Bicycle urbanism should be Utopian and Organic at once.

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It is easy to dismiss bicycle transport as something that will only ever be mainstream in cities where that seems to have always been so, like Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Whether you say that’s due to the age of those cities, their flatness, compactness, politics, customs, religion, climate or whatever else, somehow, you will manage to convince yourself and your friends to ignore those cities as models. Far be it for me to tell you otherwise.

So let’s give looking to Europe a rest, shall we, and look in two other places: 1. to what’s happening in the few bike-friendly parts of car cities, and 2. to a crystalline image of a cycling Utopia that we can only imagine. That way we can work toward a home-spun solution.

Every city has a few off-road cycleways (a.k.a. “trails”) beside waterways or along rail-corridors. For a few people living near these, an opportunity exists to go safely by bike and lessen or eliminate reliance on cars. You see them: students, eco warriors, bike transport enthusiasts, and others riding bikes just to save money. Regardless of motivation these urban trail riders are united by their common mental maps of their cities and their proclivity toward shops, jobs, housing and schools that aren’t too far from their cycleways.

This unplanned, or “organic” phenomenon is so marked in some cities as to have given rise to what can only be described as Bicycle Oriented Development. In other words, we can observe a consolidation of housing and other development adjacent to cycleways, in the same way we see development concentrated near train stations or the exits to highways. The old adage that transport infrastructure is precipitous of new development holds for bike infrastructure as well!

Why then haven’t we seen a wholesale rezoning of land flanking cycleways? Land one block either side of the Minneapolis Midtown Greenway was rezoned to encourage development with greater permissible densities and lower requirements for on-site car parking (see the image below). However, on closer investigation, we see that rezoning was due to the promise of light rail along the rail corridor. Planners in Minneapolis, like planners elsewhere—even in the Netherlands—don’t imagine towns being planned around cycling alone.


This is where a new crystalline vision can help.

Somehow Utopian visions have come to be associated with Stalin or the Third Reich. My own research traces current attitudes to a book by Karl Popper in which he criticises social engineers for the Utopian visions they believe are so right. Architects took Popper’s thinking to heart, when they should have ignored it. In urban design, Utopian visions have always been catalytic.

After they serve their main purpose of provoking discussion, Utopian visions continue to be of worth, as vital touchstones. We know what it means to say development should be predicated upon transit and clustered around stations because we have Ebeneza Howard’s ring of 6 circles as a touchstone notion in our mind’s-eye. We know what it means to plan growth based on sprawl and car ownership, because we have seen Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City proposal in our mind’s eye. Each provides an instant understanding of the rules of a new game. We don’t know what it means to predicate new development upon bicycle mobility though. That is because bicycle oriented development has no Utopian model.


How far am I in developing such a model? The sliding banners at the top of my web site provide a sample of the tools in my kit. Recent blog post also cover some basic concepts, like the idea of a 15km diameter city with virtually no motorised vehicles except for construction equipment, essential services and a few buses for those who really can’t ride.

However, most of the work is going into the next book, that will present a kind of a celestial vision of the ground plane, bike highways, and building types you might find in Velotopia.


  1. Sarah Swift says:

    Bring on the utoptian visions, by all means, but i have to say it also cheers me up when I see basic bike maths given space in a national newspaper, like this report in “Die Zeit” which trots out the prosaic but fairly important information that bikes are the fastest mode of transport for distances up to 5 km, and that electric bikes are the fastest mode of transport for distances up to 10 km, and only insignificantly slower than car transport up to about the 20 km mark.

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