They may well be remembered as the Beta cassettes of bicycle planning. In cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, that retained high bike modal shares when cities elsewhere in the world had lost cycling completely, they were the easiest elements to photograph and adopt. They were viewed as the silver bullet solution.
But in those places where they were replicated, did they actually work?
Yes and no.
They worked the way toilet bowls work when you give them to primitive tribes. Sometimes they were used as intended. At other times they were used as foot paths or car parks, the way toilet bowls often get used as fire places in the third world — here’s an old blog post of mine to explain.
Last week, through a partnership with the International New Towns Institute, I had the opportunity to design a bicycle network for the Guangming new district, just North of Shenzhen. Here’s the thing though: Guangming already has a bicycle network! Virtually every street has been built with a protected cycle track at the side. The problem, as you see in the image above, is those cycle tracks are being used for car parking. Move from the town centre and you will see they are being used to store rubble, and even as sites for police posts. They’re as good as toilet bowls given to remote tribes.
The whole time we were designing a more robust system for Guangming—based on a network of traffic calmed streets and greenways beside rivers and parks—I was wondering: “Why even bother?” Outside of bike advocacy circles, interest in safe cycling networks comes and goes in barely discernible ripples. Meanwhile something far better for cycling is rising like a tsunami: interest among planners in car-free centres and districts. Streets like the one pictured below in Shenzhen are so successful you could expand them like a lattice across the whole city. London is filling with POPs (privately owned places), most of them completely car free. Redeveloped brownfields are invariably oriented around car-free streets at the centre. In many cities so much car free space is being established that it’s likely all to link up long before you will be able to say the same of the so-called “bicycle network”.
Among architects and planners in the two cities I’ve been working in lately, Oslo and Amsterdam, the talk is not about cycle tracks. It’s about stopping cars before they even enter the ring roads. Look what UN Studio are proposing for Amsterdam’s A10 ring road: spiralling park-&-ride centres for motorists to exchange their car for a bike if they want to go into the centre.
Already this interest in car free districts and centres is creating examples like Markveien in Oslo, a street on which a cycle track has been made redundant (the small image on the right shows the before situation). A little redirection of traffic at both ends of the street, and the removal of parking, means the carriageway now belongs to cyclists and the tiny number of motorists remaining are now merely treated as guests. As for the “Copenhagen style” cycle track at the side of the street, well now it’s just a curious curb in the middle of a very wide footpath.
The questions to ask now, are: 1. how can the car-free districts in cities be linked with linear space of the same quality? and 2. how large can car free districts become, before people need cars to move in them? I’m not going to answer either question here in a blog post, not when I’ve just released a new book with both answers!
The question I can answer, is, why are cities going car free? Rarely is it for noble reasons. In Northern Italy, where they have been creating car free centres the longest, it has been for tourists and commerce. In more recent examples, air pollution is the big driver. In cities lacking that blessed raw nerve, the phenomenon will be happening in smaller pockets. Don’t think those pockets are insignificant though. There may be a possibility of joining them up.