Living car-free yet using more cars—how we can solve this dilemma

If you haven’t read my blog in a while (or ever), the last few posts explain my decision to work within the literary genre of Utopian writing. New paradigms in urban planning have always been precipitated by Utopian visions. It is unimaginable that such a thing as a purpose built bicycle city could even come into existence without some kind of a fantasy about an unattainable no-place/happy-place called Velotopia. While it would only ever be a touchstone notion, we will never know what we are working toward if we never properly nut out its details.

So far I’ve described it as a 15km diameter city with all encumbrances to bicycle transport cleared out of the way. The main premise underpinning this model is that a mum with her bub in a bakfiets, cruising at 15kph, can reach the centre from the outskirts of a 15km wide city in 30 minutes—time she could easily lose just faffing around parking lots or train stations in a city of the kind that we know already. She doesn’t need machines. She needs machines out of her way.

Like a cow in New Delhi, or someone sailing a yacht on a harbour, or an ignorant driver in just about any car-centric city, she can remain blissfully unaware of the design and regulatory efforts laid down by others to ensure her beeline journey by bike. Yet in Velotopia there are machines that have motors that move: ambulances to rush to her aid, fire engines to save her apartment, buses for when she can’t cycle, cement mixers and cranes to provide new buildings for her to occupy, garbage trucks removing her rubbish, and trucks to stock the big supermarket she regularly heads to for the cheapest prices on groceries. What design strokes have allowed her to remain oblivious to all these machines that could easily crush her? You’re probably imagining a parallel network of service roads.

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Most of us have some experience of heterotopias that create the illusion of a non-vehicular environment. Main Street USA in Disneyland is an extreme example. Most visitors do, however, realise that a back-of-house network of utility corridors accommodates all manner of vehicles collecting the rubbish and stocking the shops to create the illusion of bliss for park visitors. (Here’s a video)

Ironically, it can be those among us who would be the most vociferous in decrying the fakery of Disneyland, who can also be the most prone to self deception when we place ourselves in another kind of heterotopic space, that of the cycleway network. Canonical examples are new towns like Houten in the Netherlands and Milton Keynes in the U.K, where the provision of cycleways is so thorough it can be hard to discern whether houses front cycleways and back onto roadways, or visa versa.

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Post-industrial cities are accruing similar networks as their docklands are transformed into waterfront promenades and their rail corridors are turned into greenways. In Portland Oregon alternate streets are being traffic calmed and rebadged as “neighbourhood greenways” as another way of creating a bike-centric layer in a car-centric city.

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Have we really transcended our dependence on motorised vehicles, and therefore stopped emitting carbon and stopped supporting conflicts in the gulf region, when we reorient our lives to networks like these? Or are we as dependent as any visitor to Disneyland upon movements of machines using networks of roads we have conveniently cropped from our view?

The problem with ancillary space in buildings and cities is how quickly it fills. There were questions around the apparent over generosity of service spaces in Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Building at the time it was built. By the time Kahn got his next laboratory to design for Jonas Salk, the hollow pipe towers and interstitial ceiling spaces in the Richards Medical Building were so choked with pipes—that the users had kept adding without taking old pipes away—that Kahn slotted whole levels of service pipe space between every level of lab space at the Salk Institute. These are now completely choked too.

A person living a bicycling lifestyle, oriented to a network of greenways, can easily fool themselves into thinking they are generating fewer vehicular movements than they were before they gave up their car, when in all likelihood they are now having more things delivered and more things taken away by machines. It is likely as well that some of the fortune they are saving by not owning a car is being spent on services that generate vehicular movements which they, as consumers, have no way of tracking. Just as we have to assume that goods manufactured for us elsewhere generate more waste and pollution than items we make for ourselves, it is reasonable to suspect inefficiencies on the grey side of the fence when we choose to live on the green side.

Speaking from my own selfish point of view as someone who enjoys keeping fit and saving money, I can’t say I’m bothered by all the vehicular movements on streets designated for cars. I can find a comprehensive enough network of non-vehicular corridors in just about any city to find a life there. And even if they never use it, I’m sure most people living in a city with some sort of network of greenways would appreciate knowing that network is there.

But is this why cities invest in bike infrastructure? Is it really just for the same reason they build public pools, so checklists of amenities may be ticked off by prospective new residents?

Bike infrastructure is not a quality of life amenity like public pools or local tennis courts. It is also meant to reduce air pollution and greenhouse emissions, the consumption of non-renewable fuels, and sedentariness across all sectors of the population. How do we know it’s not just a plaything for yuppies? How do we know, for example, that Houten’s 40% bike modal share (a measure of how people travel to work) doesn’t disguise dozens of motorised trips every day by each of the thousands of people working in lowly paid service jobs? Hypothetically, a ten-fold increase in delivery truck movements, and vehicles driven by cleaners, gardeners, tradesmen and so forth, would not change the mode-share at all, or make cycling any less pleasant since it happens on different streets.

In Velotopia, cranes, cement mixers, the trucks that stock supermarket, ambulances, fire engines, garbage trucks and buses occupy the same space as cyclists. For Velotopians, the occasional sighting of a motorised vehicle is a welcome relief from the relentless flow of nothing other than bikes. Because there is not a hidden grey layer for cars and vans, it is prohibited in Velotopia for tradespeople, couriers, or people in service industries to use motorised vans. They all use cargo bikes. Likewise, there are no motorised taxies, just pedicabs. Velotopia has no hidden layer for hiding car use, so car use has to be thoroughly bridled.

9 Comments

  1. Another thought-provoking post; perhaps I can share some provoked thoughts. Forgive the hand-waving nature of this reply — these are just some idle considerations to add, but which might redeem Disneyland/Houten (or at least the decision-makers who resolve to ticking off checklists).

    There are structural benefits to offloading ordinary individuals’ trips into commercial service vehicle trips, even if the worst case might mean that a few more net non-bike trips are generated than before.

    One is that the commercial vehicle fleet is easier to regulate, and compliance costs can often be absorbed by operators’ margins, rather than necessarily hitting the wallet of the general consumer (now on a bike). This means that the externalised costs of these trips can be minimised more effectively, e.g. vehicle emissions standards, safety standards, etc. Rather than casting these standards to a chaotic, libertarian, market distribution of our society’s vehicular fleet on a basis of taste and “revealed preference”, we can have these precious assets managed under tight oversight and subjected to bean-counting, security tracking, rigorous licensing, and the rest of it — not unlike aircraft.

    Another is that economies of scale can be achieved by consolidating trips into a service model (commercial or otherwise). For example, goods delivery services can be optimised more and better when the logistics become grouped into single systems. Without straying into techno-utopianism, I think I can say with a straight face that this is a plausible and demonstrable feature that generally gets better over time and when the right range of corporation scales is achieved.

    A third benefit is that service models lend themselves to decoupling the logistical task from the consumption task. This is roughly what is at play when you are offered an online-shopping service that is open 24/7, as compared to a retail store that is open to orders during conventional business hours. Likewise, greater proportions of freight or service movements can occur at otherwise unworkable hours, such as overnight shipping to preload local distribution centres, and so on. The life-changing convenience or freedom that this offers might by itself make the mass cultural switch worthwhile, the total underlying costs being the same or slightly greater.

    What I’m getting at is that while there might be a Disneyland-like iceberg under the Houten-like tip, it isn’t a choice between sets of costs alone, but also of benefits — some of which uniquely avail the opportunity to improve the whole system in the future in a service-trip-generating culture.

    From a different (and perhaps more predictable) angle, it’s interesting to consider the example of a bike share scheme such as New York’s Citibike, which only functions on the back of a fleet of trucks that redistribute bicycles for hire across the city’s stations. While it’s true that these new vehicular freight service trips were generated in order to directly enable the use of bikes, it’s hard to argue that the net difference in trip-making does not make their mode share situation better than before. Not only are people switching from cars to bikes for trips they used to make, but people are beginning to make new kinds of trips that were not feasible for them (i.e. effectively switching modes for a potential but previously unrealised or unforeseen trip — this is very rarely counted).

    So there’s that. I guess an underlying premise in my treatment is that motorised vehicles are a necessary tool for some tasks in any city. But don’t take my word for it: that proposition may be worth more careful examination. (Perhaps it’s true, but that the tasks they are good for are themselves not necessary?)

    • Steven says:

      Glad I’m not the only one out there thinking about logistics! I really got into this topic earlier this year when I was kindly flown over to be a keynote at the European Cycle Logistics Federation’s annual conference in Nijmegen. Now, while vehicular deliveries are viable in sprawling cities, cargo bikes have the edge in dense European town centres. DHL and FedEx aren’t using bikes to look green, but to save time and money on rounds. “Velotopia”, and bicycle oriented redevelopment districts I’m proposing be built in its image, will be almost as dense as European town centres, meaning couriers would choose cargo bikes anyhow — for the last few kilometres anyhow.
      The bigger question, is whose city is it? Is it the couriers’ city? Or does the city belong to a mum on her box bike? If commercial interests fell in around her needs (by which I mean, figure out ways to do business that don’t threaten her or slow her down, and that respect her interest in the environment) I think everyone would be better off. (You know, I’m using the example of a hypothetical mum in a box bike in a figurative sense, like Obama’s “Joe the Plumber”)
      I’m grateful for you drawing my attention to a possible fallacy: it may be that living life in the bike lane and getting all your shopping delivered is better than driving around picking it all up yourself. I’ll go check my wording!
      Thanks again!

    • “Now, while vehicular deliveries are viable in sprawling cities, cargo bikes have the edge in dense European town centres. DHL and FedEx aren’t using bikes to look green, but to save time and money on rounds.”

      I have two questions about this. Neither is intended to refute anything, but I’m interested in your thoughts.

      Firstly, DHL and FedEx also sometimes use motor vehicles in these places, and even moreso in the broader neighbouring areas, still within compact European city limits, that are nothing like Austin or Atlanta in measures of sprawl. So there must be a threshold effect somewhere, right? If so, do European precedents really show that a Velotopia can designed to solely (or mostly) exist within the envelope of cycle-logistical optimality? (I guess that’s pretty close to a certain recurring theme in your work, so I can imagine your answer…)

      Secondly, to what extent does “soft” policy like taxation and subsidy—as opposed to built form—affect their choice of mode? Is it really only urban form that enables cycle logistics here, or is it a combination of some other policy factors in those jurisdictions? If the latter, then could those abstract economic factors independently be adjusted to the point of making it viable in Austin or Atlanta, too?

      “The bigger question, is whose city is it? Is it the couriers’ city? Or does the city belong to a mum on her box bike?”

      I wonder if it’s possible to answer “both and equally” here. It might mean that in certain places, the built environment is inhospitable to the mum, but in other places it’s non-viable for the courier to work. I’m hardly a proponent of functional zoning or stratification, but at some scales it might make sense. e.g. the Dutch do still build motorways.

      “(You know, I’m using the example of a hypothetical mum in a box bike in a figurative sense, like Obama’s “Joe the Plumber”)”

      As I recall, Joe was Romney’s man, but also Obama’s insofar as he presented a challenge to answer.

    • Steven says:

      I suspect the post-10am bans on vans in many European town centres is helping cargo bike couriering.
      In Velotopia though (don’t forget that our discussion is contained by the conventions of a literary genre dating from 1516), motorised vans have been banned. Built form doesn’t stop them. The streets are wide enough for garbage trucks. It is the Velotopian police stopping them, by crushing banned vehicles so the steel can be made into bikes.
      I’m sorry if I’m being maddening. But as I said at the start, a Utopian model kick started every major town planning paradigm, and bicycle urbanism needs such a model. A problem with most models in the past is that they were designed by technocrats, FOR technocrats. It’s why I’m a little worried about the technocratic flavour of our discussion (that I admittedly started) about parcel delivery. I want to put a mum in a box bike at the centre of every planning decision. I’m sure she won’t mind waiting an extra day for her mail if it means living in a city where her own time is everyones greatest concern.

    • crank says:

      The design of Velotopia could also influence the design of motorized vehicles. Since only low speeds are necessary, no more noisy engines designed for highways. Big wheels become unnecessary. Given low speed, and assuming the road system (designed for bikes) is more fragile, they would have low-pressure billowy tyres, and could safely run over your foot 🙂

    • Steven says:

      Now THAT is a keeper idea!

  2. Luke says:

    Could well be right. Probably right. But too long for anyone to take any notice.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Luke. I have enjoyed a great time of being noticed. I’m working now on a plan to be obeyed 🙂

  3. Steven,

    “I’m sorry if I’m being maddening”

    No, this is all very interesting. I didn’t mean to bend this into an adversarial debate (but I understand that is the default tone of writing on the internet).

    “don’t forget that our discussion is contained by the conventions of a literary genre dating from 1516 … But as I said at the start, a Utopian model kick started every major town planning paradigm”

    Indeed, I lost track of this premise along the way. Thank you for elaborating anyway.

    “Built form doesn’t stop them … I want to put a mum in a box bike at the centre of every planning decision”

    Excellent, please resume normal programming.

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