Cycling’s Invisible Hand in Spatial Production

Urban planning works something like this: a local government learns the national government is about to spend billions on a piece of road or rail infrastructure that will improve travel times to some land in their boundaries. Planners are called in to tell the local government what kind of housing and shops will bring the local government the biggest increase in land tax from all the new people who might live and shop there.

Each of these types of infrastructure, the train and the highway, has a corresponding model of spatial production that is automatically imbibed when a highway or train line is the trigger for planning. In the case of the highway, it’s a model that hasn’t changed much since millions were dazzled by the Futurama exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Asphalt for driving and parking occupies much of the ground plane, pushing all the new buildings much further apart. Nice if you like looking out of your window at traffic.

The model corresponding to trains involves piling new buildings on the head of a pin, the way you see them piled up  around grand central station, New York. If that gets too much, then planners start stacking them along light rail or bus feeder lines radiating out from the station. By the time you get from your home to your office you will have lost count of all the machines you have ridden: trams, trains, buses, escalators and lifts.

In each case the national government arrives on the scene like King Midas, turning land into gold with their touch. But at least King Midas was ashamed when he saw what he’d done—when he looked and saw no one was moving.

That’s what these models of planning all do. They introduce machines to the city that block each other’s smooth passage, in turn blocking people not using machines, for example people on bikes and people just walking. The answer, you might think, is to scale the city to the machine, in other words make it the size of a sprawling new world/North American city. You could, but the cost of maintain the power lines and sewers, not to mention all of the roads, is more than a city can generate from its taxes—unless it is Silicon Valley.

Then how about putting the machines underground like they did with the subway in New York and Paris? You can, but to afford that investment you need millions of high earning people willing to live really close together, closer than rich people are willing to live anywhere except New York and Paris.

What we have is a big government model of urban planning that seems to have the same paralytic effect on the city that big government spending can have on economies generally. This leads us to ask what would happen if the government spent nothing on transport and instead just provided some common-good ground-rules.

One city that suggests this could be the way is the Randstad. We overlook it as a city because its boroughs have green space between them, so are called “cities”. Those “cities”—that we ought to call boroughs—are Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, the Hague and a few smaller centres between. The Randstad, though, is the city, with daily commuting from one end to the other, especially among students and specialist workers.

The Randstad’s main population centres are old and impossible to tunnel under or through to provide infrastructure for driving or metros. The region is characterised therefore by dense buildings without any parking, streets so narrow they make drivers look foolish for even trying, and trains sprinting city-to-city.

On the face of it, too little infrastructure for machines has been built to link the Randstad’s population of 7,000,000. What you’re not seeing if you say that is the invisible hand of bike transport. In the same way as Adam Smith said people will find any means available to them to exchange money and trade, the people of a city will find any means available to them to physically connect for that purpose. Where they’re not prevented by machines that don’t fit in the city, they will meet face to face using bikes. Bike are just too reliable, flexible and fast for people to ignore, if they want to meet people.

Calling cycling an “invisible hand” helps explain why even the Dutch haven’t built around cycling, the way we do around driving with building that have internal access garaging, or around trains with elevator buildings towering on the head of a pin. In fact it has only been in the past decade that the Dutch started building fast-in and fast-out parking stations for bikes near their train stations. Their new building stock, with its basement garaging, is an indication that the Dutch think they’re rich enough now to turn the Randstad conurbation into Dallas-Fort Worth.

The real winner will be the city that doesn’t hold on to such illusions, and, even if they did become a bunch of rich Texans, would choose to spend their money more wisely. I’m working in Bogota at the moment, and thinking about what I might say at my lecture tomorrow. I feel like congratulating on how little they’ve done with wide roads and public transport, especially in the poor South of the city where I’m helping out with the a vision for a new bike-centric school.

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