I was treated to a very illuminating tour of Amsterdam a few weeks ago, by Pascal van den Noort from Velo Mondial. He showed me something about Amsterdam that I really hadn’t noticed myself, despite many visits, and which runs counter to idealised notions of european modelled good urbanism.
Stop reading for a moment, and go type “Copenhagen” into Google Maps. Zoom in a little. Note the main streets. Now click on the bicycling layer. You will see the protected cycle tracks and the main roads are aligned. Cyclists have the same image of their city as everyone else.
Now type in “Amsterdam” and follow those same steps. You will see significant networks for cyclists and networks for drivers are quite often out of alignment.
There are the streets we all rave about, where the car is the guest or where there are safe cycle tracks, but there are also car-centric streets where the cyclist is deliberately made to feel very unwelcome.
Copenhagen has far fewer bridges than Amsterdam, and a lot of large perimeter blocks with no lanes cutting through. Were it not for the limited number of thoroughfares via which all modes of traffic have to be funnelled, I think they would have decoupled bike routes from car routes and gotten cyclists away from the the fumes and the noise. In some ways they are decoupling the two, gradually, with non-vehicular bridges and park connectors, but those are exceptions to the general rule.
And that rule is a compromise solution. Sure, you can post-rationalise it as giving everyone the same “image of the city”. In his 1960 book of that title Kevin Lynch said a man [sic] would need to know his city by the same pathways as everyone else to “operate successfully within his environment and […] co-operate with his fellows” (Lynch, 1960, p.46). That’s fine while ever you’re taking about cyclists and pedestrians who are engaged with their surroundings. But drivers are only looking at road signs and each others bumpers. Their blurred image of the city might as well be of an underground tunnel.
For now though, let’s just allow drivers to keep the streets they have turned into Vegas, with their big signs, petrol stations, and metered parking spaces in front of their horrible shops. I’ve seen too many ideologically driven, but misguided bicycling advocates, campaigning for years for bike space on those streets. Their “big win”, after years of campaigning, is usually the kind of unwelcoming door-zone cycle track that Amsterdam would provide on a street where cyclists aren’t meant to feel welcome.
The way forward is by decoupling, finding what I call the city’s natural cycle space layer, and accepting that cyclists will have an alternative cognitive map of their city. I’m so glad to see London finally looking to formalise the networks of backstreets and waterways that long-term bike commuters have known for so long.
Speaking now to the entrepreneurs among you: you should be developing property and opening up shops along those cycle space routes. I’m not sure how you will pay me for this advice. You’ll think of something.
I’m sorry to any regular readers who may have been disappointed by the infrequency of my posts lately. If you look at my news page, you will see I’ve been pretty busy; let’s be frank, my big idea of making bicycle planning the focus of my work as an architectural theorist and designer, has taken off big time.
As for my writing time, in coming months a lot of it will be spent working on my next book, that I met with my publishers last month to plan. You can help me that, with intelligent feedback on blog posts. Most of the comments I get are retarded