This essay was first published in February 2018 for paid subscribers to my Patreon site. It became the basis of a number of public lectures I would give in Oslo, a city that because of its wealth and ecological consciousness, is fast becoming a model for urban planning. Because of that wealth, and the abundance of hydro power for electric vehicles, they have naturally been looking to driverless cars. The thinking in this essay represents my attempt to get Norway thinking more about old tech, namely, pushbikes and trains. They haven’t abandoned wool for nylon for keeping warm. There is a chance they will show the world, by their example, that old technology provides a better basis for urban planning as well.
Urban mobility (which beats gridlock, let’s face it) is on the brink of some paradigm changes. Autonomous Vehicle (AV) technology could eliminate traffic lights and car parking in cities, or let us live miles out and sleep or work while we’re commuting.
VR could mean office teamwork from home. You could look like you’re working while you’re actually at home in your quaint urban village…
…or better still, work from an actual village, since geographical separation won’t be important.
Then there are advances which are not technological, the rise of bike transport for instance. In the same way that wool and feather down came back after synthetics, bicycling is returning as the city planner’s down-home tool for short trips.
All this comes at a time when cities with one name—Paris, London, New York, or whatever—are seeming like relics. I mean, here’s the real Paris:
Today’s economic juggernauts have names that have hyphens like Taipei-Taoyuan, Dallas–Fort Worth and Seoul-Incheon:
Sometimes the conurbation—or “polycentric urban area”, or whatever you want to call it—has been honoured with a name of its own, like the Ruhr Area (comprising Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg and Bochum) or the Randstad (comprising Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and the Hague).
From the large cities and regions just mentioned, three exemplify some approaches to city planning that deliver good trip times for populations of more than five million (a size that permits specialisation). They are: New York,
and the Randstad.
New York is a great example of what you can do with a subway and high density living. The downfall is the densities are extreme. If you built the same city again, somewhere else, with so many apartments with so little sunlight, the aspirational middle classes would not want to move there.
Dallas-Fort Worth is a great example of what you can do with expressways and cars. Its downfall is all that car driving and road wear is costly, monetarily, to the planet and to people’s health.
Spotlight on the Dutch bike/train miracle
The Randstad isn’t as well known as the previous two for it’s fast average trip times, having only recently won them. It sounds too simple, but the key was convenient parking for thousands of bicycles at their train stations.
Cyclists already had priority in the road matrix, they just needed safe places to offload their bikes when they got to the train and a convenient way to borrow a bike from the station near their destination.
Now that those missing links have been fixed (just google “fietsenstalling” and “OV-fiets”) residents of the Randstad have become a population as large as New York’s, also getting places quickly by train. The critical difference is they are living across an area the size of Dallas-Fort Worth, with all the sunshine and access to green space that being spread out can afford them.
The Randstad serves as a prototype for a new kind of region as others turn their minds to driverless cars. However, as a prototype, it is only of use if it can be copied. Where in the world is that most likely to happen?
Oslo: a region the world is now watching.
As the new technologies combine with lessons like the Randstad’s, Oslo will be closely watched by the world. Other regions will be faster growing and most will have more typical climates, but the region of Oslo—incorporating neighbouring cities like Drammen, Moss and Lillestrom—will have sovereign wealth funds, ecological aspirations and a strong democratic constitution behind it. It will be a lodestar for sustainable planning worldwide and everyone knows it: in the next year alone it will host not one, but four major international conferences related to environmental design.
How the Oslo region could simply emulate the Dutch miracle
The neighbouring municipalities of the Oslo region are well placed, right now, to copy the Randstad. Lillestrom is already a fine cycling city. Drammen will only get better as urban consolidation continues on flat lands near the river. As for the largest and most central city in the region, Oslo itself, well… while it isn’t completely car-free, it now has so many boom gates, tolls, bollards and parking restrictions that a cyclist arriving from some city like London could think all the streets were actually bikeways. Car traffic has been thinned to such a degree that you would have to be a local bike advocate to be bothered by it.
Oslo has also seen a tenfold increase in sales in electric-assist cargo bikes, thanks to a grant scheme halving their cost.
With more initiatives like those throughout the region and some new innovations to make Winter cycling more cosy, thousands could be getting to central train stations throughout the region in a fraction of the time it takes them on trams.
Anyone living within bicycling range of an express train stop could be teleporting their bike ride to any other such point in the region. Their bike commute—interrupted only by a few minutes on a platform then some train travel and grabbing a share bike for the last leg—could be giving them access to hundreds of square kilometres, not just the few dozen surrounding their home. That’s how it works in the Randstad.
It’s an approach that passes the scalability test, too. If everyone did it, the system would cope. In fact it would thrive, with the frequency between intercity trains getting shorter and shorter—as they’ve been seeing in the Netherlands.
The only limitation, that the Dutch will need to soon implement too, is that Norwegians might have to pay if they want to park their own bikes at train stations, to encourage them to use the rail company’s fleet.
Or Oslo could gamble on driverless cars
What would it look like if everyone used driverless cars? Aside from the motion sickness, price for a ride, resource intensity, road wear, obesity and their use against humans when we go to war with AI, driverless cars could work throughout much of the region.
However, just as it is with conventional cars, driverless ones will cause hell around places where people gather: office districts, theatres, train stations, universities, concert venues, stadia, swimming spots, etc.. That’s where they will start coupling like the cars of a train.
Moving fast and bumper-to-bumper, they will be like the blades of a fan to any pedestrian or cyclists venturing into their path.
Streets where this happens will need to be fenced and underpasses installed for people walking or cycling to cross.
Which mode(s) will guide urban planning?
The simplistic answer to the problem that AV can’t be scaled is to say it should simply have restrictions placed on it. It is simplistic because it doesn’t answer the big question facing regions, like Oslo, and all through the developing world, where the population is growing. What designers of new development districts want to know, is whether they should be designing for driverless cars, or the bike-train-bike combination, or both?
If it is to be for driverless cars, they should carry on much as they have been, with lift and stair access buildings underpinned by geometries and infrastructure that optimise the flow of sealed capsules on wheels.
If it is to be for cycling to train stations, they might try something new: spiralling buildings that make it easy to ride in and out, and perhaps covered bike routes that protect cyclists from rain. The following 9 images point to the range of possibilities:
In looking at these bike-centric designs, it helps to understand how modes of transport are like “invisible hands” shaping buildings and cities. Consider the way office towers cluster near central train stations. The tall office tower is a building type that was invented for locations where thousands arrive every few minutes. Every business wants an address within a short walking of one main arrival point in the city.
Or consider how garden suburbs follow tram lines as they snake their way over hills. Low density sprawl was not even in the city planner’s repertoire prior to the advent of urban rail transit.
Then there is the example we all know too well, that of the free standing house with a built-in garage. It could not have existed without widespread car ownership and the freeing of farmland for the house-and-car lifestyle.
So which will it be? One or the other, or both?
Pluralistic and relativist thinking
Those who consider themselves pluralists would object to the claim that it ought to be one or the other. “It’s not either/or”, they would say, but “both and all”. In other words, designers should be thinking of cycling, AV, on-demand public transport, walking and even privately owned oil powered cars. There are a few problems, though, with an even-handed approach.
First, there’s the philosophical problem that even-handedness—nice as that sounds—is not really pluralism in action. Pluralism tells us to accommodate all points of view that are ethically defensible. But motordom isn’t. Since the 1920s it has been polluting the air, making its patrons safe to travel at speeds that jeopardise the safety of others and greedily consuming urban and rural space.
No example better illustrates the poor ethics of motordom than the “suicide door”. It’s a type of car door that makes motorists the victims of their own negligence, which seems fair enough, really.
These days car designers laugh that anyone should ever have made such an ethicaldoor. What they make now (though they don’t name them as such) are “murder” doors. Door with hinges on the leading edge, instead of the rear one, make innocent cyclists the victims when drivers fail to look in their mirrors.
Driverless motordom may reduce externalities. No one has said it will absorb them—and I note the google car has “murder doors”. Accommodating such an unethical industry would not show that we’re pluralistic or tolerant. It would show us to be relativistic and intellectually lazy.
Then there’s the problem of designing swiss-army-knife cities, ones that do everything poorly, because no one could decide if the tool they required was driving, walking, train travel or cycling.
Let’s be clear about this. When architects and city planners are designing for driving, they are compromising things of great value to cities, like walking and cycling, for the sake of a mode of next-to-no worth within cities at all. Look at all of these cyclists stopped at traffic lights in Copenhagen, for the sake of—count them—no more than six people in cars!
Were it not for those 6 selfish people (who if they were crippled or blind could be riding in golf buggies in the bike flow, rather than those powerful missiles) the traffic lights could be removed. Take those traffic lights away, and conditions for cyclists would be as they were in the twenties. They didn’t have eBikes, or even gears, yet trip times were faster for Copenhageners then, than they have been for all the generations to follow.
Designing for driving works against cycling and ultimately leads toward Dallas-Fort Worth, a model that is costly, monetarily, and to our planet and health.
Where does designing for walking lead? There are two possibilities. Without great public transport, it leads to a city of “villages” as we call them if we are rich and live near the good jobs, or what we call “ghettos” if we live anywhere else. Alternatively, if we want to house millions of people within walking distance of an efficient subway, we need densities like we see in New York, a city so dense that only poor people would want to live in its copies.
Designing for cycling and intercity train travel leads to the Randstad, a model with desirable housing and fast connections for seven million.
The aim ought to be to build an even more deliberate Randstad—not a Swiss army knife, but a knife. My latest book Velotopia shows that it easier to accommodate those who can’t cycle in a city built around cycling than one that caters to everyone as though they’re disabled, so you needn’t be concerned about the blind or the frail being forgotten. In our hierarchy of concerns, cars would come right at the end, being tools we collect at the edge of the city for going out into the country.
A new sustainable model of urban growth
If the Oslo region can do that—and the common-good thinking and culture of free speech that permeates life there suggests that it might—it won’t just be helping itself. It will be showing the rapidly developing regions of Asia, Eastern Europe and South America that there are alternatives to highways and cars for connecting large regions.
The importance of this? Transportation is one of the biggest emitters and proportionally getting worse as buildings and industry become more efficient. If the developing world copies the American model, global temperatures and sea level rises will spiral out of control.
What Oslo can do for the planet, is show that the Randstad model can be improved upon and repeated. While ever it is something that has only occurred in a flat country, developing nations will have little interest in the Randstad model. They won’t be concerned with cycling to stations. They will be concerned with freeways and cars. We need Oslo to show them that there is a new way.
And it is one, we must always remember, that begins with a road matrix that doesn’t endanger, slow or inconvenience cycling, and that uses architecture to ensure bike trips flow smoothly and comfortably from beginning to end.
If you have found this article helpful, please share it and ask those in your network to consider patronising my work. My work is too focused on building for mobility journals and too focused on mobility for journals of architecture and urbanism, so can’t be the focus of cloistered academic career. That’s why I left my tenured university position to be an independent researcher and freelance consultant. You would appreciate too that I write for a very particular audience: those working in design offices, development firms and city planning, who share a belief in bike transport as a tool for wellbeing. With all of you as patrons, I could devote even more time to researching and sharing knowledge in a form that might change things.
This essay was written just before I visited the completed bike parking facility in Utrecht. Seeing it and meeting with many involved in its planning, totally changed my mind about parking at train stations. It shouldn’t happen. The more scaleable solution, counter-intuitive as it may seem, is to take bikes on board specially designed train carriages. I don’t mean carriages designed for sitting, with seats removed. I mean carriages designed for everybody to board with their bike, with gull-wing walls on both sides that totally lift out of the way.
In coming months I will share some essays on that topic here on my free blog. For just $2, you can read those plus many other essays on my patreon site.