I would not loan you money to build a Dutch bike track.

NETHERLANDS-CULTURE-LIFYSTYLE-BIBLEBELTLet me know if ever you hear about another completely flat country like Holland, where they have not yet invested in car parking stations, and where everyone had Calvinist grannies saying “you’re not made of sugar”. I’ll hand that country the CROW design manual, and know they will read it. Voila: another bike nation!

However, where there are hills and car parking stations it will take more than Dutch cycle tracks to tempt people out of their cars. In cities where there is the option of driving, replicating Dutch infrastructure will not induce enough cycling to have a noticeable impact on global warming, public health, or an economy.

I’m not saying we should drop the Go Dutch campaign, especially in cities like London where cycling is getting ahead due to the over-stressed state of motorised modes. I’m saying that cities where driving still works need more than Dutch modelled cycle tracks. To impartial observers, spending on a transport option which lacks the unique appeal of car transport, in places where car transport works, is not worth the quizzical reaction from average voters. We’re more likely to find public support for bike infrastructure if the public can imagine themselves actually using it. Cheapness is rarely a selling point.

umbrellas

Politicians and planners know it will take more than Dutch cycle tracks to get most people commuting by bike. So let’s start offering more. Let’s start talking about Dutch cycle tracks that have roofs. I say that because cars and buses have roofs, and those are the modes against which cycling needs to compete. Cities in which driving will remain a good option will not only need to cover their bike tracks, they will need to back-draft them. Buses and cars don’t make people push into headwinds, so neither can cycle tracks subject people to headwinds, if they are to attract patrons. Furthermore, these enclosed and back-drafted Dutch-inspired cycle tracks I am proposing for hilly, car-invested, less-Protestant cities, will also need to terminate at secure bike parking facilities at all destinations. Car and bus users aren’t made to fret about vehicles being stripped of valuable components. Neither should cyclists be left with that worry.

Does that sound too ambitious? Road and rail advocates go to bat over multi billion dollar proposals with capacities measured in hundreds of thousands of users per day. That’s the league we need to be playing in.

Who do I blame for us aiming too low? Partly I blame the bike advocacy community. Too many are too easily impressed by Holland’s hopelessly uncompetitive bike infrastructure. It’s only the best in the world because the rest of the world hasn’t tried yet. And while ever Dutch bike infrastructure is held up as a model, the rest of the world will not take bicycling seriously. Why would the US, for example, invest in a mode that is only going to get them to work sopping wet? They have already invested in a mode that gets them there dry. Why would Australians want their taxes spent building bike tracks if the prize at the end is commuting long distances on horrible Omafietsen? The bike of choice in cities without secure bicycle parking, is the bike that neither a thief or an owner have any desire for.

If this inspires you, you are weird.

If this inspires you, you are weird.

We have not been very clever with what we have asked for. We’re like owner-builders approaching the bank for 50K to build something out of rammed earth then wondering why the banks show no interest. Ask the bank for 500K, to build something of demonstrable worth, and you’re far more likely to get a loan.

They would all prefer Segways

They would all prefer Segways

The Dutch Cycling EmbassyDavid Hembrow, Mikael Colville Andersen, and myself until now, have been making the same kind of inductive fallacy that has been dogging Jan Gehl’s enterprise. Gehl enjoys walking so is impressed by all the walking he sees in places like Venice. He is unusual. Most tourists in Venice are impressed by the buildings and ice cream. If Venice had free Segways lying around, or if it had travelators, a lot less people in Venice would walk.

Groningen has no room for cars.

Groningen has no room for cars.

Similarly, Groningen’s 60% bike modal share would look more like Rotterdam’s (which is one quarter the size) if Groningen had Rotterdam’s car infrastructure. For many ordinary people in Holland—the ones who aren’t writing bike blogs—cycling is the mode of last resort. Sure, once they get in the habit 7 out of 10 say they enjoy it. Give them less problematic options though, and rates of bike transport fall away steeply. Just look at Rotterdam.

Rotterdam: Holland's car city

Rotterdam: Holland’s car city

As accommodating of cars as Rotterdam is by Dutch standards, it’s an angel compared to the Autopias we have been building elsewhere in the world. Cars are built into our cities, not only with curb details and parking basements, but with the organisational structures of our societies.

The best hope for bike transport in countries like mine, lies in the fact that cities are growing. The trick is to somehow inspire people with a new vision of how urban growth areas might look in the future, if based on a bicycle mobility platform. That requires architectural visionary thinking, which means it’s time for me to shamelessly plug my next book. It’s half written and just now being pitched to a publisher. It will present urban development patterns suited to cycling the way suburbia is suited to driving, or European old towns are suited to walking. Let me toss you a crumb:

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Boastful though I may seem to myopic bike advocates looking upon Holland as though they’ve seen Heaven, there is nothing about designing for bikes that architects don’t do every day with other problems. Our discipline’s history is punctuated by pivotal moments when architects proceeded from first principles to address the concerns of their day.

If you want to join me in this challenge, I am casting around for extra ideas. How can we build new urban growth areas where every design decision has been made in the service of cycling? I’m not asking how we might re-engineer yuppies’ streets so they can use bakfietsen. I’m asking how we might accommodate millions of new arrivals to all of our cities, in the next fifty years, so they are not still using the kinds of streets our ancestors built in the days of horses and walking, or the kinds streets our parents and grandparents built in the burbs in the age of the car.

14 Comments

  1. Edward says:

    I really hope you’re wrong about building infrastructure not being enough. Having said that, I saw a short video recently (I cannot for the life of me remember where I saw it) about two young fellows who compared riding a bike in London and the Netherlands. They interviewed a Dutch man who drove everywhere in his Saab. He said before he lived in the US he would ride everywhere. He got used to driving around in the US and just hadn’t stopped.

    That does worry me even though it was a sample size of one. I trust most human beings to act rationally and use the easiest form of transport available.

    I’m still yet to be convinced of the connection between protestantism and mode share. I grew up in a strictly Catholic household but managed to get most places on a Raleigh Chopper. I can’t remember what the other Catholic boys did. Probably sauntered along the streets with their hands in their pockets doing things that would require a few decades of the rosary for absolution.

    If there is a correlation between church-going and modal share then we’re stuffed. Australians are a bunch of heathens.

    Oh for Rotterdam’s modal share.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Edward. I’m not serious about the catholic protestant rivalry. I’m just being nostalgic for my childhood when the world was smaller and we all had to improvise more to be bigots. On the other hand, I do detect a scottish calvinist flavour to Northern Tasmania. People here do love to get cold and wet to prove something.
      I reckon Dutch bike infrastructure would be enough (in a city with parking and maximised driving) to achieve maybe half of Rotterdam’s bike modal share — probably less. One disclaimer: I got that 14% stat from Wikipedia, and am waiting on a friend of mine in Rotterdam to get back with a translation from some documents to which he has access. But I know it’s much lower than the national average of 26%, and know Groningen has 58%.

  2. Jimm Pratt says:

    “…Why would the US, for example, invest in a mode that is only going to get them to work sopping wet?…” By introducing them to the advantages of velomobiles! 😛

    I suspect the only way to introduce a primary-cycling infrastructure is to develop new cities where the motorized vehicle access stops at the city border (perhaps exempting Police/Fire/Ambulance services), making them park outside the city limits in huge parking lots, monitored against vandalism/theft. Cargo transport also stops at the city line, perhaps at large warehouses where cargo is offloaded and transported by cargo-bikes (electric or not) and related cycle-based vehicles, such as UPS’s test cargo cruiser: http://goo.gl/V4h8mU. All services (postal, handyman, media, X-Mas carollers, and so on) are handled by cycling.

    Those who visit the city from elsewhere, but don’t bring a bike, can either use a rental cycle (a service or kiosk at every parking lot), or perhaps enter the city by above ground tram/lightrail, or subway.

    • Steven says:

      Hi Jimm, hats of to the warehouse idea especially. I was imagining deliveries (of furniture especially) being made using slow electric table-top trucks, the kind that put luggage on planes.
      I don’t think car parking towers should be located just beyond the bicycling district. They should be right at the edge of the metropolitan area, connected to bike districts by trails, and for use for going to the country. I’ll admit that’s an idealistic, and hard-core proposition, and this is a very vexed and complicated issue. Hopefully enough incentive can be built into cycling, that people don’t over use cars on a regular basis. I would rather develop enough carrots, that not many sticks are required.

  3. Jimm Pratt says:

    I was more thinking along the lines of http://goo.gl/iHxONW or http://goo.gl/BnkTiy, but a tabletop bike like http://goo.gl/kgXT9t works too! 🙂

    I’d personally prefer motor vehicles to stay well outside the city-proper, at the edge of the city-line. It just simply improves air-quality and traffic, and gets people off their butts.

    It’s a tough concept to handle, but I think it’s possible if someone sits down and works out the logistics of the transfer points. Abandoned cargo train depots could be a useful testing ground. This would only work with brand new cities – existing ones are too embedded with the car mind-set to adapt in a reasonable amount of time.

    • Steven says:

      That’s a nice table-top bike! http://www.inhabitat.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/flatbike.jpg Thanks! A lot better than what I was thinking of with electric power and perfectly able to move a fridge or a bed.
      Are you suggesting sites near operating rail lines are better bicycling districts because of the opportunity to tie in with rail freight and eschew road freight altogether?

    • Jimm Pratt says:

      “…Are you suggesting sites near operating rail lines are better bicycling districts because of the opportunity to tie in with rail freight and eschew road freight altogether?”

      Not at all. Road freight transport is probably still more cost-effective than rail – mostly because of the ability to get cargo closer to the destination (not practical to put rail stops at every shop).

      What I meant was using *abandoned* rail-cargo transport terminals as hubs where trucks arrive with cargo, and it’s disseminated into the nearby New Cycle City by the appropriate cycling solution (cargo bike and so on). I thought of rail because I remember seeing quite a few of abandoned terminals out in the farmlands of central U.S. during cross-country family vacation tours in my youth. They could be good starting points as transfer hubs for new cycle-only cities/towns.

      Even without existing structures, I think the idea is still sound: creating cargo-transfer hubs where goods and mail arrive by air/rail/road and are distributed by cycle into the city. Think UPS hubs, just on a larger scale.

    • Steven says:

      Gotcha. Thanks! We’re opening up a whole new specialisation in transport logistics!

  4. Al says:

    What I find is that cities need to have model towns or suburbs aka Newtown in the city where the culture of cyclling has already developed. It is the same with the issue as forbidding dogs and cats in eco villages, you only need to have a few people make allowances and then it all changes. The principal issue of density needs to be addressed first, this can only happen via more shared zones being made possible. We also need to address such issues at festivals to show that it can work. Big day Out festival Skilde etc

    • Steven says:

      I fully agree about model towns! Where they have been car free islands or enclaves nearby, they do seem to influence the rest of the city.
      When you say “shared zones” increase density, do you mean “mixed use” zones?

  5. Will says:

    Now that the minuscule carbon tax proposed is dead I’m not sure of my chances: how about an across the board 100% tax of fuel for personal transport. Perhaps a 200% tax for fuel for personal transport in cities. The money could then be re-invested in cycling infrastructure.
    It is a particular shame that all we are going to get is more car infrastructure from a PM who celebrates an election win with a bike ride.
    We need to get to a place where it becomes too costly to commute, if people currently have a half hour drive to work that costs them $5 – $10 in fuel and that same ride would take an hour but be free they need to be compensated for the extra time required to ride. Considering perhaps they make $20-$30 per hour once at work the extra time to ride each day would ‘cost’ them an extra $20-$30 per day in time. This of course doesn’t include the other costs associated with cars or the fact that many people (as far as I can tell) are perfectly happy to drive from work to a gym where they pay to sit on a stationary bike in front of an air conditioner.

  6. Lena says:

    I think we should think about having a public transport system conducive to cycling as well. In many N American cities, suburbs are 30 km or more from one end of the city to another – so if you want to visit a friend in the other side of town, you have other problems to tackle than the possibility of getting wet.

    Right now so many cities ban bicycles from trains and buses, especially during rush hour, when they’re most needed! I am skeptical that such a bike-utopia with roofs and such can be achieved, at least not in the near future, but I think if you work with public transport then maybe more people will get on bikes and demand more of these things you are talking about.

    Thanks for the read!

    • Steven says:

      I think you’re right. I’ve been against bikes on buses and trains until recently, but have to accept just how darned vast car cities are, even ones with just a few hundred thousand inhabitants. Then I thought, you know, even if there were publicly subsidised buses transporting mire cyclists than regular passengers, that would probably save society money when you think of the reduction in car use. I wish now I had a regular reader with expertise in transport economics.

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