Decoupling bike networks from networks for driving.

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.

rozengracht jpg

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 😉


  1. Nik Dow says:

    A usual, your ideas are provocative and intruiging. David Hembrow has made a lot of the ‘unwinding’ of car & bike routes in NL. I myself thought the provision in Copenhagen too close to too many cars, especially those shared right turn lanes.

    One proviso. If the destinations, e.g. shops, eateries, cinemas ppls houses are on car routes, how are cyclists to get there?

    Social safety is also an issue on quiet roads. I have female friends who describe the dilemma of deciding whether to avoid cars by using cycle routes through lonely places after dark.

    I hope my comment not too retarded. CU at Velo City Adelaide. Can you join me at Freestyle Cyclists Helmet Optional Ride? Some good ppl coming, and the drinks after, looking over the ‘always spectacular’ sunset by the sea sounds good.

    • Steven says:

      I wish you would comment more often! Examples like the Minneapolis mid town greenway lead me to think that an ideal bicycling route, if its long enough and away from the cars, will eventually attract enough bodies, and inspire property owners to build some back doors. Leave it to cinema owners and shopping centres to figure out ways to catch bicycling traffic. Until they do, shun them. The real problem we’re left with, is getting to public hospitals that planners have been putting on hill tops during the car age. Bikes on busses, I guess?

    • crank says:

      Steven, I recently noticed the same thing about NL infra after tracking some of Bicycle Dutch’s routes (and frankly dreaming about where I’d live when I move there *wistful sigh*). Melbourne councils end up doing the same by default, because Vicroads refuse to share arterial roads. Some examples are Albert St East Melb, Elizabeth St North Richmond, Canning St Carlton and upcoming Wellington St in Collingwood. Most are still totally car dominated, so hopefully the mix will change with time.

      Problematically, the type of grid layout (forget what it’s called, I think you blogged about them recently) means there are limited through-ways in many ‘hoods. There are few options to travel east-west through Richmond for instance - – meaning indirect routes. Would you say Amsterdam is more permeable in this regard?

      Nik, I am jealous, have fun!

    • Steven says:

      I was just talking yesterday with Harry Barber about cul-de-sacs not being extended with pedestrian lane ways. It’s so important to us that they are! I’ve spent most of my life cycling in Newcastle where we took it for granted that “no-through-road” signs did not apply to us as cyclists. The canal district in Amsterdam has fairly short blocks and lots of bridges, so yes, fairly permeable. They also have very few through-roads for cars.
      I’m having a mental block, but remember I was talking to some urban studies researchers a few years ago, either in Portland or Eugene, who had found cul-de-sac lanes really boosted walking and bike trips to local supermarkets and schools. If you could find it, you could remind councils to include lanes in new subdivisions, and not to sell lanes to people with fences abutting them.

    • crank says:

      where I grew up in Perth, there were many lanes connecting cul-de-sacs and other wibbly roads – excellent.

      I’ve owned two houses now that had ROWs sold off to extend private land, nixing any rear-bike access. Fucking annoying!

    • Steven says:

      I picked this nice quote from Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space: “[i]s it conceivable that the exercise of hegemony might leave space untouched? […] The answer must be no.” But don’t worry, after the revolution, we’ll take all of those rights of way back 🙂

  2. David says:

    Until recently I had no choice but to ride along one of two arterial roads on my journey from home to the CBD in Adelaide. A recently created ‘Greenway’ has been routed along quieter residential streets adjacent to a railway corridor. Yes, the ride takes longer, adding perhaps another 10 minutes to a 40 minute trip. I still use the busier road on occasion when I am short of time, but the major difference is I find that the back street ride is a lot more joyful away from the noise, smell and volume of traffic. Instead of having to be constantly alert to ensure my safety, due to vehicles entering from side streets, trying to access parking spaces etc, and the ridiculous situation of peak time bicycle lanes (in reality nothing more than renaming clearways, to victimise bicycle infrastructure) I now find myself slowing down and enjoying the scenery. Often whistling (quite badly) or even on occasion breaking into song as I ride along without having to concentrate on a tiring form of street battle.
    The ‘Greeenway’ still requires further work to connect it more seamlessly, it also lacks lighting through some areas which makes it less attractive on occasion. It has however provided a vastly different riding experience and enables joy to be had on the ride, it is relaxing and fun; a much valued alternative to dicing with so much that is less pleasurable on the major arterial roads.
    Port Adelaide also has some great places to ride, escape can be had from the noise of traffic by finding a number of shortcuts through historic maritime areas and former wharehouse precincts, a recently constructed recreational loop path has enabled access to the waterfront with a narrow bridge (Birkenhead) being converted to provide separated bicycle facilities, this means cyclists don’t have to use the footpath to feel safe for the first time in over 70 years.
    Information can be found on the Outer Harbour Greenway here,

  3. Colin says:

    Topography plays a big role here. My city of Sydney is both hilly and “unplanned”, with a radial system of main roads based on animal tracks that follow the ridge lines and are relatively flat compared to the steep hills of the side streets.

    We have many waterways, but they are endlessly winding and don’t go anywhere. Those ridgelines, with their arterial roads and all the traffic, are the only way to get anywhere. Banishing cycling from those roads (as it is currently) means banishing cycling from any significant role in the city.

    • Steven says:

      That’s hard to argue with. What about floating cycle tracks on the water, going from point to point, with raised bits or swing bridges to let the boats pass? You have a handful of rail corridors to build over (hardly ideal, but worthwhile as part of the mix.) There are some big parks, but they’re already in the bike network. There’s one unused tunnel running East West out of St James station that could have sunlight pumped down there to make it pleasant. And there are quiet back streets. I would love to see a bike network plan that pieced all these together.

    • Colin says:

      There are parts of the city where a “back-streets” network will work; much of the south and west. But the north and the east are the older, hillier, and more radial parts – bikes need to be on the arterials there.

      The water isn’t a great route because where you meet land you’re at the point of a peninsula, with water on three sides, and a big hill to climb up a narrow ridge that is far from the centre of stuff. Ferries don’t work particularly well here for the same reason.

    • kfg says:

      ” . . . a radial system of main roads based on animal tracks that follow the ridge lines and are relatively flat . . . ”

      The obvious place to put the bicycle routes.

      ” . . .compared to the steep hills of the side streets.”

      The obvious place to the put the routes for vehicles with the power of 100 or more horses.

  4. Connectivity: Connecting cycling to other mobility modes!
    May 7 in Ljubljana: Pascal van den Noort, Executive Director of Velo Mondial will deliver a speech on ‘connectivity’. ‘Connectivity’ is often looked upon as a repair took-kit: where the cycle path disconnects, it will be connected. Pascal brings us to connectivity from a wider angle. He will describe the development of cycling in the last decades and place it’s position in the way mobility has been offered to citizens. Car, public transport and waking have been longer planned and cycling now has to find it’s place and get connected to these modes. Looking at connectivity like this gives it more ‘space’ and will start from the position of the citizen, not just from the cyclist. Various planning methodologies will (only) be touched upon like Barcelona, London, Amsterdam, Groningen. His speech is about the emancipation of cycling planning.

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