0, from pxhere.

‘Zero crashes, zero congestion, zero emissions’ – the perennial myths of autonomous vehicles

Also posted on Resilience.

For a hundred years the auto industry has held out visions of a trouble-free future for drive-everywhere society – and that future is always about 20 years away. Peter Norton urges us to see the current hype about automated vehicles in the cold light of the failed promises of the past.

American automakers had a problem in the 1920s. Cars were selling well in rural areas, but in the cities – home of a steadily growing share of the population – cars were meeting a lot of resistance.

Autonorama, by Peter Norton, is published by Island Press, October 2021.

Parking was scarce, streets were full of people, drivers usually had to go slow – and they still managed to kill a shocking number of pedestrians. Cars weren’t very convenient in cities, and there was so much public outrage over killings that many cities were considering severe restrictions on car use.

The response, Peter Norton writes in Autonorama, came from the coalition of automakers, car dealers, drivers, oil companies, and road builders he refers to as “motordom”. Their strategy had both long-term and short-term prongs. First, it was necessary to win public acceptance of the radical idea that city streets should be generally cleared of pedestrians so that cars could routinely drive faster. Second, local, state and federal governments had to be persuaded to invest millions, and soon billions, in widening streets and in building entirely new highways, not only between cities but within cities.

These long-term efforts, however, wouldn’t keep sales up in the short term. As Norton explains,

“No matter what the expenditure on roads and highways, in no given year could it deliver marked improvement. What was needed was a clear vision of a more distant and idealized future toward which motordom was striving. The promise of future perfection can buy tolerance of present affliction.” (Autonorama, from Island Press, October 2021, page 29)

To present this “clear vision of an idealized future”, motordom turned to creative minds in advertising, theater and film-making. During the 1930s, GM, Ford and Shell sponsored increasingly elaborate presentations of future cities where everyone drove, everywhere, without a hint of traffic congestion, and in perfect safety. The process culminated in Futurama, by far the most popular exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In Norton’s view, the Futurama template has been revived periodically by motordom ever since. “Autonorama”, the heavily hyped story that “autonomous vehicles” will soon take over our roads, while ending crashes, congestion and emissions, is the latest iteration of a marketing fantasy now several generations old.

By the late 1950’s, one element of the strategy had been largely accomplished: new standards in traffic engineering had enforced auto dominance on streets, and had defined any delay to drivers – caused, of course, by all the other drivers – as an unacceptable cost to all society which should be remedied by public expenditure on roadways. A second strategic element – a vast new highway-building project – had been approved and was under construction.

Yet traffic congestion grew as rapidly as the number of cars on the roads and streets, as did the numbers of crash casualties. It was time for a new round of Futurama, and motordom answered the call with language that remains familiar all these years later.

“General Motors Avenue of Progress” with concept car “GM-X Stiletto” on display at 1964 New York World’s Fair. Photo by Don O’Brien, from Wikimedia Commons.

“Automobile accidents will be eliminated completely”

In a 1958 episode of Disneyland sponsored by the Portland Cement Association, the narrator intones,

“As Father chooses the route in advance on a push-button selector, electronics take over complete control. Progress can be accurately checked on a synchronized scanning map. With no driving responsibility, the family relaxes together. En route, business conferences are conducted by television.” (quoted in Autonorama, page 51)

The specifics of how the nascent electronics industry might accomplish these wonders had to be left to the imagination. No matter. A 1961 Pennsylvania ad campaign assured readers that “the nation’s finest automotive and scientific brains … predict that someday in the future automobile accidents will be eliminated completely.” If that blissful fantasy remained distant, it was not for lack of industry effort. Technology companies, auto makers, and government transportation departments teamed up to construct automated car test tracks in locations around the US. The vision received its most elaborate portrayal in GM’s Futurama 2, the biggest pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

To the extent that newly widened arterial roads were engineered for greater speed, they also became more deadly for all users, including the fewer and fewer remaining pedestrians. And to the extent that officially favored development patterns induced people to live farther away from work, schools and shopping, even more people became car-dependent and the roads filled with congestion as fast as they were built.

As Norton explains, American cars were and remain the least spatially efficient mode of transportation in common use. It never made sense to think that by putting each driver/passenger in a steel box that takes 10 square meters of road space, we would vanquish the problem of roadway congestion. Though a congestion-free car culture could never be achieved, it remained essential for motordom to keep painting the pretty picture – all to keep consumers buying new cars every few years, and to keep politicians authorizing greater public works expenditures.

The road-building boom begun in the 1950s, with “the biggest public works project in history” justified primarily for its supposed traffic congestion benefits. But “Four decades and $100 billion later, GM was claiming that congestion was worse than ever, and getting worse still.” (Autonorama, page 93) The congestion was cited to promote a new round of public spending in what Norton terms “Futurama 3”. Reflecting public concern about the deadly effects of air pollution, the visions also started to promise the elimination of harmful emissions.

In the 1990s the new focus was on “Intelligent Highway-Vehicle Systems”. A decade of work yielded one viable congestion-reducing technology – but it was not a technology the auto industry could support. Electronics had advanced to the point where it was clearly workable to automatically charge road tolls at times of peak use, or within perennially congested areas such as urban cores. Although congestion pricing has now been used to great success in Europe, the practice does not encourage people to buy more cars, and so it was not a strategy American motordom embraced.

The latest and current flourish of car culture futurism is what Norton terms “Autonorama.” Over the past two decades, the emphasis has shifted from “smart highways” to “smart cars,” with a promise that smart cars will soon safely drive themselves everywhere, from the wide-open road to city streets teeming with cars, buses, bicyclists and pedestrians. And today, Norton adds, autonomous vehicle boosters want to sell not just new cars and new roads, but also new data.

Stanford Racing and Victor Tango together at an intersection in the DARPA Urban Challenge Finals. The 2007 contest was the third in a series sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to promote development of automated vehicles. Six of the 11 entrants completed the 96-km course, through a simulated urban environment at the George Air Force Base in Victorville, CA. Photo from Wikimedia Common.

“Social media on wheels”

If you’re one of the tens of millions who start and end each workday with a long, stressful drive, you might not even be aware of one of the major downsides in driving. A 2016 report from consultants McKinsey & Co. highlighted “the greatest single constraint on personal data collection besides sleep: the attentional demands of driving.” There’s the problem: while you are driving you can’t give your full attention to social media!

And that’s no joke, to the huge industry of data collectors and brokers. Time spent looking at the road is time wasted – because while you’re driving, the data hounds are unable to learn much about your likes, dislikes, what you believe, what you watch, what you share, and what you are likely to buy.

In an insightful chapter titled “Data Don’t Drive,” Norton cautions us to think carefully about the business catch-phrase “data-driven.” Data might guide decisions, but data don’t drive decisions – people do. People make decisions through judgment calls, both about the meaning of data, and about which data matter and which data don’t matter.

Where profit-focused industries are concerned, it is not data that matter but monetized data or at least monetizable data. The engines of consumerism are stoked by data from and about people who can spend money, and preferably lots of it. Which data is likely to be worth more: an hour’s worth of smart-phone data from a person standing in the cold waiting for a bus? Or an hour’s data from the in-car digital entertainment system in a state-of-the-art new automated car?

This in-built tendency to reinforce social inequality is at the heart of Norton’s concerns, not only with Autonorama but with the whole history of auto-centered planning. It’s not just that vast sums of public money have been devoted to infrastructure that never comes close to the promise of “no congestion, no crashes.” It’s also that in focusing attention over and over on the needs and wishes of motordom, the needs of those who can’t or won’t drive are systematically downplayed. In the process, industry and government fail dismally to preserve or create safe, efficient, pleasant, healthful, walkable urban environments. The modest expenditures that would make cities safe for non-drivers are declined, while hundreds of billions are spent instead on transport “improvements” that continue to produce more deaths, more congestion, and more pollution.

Norton writes that

“The twentieth century should have taught us that accommodation of expensive transport does not merely neglect affordable mobility; it actively degrades it.” (Autonorama, page 180)

Two decades into the 21st-century, we should heed Norton’s warnings about Autonorama, turn our backs on car culture, and begin the rewarding task of reclaiming urban space for efficient public transit, safe cycling, and healthy and stress-free walking.


Photo at top of page: An official DARPA photograph of Stanley at the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. Stanley, created by the Stanford University Racing Team, won the race and the 2 million US dollar prize. The automated vehicle race was sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Of the 23 vehicles entered in the 2005 running, five managed to complete the 212 kilometer course. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Healthy, peaceful and more equitable – life in the low-car city

Also published on Resilience

“For as long as humans have been living in cities, and until only recently, streets were the main site where children grew up,” write Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett, in the opening pages of their new book Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives. 

Curbing Traffic is published by Island Press, June 2021.

Unfortunately city streets in the twentieth century became unsafe spaces for humans, especially young humans, when so much prime urban real estate was ceded over to cars. The Bruntletts discuss the negative effects of car culture for children, for care-givers, for social cohesion, for social justice, for mental health, for the ability of the elderly to age in place – plus the positive effects in these realms when urban planners carefully and sensibly curb traffic.

In a previous book, Building The Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality (reviewed here), the Bruntletts described the policies and practices that have transformed cities throughout the Netherlands and have turned the nation into a world leader for active transportation. Their new book deepens the analysis from a distinctive personal perspective: two years ago the couple and their two children moved from Vancouver, British Columbia to the Dutch city of Delft.

Visitors to the Netherlands are rightly amazed at the extensive network of dedicated bike lanes which go to every section of every city, as well as through the countryside. But just as importantly, the Bruntletts explain, is how the Dutch deal with myriad residential streets that do not have dedicated bike lanes: these streets must be safe for human interaction, whether that means kids playing games or biking to school, neighbours standing and chatting, elders strolling along while admiring gardens.

“The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality” isn’t really about bicycles. It’s about refusing to sacrifice vast amounts of the public realm to the private automobile; instead reserving space for commerce, community, and social connection. The ubiquitous bicycles are simply a by-product of that larger process; a tool to achieve the end goal of what policy makers call an autoluw (low-car or nearly car-free) city.” (Curbing Traffic, page 4)

Where Building the Cycling City focused on the freedom to bike safely, Curbing Traffic pays more attention to the benefits of a low-car city for those who are not, at any given time, on bikes.

The Child-Friendly City

It starts with children.

Historians of the cycling revolution in the Netherlands cite the key role of the “stop de kindermoord” – stop the child-murders – protest movement nearly fifty years ago. Alarmed and outraged by the ongoing tragedy of children being struck down by motorists, Dutch citizens began what would become a far-ranging reclamation of street space.

Fittingly, the first chapter of Curbing Traffic is entitled “The Child-Friendly City”. Prior to the automobile era, the Bruntletts write, urban children could take care of themselves for hours every day, playing on the street close to home within sight of a parent or trusted neighbours.

The dominance of cars turned that safe space into a violent space. In the words of University of Amsterdam geographer Dr. Lia Karsten, in most cities “cars occupy the street and the space in front of the house. What we see is parents are more afraid because of the danger of motorized traffic. This danger is directly in front of the house, which should be one of the safest places for children.”

Making residential streets safe again for children has involved a complex of modified street  design, driver-responsibility laws, and strong social norms that tell drivers they are guests on these streets. Dutch streets have become, once again, places for socializing for people of all ages. And because the safe space starts right outside most urbanites’ front doors, children can take off on their own to bike to school, to sports fields, libraries and stores.

The success of the famous Dutch cycling lane network, then, depends on people of all ages being able to safely navigate their neighbourhood streets before reaching the cycle lanes along major roads.

Care is essential

Child care is one important type of care work, and the freedom to let children play outside on safe streets is itself liberating for child-caregivers, who tend to be women. That is one advantage a low-car city has in becoming a feminist city, but there is more.

Curbing Traffic notes that historically the traffic planning profession has considered “work” to mean paid work, which in turn has emphasized commuting to full-time jobs away from home. Planners have focused on facilitating these longer-distance commuting trips, which happen once at the beginning of the work day and once at the end.

Care-givers, on the other hand, typically engage in many shorter trips – to a day-care centre, grocery store, or children’s after-school activities. These trips, which often add up to more kilometres per day than a bread-winner’s commuting, are ignored in many traffic planning studies. (“The Canadian census, for example, only asks about journey to work data, as do countless other countries,” the Bruntletts write.) When these trips are made by a care-giver who also works a paid job, they often involve detours on the trip to or from a paid workplace – “trip-chaining.”

Even in cities which are now putting significant resources into cycling infrastructure, the focus is often on the type of major-thoroughfare bike lanes used by bike commuters to get far beyond their own neighbourhood. (As an example, the Bruntletts discuss new cycling infrastructure in their former home city, Vancouver. See also my discussion of the “cycle super-highways” in London, UK, here.)

In most Dutch cities, by contrast, many short trips that go along with care work happen on streets that are just as quiet, relaxed and safe as the dedicated cycle lanes are. That is one important reason that in the Netherlands, in strong contrast to most industrialized nations, the urban cycling population is more than half women.

Car noise makes us sick

The air pollution caused by motor traffic is frequently discussed, for good reason. Less understood, the Bruntletts write, is the pervasive effective of noise pollution caused by motor traffic:

“While air and water pollution tend to receive the most attention from environmentalists, noise is, in fact, the pollutant that disturbs the greatest number of people in their daily lives. It is a universal stressor, one that stimulates the fight-or-flight response in virtually all animals. An astonishing 65 percent, or 450 million Europeans reside in dwellings exposed to levels above 55 decibels, the amount the World Health Organization (WHO) deems unacceptable.” (Curbing Traffic, page 92-93)

The noise falls into two primary categories, propulsion noise and rolling noise. The arrival of electric vehicles, with their silent engines, should significantly reduce propulsion noise. Rolling noise – caused by the friction of tires on surfaces – goes up dramatically with vehicle speed, and is not ameliorated by electric motors. Unfortunately, Curbing Traffic notes, rolling noise is trending worse, “as the automobile industry continues to push out larger and heavier vehicles, which also require wider tires.”

Constant motor traffic noise, which reminds our senses that streets are dangerous places, stimulates a flow of “fight-or-flight” hormones and contributes to stress. This happens whether or not we are “used to the noise.” In the words of Dr. Edda Bild, a soundscape researcher at McGill University, “People who live in big cities are used to the churning sounds of passing cars. But just because we don’t perceive it, doesn’t mean our body isn’t having a physiological response to what’s happening.” As with air pollution, noise pollution tends to be worst in low-income and otherwise disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The ill health effects associated with the pervasive presence of noisy, dangerous vehicles go beyond the physical to the mental. Canadian neuroscientist Robin Mazumder summarizes what urban planners can do to help address the global mental health crisis: “Primarily, we need to eliminate the threat that cars pose. Whether that’s through traffic calming or car-free streets, that’s the first thing I would target.”

Through reflections on their personal experiences and through discussions of the work of diverse urban life researchers, the Bruntletts cover far more  issues than this review can touch on. Curbing Traffic is both entertaining and deeply thought-provoking. Let’s give them the last word.

Living in Delft, they write, has shown them “what is possible when we reduce the supremacy of motor vehicles from our lives and prioritize the human experience.” They add,

“With the right leadership, traffic evaporation policies, as well as those aimed at improving social connection, reducing noise, addressing mental health and equity, and ensuring resiliency regardless of what environmental and health challenges are yet to come, cities of all sizes can provide the quality of life our family now cherishes. We understand why it is so important to have fewer cars in our lives. The critical next step starts today. Now is the time to make it happen.” (Curbing Traffic, page 218)


Photos in this post taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in September, 2018.

The marginal uselessness of muscle-cars

Also published on Resilience

Waiting at a stop-light, sitting on my bicycle while leaning against a telephone pole, ready to step down hard on the pedals, it was only natural to think about the economic concept of “marginal utility”.

I enjoyed my little game of beating fast cars through intersections after stopping for lights. Having taken up biking in downtown Toronto in the early 1980s, I quickly realized that for all the power in their absurdly oversized engines, many, perhaps most, cars could not accelerate their great bulk through an intersection any faster than an ordinarily fit cyclist could accelerate a bicycle. As long as we both started from a dead stop, and as long as I had already downshifted to a torque-maximizing low gear, and as long as I sprinted away the second the light changed, and I shifted gears smoothly at least twice while getting through the intersection, I could make it to the other side before a single car had gotten up enough speed to overtake me.

And when an aggressive driver in an expensive Camaro or BMW did beat me through the intersection, the advantage was fleeting: I would catch up and pass that car, in the typically congested city traffic, before we reached the next stoplight.

In the city traffic game, the marginal utility of each additional horsepower in a car’s engine was awfully close to zero.

All the cars on the road, whether their engines produced 70 horsepower or 370, could move far faster than a bicycle on an open road, and all of them could easily surpass the speed limits on highways. Yet they were all hard-pressed to accelerate from 1 – 20 km/h faster than a bicycle, with its human engine of less than 1/2 hp, could do.1

The marginal utility of the first 10, 20, or 50 horsepower, in pushing a car and its human passenger down the road, was significant. But the next 50 or 100 or 200 hp in a car engine accomplished very little, even on an open road – much less on the crowded city streets where these cars burned so much of their gas.

Following the magazine version in 1973 Energy and Equity was expanded into a small book, which is now available as a free download from various sources including Internet Archive, here. Quotes and page numbers cited in this article are from the Internet Archive edition, as originally published in 1974 by Harper & Row.

These musings on the intersection between physics and economics spurred me to have another look at a curious little book I’d come across a few years earlier – Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity.

Illich was a controversial Catholic priest who eventually settled in Mexico. He published a flurry of books in the early 1970s questioning many of the most cherished practices of “first world” countries. His work was particularly popular in France, where Energy and Equity was first published by Le Monde in 1973.

I briefly attended the school Illich founded in Cuernavaca, Mexico, an experience which enriched my life and challenged my thinking in many ways. Yet Energy and Equity struck me as engagingly odd but hyperbolic on first reading, and it had little immediate impact. That changed when I started to experience city traffic from behind the handlebars instead of behind the steering wheel. Today, more than forty years later, I’m amazed at how clearly Illich summed up both the comedy and the tragedy of industrial society’s infatuation with high-powered travel.

Once I had taken up cycling, and I realized I could accomplish my daily travel routines in the big city as fast on bike as I could do in a car, Illich’s trenchant critique of car culture was no longer threatening – it was a broad beam of illumination.

Illich didn’t fall for the idea that North Americans moved around at 100 km/hr, therefore getting around 10 times as fast as our ancestors had. Instead, he looked at the immense amount of time Americans devoted to building cars, building roads, paying for cars, paying for insurance, washing cars, fixing cars, trying to find parking for cars. To find the true average speed of travel, he said, one needs to tally all the time society puts into the effort, and divide that time into the total amount travelled. Or, you could do the same on an individual basis:

“The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. … The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour.” (page 19)

Car ads, of course, encourage us to think only of that rush of acceleration when we’re able to step on the gas – never of the time spent waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, never of the time we spend earning the wages that go to monthly car payments. But once I’d absorbed Illich’s way of thinking, I could understand how much time I saved by not having a car. In the mid-1980s I calculated that owning and operating a car instead of a bicycle would have cost about six weeks of my wages each year. Getting around by bike, then, meant I could take six extra weeks of annual vacations. Some hardship, eh?

A class structure of speed capitalists

My initial reactions to Energy and Equity, you may have noticed, were rather self-absorbed. They were shaped by Illich’s observations, but equally by my varying degrees of privilege. Male privilege meant I could ride the city streets at all hours without fear of sexual harassment. White privilege meant I could move around the streets openly, for years, and only once be stopped by a police officer (who gave me just a polite scolding). I took for granted the blessings of good health and the ability to find a reasonably well-paid job. Perhaps most significant, bicycling for me was a choice, and I could, if and when I chose, also rent a car, get on a train, or buy a plane ticket to fly across most of the world’s national borders.

Thus I wasn’t as quick to catch on to Illich’s more fundamental critique of car culture and the traffic-industrial complex: that the reorganization of life which affords some people the privilege of high-powered, high-speed mobility, inevitably results in many other people having less effective mobility and less free time. In Illich’s summary, “Energy and equity can grow concurrently only to a point. … Above this threshold, energy grows at the expense of equity.” (page 5)

To explain his viewpoint, Illich gave his particular definitions to three key terms: “By traffic I mean any movement of people from one place to another when they are outside of their homes. By transit I mean those movements that put human metabolic energy to use, and by transport that mode of movement which relies on other sources of energy.” (page 15)

For most of history, traffic and transit were pretty much the same. Most people got around on their own two feet using their own power. As a result people were generally capable of mobility at roughly the same speed. Ideally, Illich said, improvements in traffic should not impair the pre-existing ability of anyone to engage in transit under their own power.

Unfortunately, motorized transport has played out much differently so far. Soon after passenger trains came into use, and particularly following the introduction of motorcars, impediments to the non-passenger class began to be built into daily life. Streets became deathly dangerous to pedestrians, crossings became highly regulated, soon vast areas of cities had to be devoted to parking for the car-owning class, neighbourhoods were razed and new controlled-access highways created wide barriers between districts for those unfortunate enough to depend on foot-power. Distances became greater for everyone in cities, but the problem was worst for pedestrians, who now had to detour to find relatively “safe” road crossings.

This Google satellite view of downtown Chicago shows how infrastructure built to support high-speed travel pushes cities apart, increasing the distances that pedestrians must walk even within their own neighbourhoods. Of course, in Chicago as in all other industrialized cities, the “high-speed” infrastructure still fails to provide high-speeds when these speeds would matter most – during rush hour.

Illich was fond of a quote from José Antonio Viera-Gallo, an aide to Chilean president Salvador Allende: “Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.” By contrast, he wrote, “Past a certain threshold of energy consumption for the fastest passenger, a worldwide class structure of speed capitalists is created. … High speed capitalizes a few people’s time at an enormous rate but, paradoxically, it does this at a high cost in time for all.” (page 29)

It was possible to estimate the total time a society devoted to the construction, maintenance, and operation of traffic. In doing so, Illich found that “high-speed” societies suck up much more time than “underdeveloped” societies: “In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people … allocate only three to eight percent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.” (page 19)

On average, of course, the people in high-speed societies both need to and do travel much farther every day – but the averages conceal as much as they reveal. The well-to-do travel much greater distances than the average, but due to all the infrastructural barriers and regulations necessitated by high-speed travel, even impoverished pedestrians devote much extra time to their daily rounds. (And, just one small step up the ladder, those who need to ride buses in congested cities are held up daily while their buses crawl along behind private cars.)

The traffic-industrial complex not only restructures our cities, Illich said, but it also restructures our perceptions and our imaginations:

“The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. … Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed.” (page 25)

Unfortunately, “All those who plan other people’s housing, transportation or education belong to the passenger class. Their claim to power is derived from the value their employers place on acceleration.” (page 53) The impetus for positive change, then, will need to come from those who still get around by the power of their own feet. In that respect, Illich argued, the bicycle is one of civilization’s greatest advances, on a par with just a few other developments:2 “Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. … The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion.” (page 60) 

Final bike-raising at the April 22, 2006 Critical Mass rally in Budapest, Hungary. From Wikimedia Commons.

Illich, it is important to note, was not a human-power absolutist. In his view, motored transport could be a very useful complement to foot-powered transit. The key, he said, was that when motorized transport remains relatively low-powered and low-speed, its advantages, for society as a whole, can outweigh the disadvantages:

“If beyond a certain threshold transport obstructs traffic, the inverse is also true: below some level of speed, motorized vehicles can complement or improve traffic by permitting people to do things they could not do on foot or on bicycle.” (page 68)

Where is that “certain threshold”? Regarding speed, Illich said that historically, the threshold was crossed when motorized speeds topped “±15 mph” (about 25 km/h). Regarding power, Illich summed it up this way:

“The per capita wattage that is critical for social well-being lies within an order of magnitude which is far above the horsepower known to four-fifths of humanity and far below the power commanded by any Volkswagen driver.” (page 8)3

For personal transportation, that “reasonable limit” on power use struck me as sensible in the 1980s, and even more so today. The VW Beetle engines of that time produced roughly 50 horsepower. Today, of course, automotive engineers know how to get far more efficient use out of engines, even though they mostly use that increased motive efficiency simply to push around a much bigger and much heavier car (increased efficiency, directed to the cause of decreased efficiency). Using lighter materials, with an electric drive-train, and more aerodynamic shaping, a car with less than half the horsepower of a 1980s VW Beetle would be entirely adequate for occasional personal transportation at speeds surpassing bicycle speed. Of critical importance, a limited number of cars powered by, for example, 10–20 hp engines, might be integrated in an equitable society without sucking up absurd quantities of materials or energies.4

Almost 50 years after the first edition of Energy and Equity, some of Illich’s ideas on traffic planning have moved beyond the fringe and almost into the mainstream. Fifty years of hard work in the Netherlands, and in cities such as Copenhagen, have proven that densely populated places function more smoothly, and populations are healthier, when people of every age can walk and cycle through their cities in safety – as long as people-powered transit, not motor-powered transport, is given priority. Even jurisdictions throughout North America are now making formal commitments to “Complete Streets” with safe access for walkers and bikers, though the follow-through is usually far behind the noble ideals.

But as to the amount of energy that average people should harness, and the desirability of “time-saving high-speed travel”, the spell that Illich tried to break has scarcely loosened its grip. Mainstream environmentalism, while advocating a swift and thorough transition to zero-carbon technologies, clings to the belief that we can, will, indeed, we absolutely must retain our high-speed cars and trains, along with the airliners which whisk us around the world at nearly the speed of sound. Nobody knows how we’ll manage some of the major parts of this transition, but nearly everyone “knows” that we’ll need to (and so we will) convert our entire traffic-industrial complex to green, clean, renewable energy.

Illich has been gone for nearly 20 years, but I think he’d say “Wake up from your high-speed dream – it’s a killer!”

* * *

At the outset of this series, I discussed my personal, winding journey to an appreciation of biophysical economics. Ivan Illich is not considered a biophysical economist, or an economist of any stripe, but he played an important role for me in focusing my attention on very simple facts of physics – simple facts that have profound implications for our social organization. In the next installment, we’ll look at energy issues in a different light by examining the way European colonizers embarked on a systematic, centuries-long extraction of rich energy sources from around the world – well before the fossil fuel age kicked energy use into hyperdrive.

Epilogue

If in 2021 I were to replay the cyclist’s game of racing cars from a standing start through intersections, I’d have a lot more difficulty. Age is one factor: I’m a good bit closer to being a centenarian than a teenager. But it’s not only that: the average horsepower ratings of car engines have more than doubled since 19805, though speed limits have not changed substantially and city streets are generally just as congested. A big selling-point of these twice-as-powerful cars, however, is their increased ability to accelerate. Whereas the average car in 1980 took 13 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph (96.6 km/hr), by 2010 the average car could do it in just under 9 seconds – a savings of over 4 seconds! Think of the time saved on your daily commute! Or, in busy city traffic, think of the joy of having extra seconds to wait behind the line of traffic at every stop-light. Think, in other words, of the marginal utility you’ve gained by doubling the horsepower in your car. But is your life twice as fast, twice as rich, do you have twice as much free time, as a result?

As a part-owner of a car today, I can readily see that the joke of the marginal utility of big-horsepower engines is on car buyers, and the car-makers are laughing all the way to the bank.

But as Illich saw so clearly, back in 1973, the joke of high power consumption is also a tragedy. The hyper-powered cars of today (mostly in the shape of SUVs or four-door, five-passenger “trucks”) are even more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists than were the sedans of the 1960s.6 Energy use goes up – and equity goes down.


Photo at top of page: Mansory at Geneva International Motor Show 2019, Le Grand-Saconnex, photo by Matti Blume, from Wikimedia Commons.


Footnotes

Make room for the bus

A review of Better Buses, Better Cities

Also published at Resilience.org

Better Buses, Better Cities, by Steven Higashide, published by Island Press and University of British Columbia Press, October 2019

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

The Fight for Right of Way

Confronting the legal web that enforces drivers’ privilege

Also published at Resilience.org

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.

In a new paper entitled “Should Law Subsidize Driving?” Shill writes:

“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.)

Ironclad suggestions

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.

There is much more in Shill’s almost book-length monograph and it is well worth a careful read. He summarizes the effect of an elaborate legal web of privilege with these words:

“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.

A tale of three cities – cycling in Valencia, Paris and London

Also published at Resilience.org

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.

Coincidentally, while I was in Paris a court decision upheld the closure of these roads to cars, allowing the city to do much more to make these important areas attractive for active, healthy and non-polluting transport.

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.

When good is not enough – extending the bicycle’s reach in The Netherlands

Also published at Resilience.org

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

In their excellent work Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett discuss two areas of focus in efforts to increase bicycles’ modal share. (See the first part of a look at this book here.)

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.)

Electrification

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.

Centuries-old street in centre of Haarlem.

Next week: a look at new cycling infrastructure in Valencia, Paris and London in light of the infrastructure in The Netherlands.

 

Top photo: covered bike-parking facility next to train station in Groningen.


Footnotes

“A third big bicycle parking garage for Utrecht”, 17 April 2018, Bicycle Dutch website

2 Transport and Mobility 2016, Statistics Netherlands, page 19

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

5 National Funding of Road Infrastructure: Netherlands”, US Library of Congress

A modest investment with major dividends: cycling culture in the Netherlands

Also published at Resilience.org

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?

Building the Cycling City, published by Island Press, August 2018

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

First principles for sustainable and equitable transportation

A review of Beyond Mobility

Also published at Resilience.org.

Beyond Mobility, Island Press, December 2017

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.

That is one of the key messages of Beyond Mobility: Planning Cities for People and Places, a survey of urban planning successes and failures around the world.

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


NOTES

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.