How to know if your city can be a bike city.

Soon after cars started re-shaping cities and patterns of urban settlement, Sigfried Giedion published his highly influential book Space, Time and Architecture  (1941) around the idea that the new way of measuring distance using units of time (as we might if we said San Francisco is a 6 hour drive from Los Angeles, not 400 miles), meant architects were no longer seeing space in cartesian terms. They were seeing cities and buildings in 4 dimensions, much as Einstein had seen space.

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There is an irony though, that while national highways and drive-in buildings like the Villa Savoye were shrinking the time separating points on the map, car travel was increasing the time it takes for people to connect with each other in cities. Paul Tranter has shown that effective car speeds in cities like New York or London have dropped to 7km/h, only slightly better than walking, and less than half the effective speed of a bike trip in Copenhagen.

Where our aim is to reduce the time between any two randomly selected points on a map, motor vehicles may well be the answer, but where our aim is to reduce the time that separates any two randomly selected people in a dense city, the humble bicycle is often the better platform for urban mobility.

We know it would be healthier, greener and cheaper for individuals and for governments if bicycling were the dominant mode. What we can’t be sure of are which cities would or would not be quicker to catch up with a friend in if they were bicycling cities and what cultural barriers may exist in those cities that would first need to be overcome. How can we ask these questions on a city-by-city basis?

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We can’t expect many cities will take a suck-it-and-see approach to rejigging their road matrix in the way that New York has done recently. Their DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan had the benefit of an unusually progressive constituency and a like model in Copenhagen, a similar city to New York in terms of its urban morphology, funnelling avenues, flat terrain and high density nineteenth-century housing stock, but with shorter trip times thanks to the prioritisation of cycling over private car transport. These were the conditions that allowed Sadik-Khan to designate lanes for bikes only, mainly with removable planters, for just long enough for her office to be able to collect meaningful data showing a smoother/faster movement of people.

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Surely the easier way to test whether cycling reduces trip times between people would be via computer modelling. Specialist consultancies use fluid modelling to predict pedestrian crowd flows around stadia or through emergency exists. The same method could surely predict bike traffic flows.

We are fortunate to have places like Groningen N.L. with “everyway green” signals that allow us to observe the way heavy bike traffic flows with no cars in the way: it flows like liquid mercury through any sized tube.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roIeRZA5w54#t=38

Knowing the speed and viscosity of motorised, pedal powered and pedestrian traffic, we can model any city and fill it with any number (millions!) of entities representing randomly positioned pairs of individuals seeking to meet. By widening and narrowing bike and car lanes, banning or deterring cars by using taxes, removing streets or adding new ones, or by creating bicycle through-ways mid-block, we can determine the optimal configuration for any city if the aim is to reduce average trip times to meetings.

This would be a research project more suited to architects than traffic engineers. Traffic engineering as a discipline is rooted in the auto-industry sponsored pioneer work of Miller McClintock in the late 1920s. It has never questioned the hegemony of the car or the agreed aim of reducing travel times between fixed positions in space. Being older and more deeply rooted in philosophy, the architectural profession has more varied traditions that include the urban design movement of the late 50s and 60s. Key exponents like Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch introduced the idea of cities being places that minimise the time between people, not the time between disparate points on the globe. An architect would be less likely than a traffic engineering to assume that the fastest means of connecting people in a place like New York, with 10,000 residents per square kilometre, would involve them all shifting a car.  

Architects are also better placed than traffic engineers when it comes to studying what cultural barriers might prevent a turn toward bicycle transport in particular cities. It is hardly worth knowing that banning cars from a city and taking steps to encourage more cycling would cut peoples travel times, if people in that city could never imagine using their bodies as sources or power.

Museums and similar platforms for exhibitions and for debates would have a key role to play here. Their work is in the realm of the cultural imaginary, which they can elect to do nothing more than represent, or, alternatively—if they follow a recommendation from UNESCO last year—they can use their community standing to affect shifts in public opinions. They could change peoples thinking about their ow bodies as sources of power for their own transport.

So how will you ever know if your city would be better across every measure, including connectivity, without going to the effort of trialling the road engineering approach of some doppelgänger city in Denmark or the Netherlands? Well I guess you will just have to write to Australia’s federal government and beg them to fund research like this in their 2015 round of ARC Discovery Grants.

5 Comments

  1. Nick zintilis says:

    No amount of money spent will change peoples driving habits.
    Only a crisis of one or the other(think 1970s oil embargo or a long strike of thepublic transport union) will change that-that is wat happened to London and Paris. Nick

  2. Gerry says:

    Architects must be different from where you come from… Where I’m from they are even more rooted in automobile culture than the traffic engineers and can’t see past their client’s brief that parking spaces are needed for financial viability of a developer.

    • Steven says:

      No. I’m just odd. I’m also fortunate to be an academic these days with the luxury of making a fine wage critiquing.

  3. Tammy Spiller says:

    I was recently in Copenhagen where there are electronic signage on the footpath beside the bike and driving lane. The signage includes counters of both bike and car trips per day past their location. I am led to believe that they have been tracking it for a few years. Of course, in this city the bike trips are now overtaking the car trips. However, surely they could get some kind of electronic marker (like an electronic toll widget(?)) and use these same devices to record the time of both car and bike trips between points.
    Encouraging biking in Copenhagen has required an active change in legislation and therefore, a system like this could clearly monitor the results of said change, serving as an example for other cities?

  4. Colin says:

    Sounds like what you want is modelling for transport mode shift. Which is what the Netherlands do for every bit of transport infrastructure they build. It could also be done for every new building.

    The difficult issue is dealing with lags – you can build it and they might not come for 10 or 20 years.

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