Let 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.
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.
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.
The Dutch Cycling Embassy, David 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.
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.
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:
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.