Roundup of 7 contrarian views

I don’t know about you, but I am really quite taken by the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain’s “great big” bike blog roundups. What a fabulous chronicle of the cycling renaissance! One day someone will get their PhD in urban design history just by working back through it.

My own modest contribution to that history has been to provide some intellectual relief from the same-old same-old parroting of Jan Gehl and Enrique Peñalosa. I’ve been feeling a bit down these past couple of days, hating what I have been writing, hating the look of my belly in lycra, hating not owning a dual suspension mountain bike, and so on and so forth. Lots of hate an attendant feelings of listlessness. So I am going to see if a self-aggrandizing blog post can’t make me feel better.

1.

For it is I, my dear ninipoops, who first mentioned this Harvard Study in a bike blog post. It shows how walkable cities don’t help populations once obesity is already present. Once people have become overweight they generally don’t walk briskly enough to increase their metabolisms. Read the study and you will see why bicycling environments are the only environments capable of addressing obesity in populations. I wish I lived in one!

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I know for sure that bicycling advocates have not read this study, because, if they had, they would not be making petty arguments about traffic congestion and local shop patronage to persuade local governments to spend money on bike infrastructure. They would be going to state and national governments with our silver bullet solution for the obesity crisis.

2.

While I’m patting myself on the back I’ll remind you who said Google are using Henry Ford’s playbook. It was me. I said that. They want to seize the street for the exclusive use of driverless taxis. We can all say goodbye to the street for our cycling if they succeed. Give them ten years and they will be accusing cyclists of endangering the blind and disabled by causing their taxis to suddenly brake. They’ll install bike carriers for us on the backs of their taxis. Fan-freakin’-tantastic.

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And just in case no one else has said so already, I’ll just let you know that the image of Copenhagen is about to dramatically change once planned non-vehicular bridges over the lakes and the river introduce a second kind of street to their road matrix. Instead of a handful of streets funnelling all modes (foot, bike and car) to a handful of bridges, parallel streets are about to fill up with bikes. The decoupling will bring an end to the pretence that funnelling every mode down those streets that have shops has been done so that cyclists would not be deprived of the same level of access and feelings of citizenship. They will be relegated to bike streets. The sough dough bakeries and bike shops will just have to move.

Copenhagen-Cyclists3-Credit-Copenhagen-Cycle-Chic

4.

While I’m on the subject of Utopian-Copenhagen (a place far far away where everything is just perfect, they say) let me lay claim to this observation as well: their cycle tracks don’t work in Australian city centres. They work in the Avenues of New York, but these don’t have driveway crossing every 20 meters like the lengths of a city block in Australia. During peak hour in Sydney, lines of bikes can look like lines of tin ducks being fired upon by car drivers shooting in and out of huge basement garages.

kent street cycle track jpg

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Australian city centres need the “woonerf” (or living yard) concept, not cycle tracks, and would be heading that way if we had listened to someone from the Netherlands instead of Jan Gehl. I’m proud to say my own home town of Newcastle took a woonerf approach with Hunter Street Mall.

5.

When I think of moving to Holland, I think of the arguments I would get into with Dutch bike transport enthusiasts, who I’m telling you now are the greatest barrier to cycling achieving more than just a measly quarter of that nation’s mode share. They love the rain and bike theft for the very same reason John Forrester loves cycling with cars up his arse. Overcoming obstacles signifies their devotion. When I suggest ways to remove every last inconvenience from the built environment, so that even the lazy and vain want to cycle, they fear I will steal the source of their pride.

Still, I would find something to argue about wherever I lived. I’ve just had a “conversation” with an Australia Post worker who, from now on, is going to be a better example to other van drivers by not blocking footpaths. I should follow his advice too. “Go get a life.” I might do that. A life as a footpath crusader!

6.

What I really love about the Netherlands, is how even their low density suburbs are built on a bike mobility platform. Cycling is more than just a way to move people through a dense urban core. It was fostered in the seventies as a way to reduce the nation’s dependence on oil. Because elsewhere they don’t have the same goal, the rest of the world is not “going-dutch”. It is simply looking for solutions to economic decline and congestion in nineteenth-century city centres. That’s why city leaders are more interested in nineteenth-century Copenhagen, than eighteenth-century Amsterdam. They’re not looking for the best bicycling cities, but comparable cities to their own, that don’t have the congestion. As bike nuts we can be a bit skewed in our reading.

7.

To conclude, it was me who said eBikes reduce the speed of bike transport, by complicating the tight situations in which bicycling thrives. Think of it this way: would electric assist hinder or help cyclists negotiate a simultaneous-green intersection? It’s fine in the suburbs, but electric assist ought to be prohibited in city centres.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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11 Responses to Roundup of 7 contrarian views

  1. Nick zintilis says:

    Love the article,do not agree with your view on e-bikes. For me they reduce car traffic. Nick-Amstelveen-Holland

  2. user1 says:

    You say that e-bikes reduce speed of bike transport, but you don’t seem to have any evidence supporting this, you just use the analogy of cars (they are faster on empty roads, but in cities they cause more congestion than bikes).

    But cars aren’t so inefficient just because they can achieve higher maximum speed. In fact, car lanes have the highest capacity when cars go at 50 km/h: http://velobuc.free.fr/images/CourbeFluxVitesse.jpg

    Cars are slow in cities because they take up much space. So I think you’d better discourage the use of cargo bikes, for example. Because they are wide, heavy, they “reduce speed of bike transport” etc.

    As for simultaneous green junctions. Maybe we should ask David Hembrow if growing use of e-bikes among older people has led to bicycle congestion on these junctions in Assen (I guess he hasn’t seen any difference). But if this is the case, then some improvements can be made – for example, a bicycle roundabout can be painted on the junction, problem solved. The maximum legal speed at which electric assistance can work is 25 km/h – and it’s really slow! It’s almost an ideal speed for the bicycle and that’s why such laws have been passed in the EU.

    As for banning electric assistance in city centres – because of what, safety reasons? OK, but please ban cars first everywhere where accidents occur (or can occur).

    In my town there are no junctions suitable for simultaneous green – we have roundabouts instead. There are some hills and IMO an e-bike is the most practical means of transport for many journeys. That’s why more and more people will use it. Even in cities with many simultaneous green junctions.

    • Steven says:

      My focus is the design of new cities and districts and the buildings that go within them. Should I design for a city with e-bikes, or a city with no e-bikes? If its the latter, I can bring bikes into buildings, and argue that the city will have weight loss benefits. If it’s the former, then we might as well keep designing sprawling cities and not making use of bikes as shopping trollies, for instance.

  3. user1 says:

    Cities should be designed for a variety of transportation options, like walking, cycling, e-cycling and public transport. Especially the last one means that compact urban development is preferred. E-bikes definitely don’t benefit from sprawl. Maybe cars do, because they need more km of roads per capita (which means less cars per km of road). But e-bikes don’t need more space than non-electric bikes. E-bike is just a kind of a bicycle which older people can ride even if they’d have difficulties with walking, which you can ride in hilly cities just as easy as in flat ones, and which you can ride at 25 km/h using power required to walk instead of 15 km/h. That’s it. They can use the same infrastructure as regular bikes, they just utilise it better.

    “I can bring bikes into buildings (…)”
    “not making use of bikes as shopping trollies”

    I don’t quite understand what you mean by that? E-bikes can be easily stored inside buildings (they can be pushed up the ramps on stairs easier because you can use electric assistance without pedaling for speed up to 6 km/h) and they are even better for shopping, because you can carry heavier load without additional effort.

    As for health benefits – in case of regular bikes, the harder you pedal, the faster you go and the more time you save. In case of e-bikes, the harder you pedal, the more battery energy (and money) you save. In both cases most people would prefer using power comparable to walking (so that they don’t sweat, for example). However, when you have an e-bike you can make much more journeys with sufficiently low effort. Because of this, people can choose an e-bike instead of a car in cases when they wouldn’t use a regular bike. Also, e-bikes can help many people live car-free, so health benefits can be greater.

    You mentioned a study concluding that cycling is more strongly associated with weight loss than (slow) walking. However, the study was conducted in the US, where bikes are mainly used for recreation. When people cycle as a sport, they usually use more energy, so it’s no surprise that they’ve lost more weight. On the other hand, when bicycles are used for transport, they need to require about as much effort from people as if they’d walk (and this is the case in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark). Higher effort is unacceptable for most people. Walking is the most natural mode of transport, so if any other mode requires about the same power, it’s definitely healthy.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks for that. They are all useful correctives that do help me clarify thoughts. 3 little points back to you: 1. pedalec enthusiasm is out of control. I rode one and was horrified by the amount of kick it had in it, especially from a standing start. 2. I’m talking about riding bikes inside, not wheeling them. In urban growth districts the mega mall is the new town centre. Unless people are allowed to ride inside, they will find it easier to drive to these places. That is my main argument against electric assist. 3. hypothetically, riding at 15kpm requires the same effort as walking, but not really. Starting and stopping, and tackling rises means it averages out to be a higher output activity. The myth of Dutch transport cycling is it is lazy, always and in all cases.

    • crank says:

      “The myth of Dutch transport cycling is it is lazy, always and in all cases.” I’m coming to the same conclusion. More so as I lose my ‘cycling pride’.

    • user1 says:

      Being able to cycle inside the shopping mall would be nice (though it turns out that it’s not necessarily allowed in the Netherlands (http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2014/09/does-free-car-parking-make-people-drive.html?showComment=1410283515323#c4672061781603802523), but I hope it will be, just like in normal pedestrianised areas). However, pedelecs are legally classified as bicycles, so why would someone explicitly prohibit them, but not other bicycles? Limitations on pedelecs are constructed so that they don’t cause more nuisance than regular bicycles, just the source of energy is different. As David Hembrow says, e-bikes are treated equally with other bikes everywhere in the Netherlands.

      When people cycle in pedestrianised areas, they adapt the speed to the amount of pedestrians and the same must be true for e-cyclists – they are just as normal people. That you have an electric assistance doesn’t mean that you have to ride at 25 km/h all the time, you can choose as low speed as you want (you must have full control of it like in any normal vehicle, unless you have some rubbish e-bike…) or even turn off the motor completely.

    • Steven says:

      The real answer is to require people to switch off the e-assist in city centres, and inside buildings, and hold them doubly liable if they are found to have had it turned on at the time of an accident. I would also like to offer them free classes in essentialist aesthetics and taste.

  4. davidhembrow says:

    I don’t understand your strong stance against e-bikes (i.e. pedelecs limited to 25 km/h). Here in the Netherlands they simply make no difference at all so far as other cyclists are concerned, but they do help older people and those with disabilities to continue to cycle.

    I see no reason at all why e-bikes make a difference to how a city should be designed. They work very well on existing cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands – i.e. the infrastructure which provides the example that the world ought to be copying from already. The only thing which might be worth considering is charging points. Almost all privately owned cafes in NL (especially out in the countryside) have already installed charging points because they know that a large percentage of their clients are retired people with e-bikes. They’re also increasingly common at cycle-parking facilities within cities.

    As for speed, e-bikes are neither fast nor slow. 25 km/h is quite average. On a study tour last week we followed a few average cyclists and found that a fair proportion sustained around 28 km/h. I don’t mean “fast” cyclists, but people riding normal looking Dutch utility bikes riding single handed with handbags over their handlebars and speaking on their mobile phones. You see smartly dressed people doing this. i.e. those going out in fancy clothes to somewhere that you wouldn’t want to arrive sweaty.

    People are quite capable cyclists because they do it a lot. They’re not “slow”. The idea that the Dutch cycle slowly is very much a myth, often based on inaccurate assumptions about the practical and reliable style of bikes that people ride. No-one would buy into the concept of “slow cycling” here because they’ve all got somewhere that they’re heading to.

    As for woonerven – that’s a term which really should only be applied to a design of residential streets popular in the 1970s and early 1980s in the Netherlands. For the street that you feature above, the more likely treatment would be “autoluwte” or nearly car free. But if there’s through traffic, that’s not suitable. You then really do need cycle-paths, and you need to sort out your side-roads so that they do not cause a problem.

    There are Dutch cities which date from every period of history. Indeed, my city, Assen, has roads and buildings which date from every century from the 11th through to the present day. All of it has been made to work so far as cycling is concerned. Apart from the infrastructure in the very newest parts of the city (i.e. further from the centre), everything here is retrofitted.

    • Steven says:

      Hi David, yes, I think a “nearly car free” approach would be better in sydney, i.e. turning a lot of the streets into dead-ends to stop through-traffic. Thanks for that! But if you take a minute to drop your google earth peg-man down for a street view of any Australian city, you will see there really are driveways crossings every 20 meters of so. Cycle tracks here effectively have uncontrolled vehicular intersections every 20 meters. In Sydney, many of these service quite enormous basement garages, cut into the sandstone.
      As to my reflections on eBikes, you will never appreciate my design-based point of view because I’m being Rationalistic with my line of thinking, and you’re typically positivistic in yours. For you, the Netherlands provides the best observable model of bicycle urbanism, end of story. I couldn’t keep my job as an architectural educator and theorist if I took on your epistemology, and you would lose your efficacy as a bicycle advocate if you took on mine. Potato potarto :)

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