The Bad News and Good News, if you want to be Holland.

I should do this with China, Columbia, Norway, Spain… all the countries I’ve worked in of late. But if I do it for Australia, you should able to extrapolate. Let’s start with the bad news—that way we’ll be feeling upbeat at the end.

The Bad News

The bad news is that, short of a zombie apocalypse changing the planet’s demographics in ways we can’t even imagine, your country will never have a 25% bike modal share, or rates above 60% in city centres, as the Netherlands does. Our countries were already quite different (ours having hills) but really parted ways in the wake of the war.


Like a lot of countries in Europe, the Dutch were left broke. So while we were pouring the boom-time surplus into freestanding houses outside of our cities, they were patching holes in city centres.

Suburban development was further resisted in the Netherlands due to their unique shortage of farmland. So where the Sydney region, for example, has housing on land without any rail service (all the land coloured black on the following map)…


…the Amsterdam region only has farms there. 

With proportionally fewer car-dependent voters, they would be able to flip the bird to the 1970s oil crisis in ways no other country could, by rolling out laws that recognised cycling.

Bike advocates are aware of the main ones, like strict liability laws to protect vulnerable road users and their famous design manual for bicycle traffic…

…but regulations that recognise cycling are virtually omniscient. Let’s just look at a few. The Dutch building code requires every new dwelling unit be built with a bike storage room, with low ceilings and no windows so they can’t be converted to bedrooms. If an Australian architect proposed that, their developer client would sack them.

Dutch Architects are given standards to follow when they design stairs so that bikes can be pushed up and down them. There is no Australian standard for these, so if architects build them here, they will be sued the moment somebody trips.

A lot of the work that landscape architects and urban designers do is determined by the speeds at which people are moving. According to our regulations here in Australia, nothing moves at bike speed. Shared bike/pedestrian paths in parks and shared spaces like malls are designed for speeds up to 10kph, which is unnaturally slow on a bike. If you ride into a pole placed in the middle of a cycleway it’s your fault for doing 11kph, which is speeding. Then, as though to deliberately conspire against cycling, the next design speed above 10 is one you can’t reach without drugs. Bike paths in the Netherlands are designed for the speed that bikes go, while traffic calmed streets can have traffic calming, in other words items that can be avoided when cars are actually travelling slowly.

Design guidelines for professionals designing for cycling in Australia, are like the guidelines we give to Australian doctors so they can perform euthanasia. They don’t exist.

From a policy perspective, the messages are both clear. We say to doctors they can let their clients kill themselves if they want to, but not to do anything to encourage them or assist. We say to architects, landscape architects and urban designers to let people cycle, if they want to, but again don’t assist. If you do, it’s your funeral, not theirs.

That’s the bad news. Now…


The Good News


The good news is that rule breaking is sexy. Maybe it isn’t for traffic engineers, but it certainly is for the more artistic professions I’ve been talking about, such as architects, landscape architects and to some extent urban designers. Transgressing a normative principle, or finding a work-around to some law, makes designers famous and their projects iconic. So where in Holland cycling will always be beige, most everywhere else in the world it’s red paint.

Is this ideal? Of course not. Neither does it mean we shouldn’t be working to have rules and laws changed. Nevertheless, it’s the card we’ve been dealt, so let’s look at how we can play it.


The book that broke me into this bicycle urbanism caper took an idea from the field of queer studies, that marginalised groups build a city for themselves in the margins, and showed how that principle applied to the marginalised cycling community as well. If you map that idea onto Sydney, you would say queer folk like us would be in greater abundance in the flat derelict South of the city, than the leafy North Shore with its hills and garages.

We can also invite the misuse of things we design, as the designers of this bridge in Amsterdam (West-8) did when they took these photographs of flanges being used as diving platforms. Do we know they designed the flanges for this purpose? No, but they did send this photo to the maxxi museum for inclusion in an exhibition. At the same time Bjarke Ingles, was involved in the making of a movie about his buildings being fun for parkour.


One loophole, or circumstance, that I have been exploiting with my design work comes from the realisation that wheelchair access can be tweaked to serve cycling as well. Couple that with everyone’s discontent now with the cost of lifts and lift maintenance, and you can imagine an affordable housing block—in this illustration slapped together with shipping containers—being organised around a spiralling ramp you can ride on, instead of a lift.

That’s a prototype we’re angling to have built in Norway. I was recently in Bogota helping them write a competition brief to design an innovation centre and school along similar lines. In Australia, where cycling is neither wanted or legally sanctioned, you would likely present a building like that as a way to eliminate the lift while complying with universal access demands.

It’s a shame, but work I do in this country almost always has a sneaky component. Above is a shared path beside which my clients, some property developers, are building bike friendly housing that I helped to design. Since the design speed is 10kph, the intersection between these two paths could, or maybe should, be ambiguous, not giving precedence to the main commuting route in the way I’ve suggested. Neither should the design be suggesting that pedestrians use a new, curb-separated path to the side. When you get down to it, you’re finding loopholes to achieve your higher aim.

What is that higher aim? Personally, I don’t think it is to copy the Netherlands. It’s not an ideal cycling nation. It has cities that were organised around horses and boats, because bikes weren’t even invented. My latest book addresses this problem of bike planning not actually having an ideal picture of what it is working toward, maybe as far out as a hundred years. Competitive cities unite populations too big for walking to be of much use. It will get you your milk. It won’t get you to a specialised job or a college. Cars have proven themselves to be useful for connecting people to the country, but not people to people to people in cities. And cities that rely on public transport, need unbearable densities, like Paris or New York, if they are to grow to an economically powerful size without average trip times blowing out to more than an hour. What I argue in Velotopia is that the model that will do even more is one that is adumbrated in Holland, but existent only in a realm of pure reason that, as a society, we have to work to envision. Finding a cure for our cities is like finding a cure for cancer: you don’t expect to just find it out by the side of a River.

1 Comment

  1. Traveler says:

    I am reading Cycle Space and have learned a lot about what cities around the world have done to accommodate bikes. I live in the southeast US, which I have heard is the worst part of the country for bikeability. I knew that European cities are more bike friendly than here, but I had no idea that innovations like the bike stairwell pictured above exist. I’ve been bike-commuting for over a decade now and had no problems getting around when I was in college. But I have learned that college towns are much more bike friendly than other cities, like I was living in a bubble. In fact, I feel that my career prospects have been hindered because the best jobs in my field tend to be located at the outskirts of cities, where bike lanes are non-existent and the speed limit is high. I have become interested in city planning as related to bikeability, and Cycle Space is a good source of information.

    The most common excuse I have heard for not riding a bike is that it’s unsafe due to all the traffic on the road (this is normally unsolicited information – I do not ask people why they don’t ride a bike). Yet, when a person drives their car to work they are making the traffic problem worse; from my observations the average occupancy of a vehicle is right around 1. I do wonder if more people in my area would bike commute if it was safe, or if there is simply a lack of interest. I agree with the premise put forth in Cycle Space that people often consider car ownership a sign of prestige, and that is particularly true in the US. To me it seems a ridiculous reason to pass up an opportunity to be more healthy and pollute less. In any case, I hope that one day everybody will be able to bike commute safely, regardless of where they live.

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