Velotopia: a touchstone notion.

It is time we had a touchstone notion of a Cycling Utopia. Tempting though it may be to dismiss such a thing as straw man, it is worth remembering that the garden-city and car-city both have their Utopian models for planners to hold at the backs of their minds.

democracity

Bike planning does not have such a model. Our best substitutes are 18th and 19th century cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen where the streets have been reengineered for walking, cycling and driving. However, the urban morphologies (street widths, for instance) of those now-bicycling cities weren’t determined by the dynamics of cycling, but the modes of the day, i.e., walking and horses. This is fine while our ambitions for bicycle urbanism don’t extend beyond our 18th and 19th century urban cores in countries like the UK, US or Australia where we have managed to fill our historic city centres with cars, but what model do we have to inspire us when we redevelop our brownfields and greyfields, or branch out onto greenfields, or build new cities from scratch? Evidence suggests we fall back on a hybrid of the garden-city and car-city vision. It is time both got put to one side in favour of a vision that would be better for health, commuting times and the environment.

Let’s start by imagining a perfectly circular city, because that’s what visionaries have done since Plato imagined his Polis in the Laws: they have imagined a civic centre with neighbourhoods radiating outward in a perfectly circular fashion. In the imaginary realm where city models are conceived, there are no coastlines cutting radial patterns in half, or mountains to compress them into the shape of a sausage. Here, let me draw it:

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Next, let’s make our imaginary city the size of a city, by which I mean it should not be smaller than most major cities before they all started sprawling unnaturally in the 50s and 60s. That would be 15 kilometres in diameter, or 177 square kilometres in area.

If we said that Velotopia had the same average population density as New York’s five boroughs (10,000 people per square kilometre), it would accommodate 1,770,000 people, but since Velotopia will not have New York’s industrial wastelands, we can round that figure up to 2,000,000 and still be confident that Velotopia would have plenty of parks and not have people crammed into shoebox apartments without any outlooks or sunshine.

new-york-city-aerial-6

At this point Le Corbusier, Robert Moses or Norman bel Geddes would add a network of highways and batteries of car parking stations. Ebeneza Howard would cluster development around satellite towns each with a train connection back to the civic core.

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Today’s planners would complicate our 15km diameter city even more with PRT (Personal Rapid Transport), P&R (park and ride), ERP (electronic road pricing), HOVL (high-occupancy vehicle lanes), LRTS (Light Rail Transit Systems), and anything else an acronym can help seem intelligent. Add to that car share, cable cars, e-cars, maglev, moving platforms, and of course driverless taxis from Google. Velotopia is somewhat more elegant. It has none of that crap whatsoever. Here, let me draw it again:

shapecirclebwlabeled

Velotopia’s main premise is that a mum with her bub in a boxbike, cruising at 15kph, can reach the centre from the outskirts in 30 minutes. She doesn’t need machines. She needs machines out of her way. We can see from 1924 footage of cyclists in Copenhagen, that bike traffic does not slow the flow of bike traffic the way car traffic slows both. Even when cyclists don’t have the whole width of the road but are squeezed onto cycle tracks at the edge, bike traffic does not reduce the speed of bike traffic. The best demonstration of this are “simultaneous green” intersections in the Netherlands. Swarms of cyclists are released all at once to filter from every direction into narrow cycle tracks without bumping or causing anyone to ride below their average cruising speed of 15kph.

Is there any place at all for motorised vehicles in Velotopia? Yes: buses, ambulances, police vehicles, and fire engines. Delivery vans are already on their way out, with DHL and FedEx shifting to pedal power as the faster way to make rounds in a number of cities in Europe. And as someone who has worked riding pedicabs, I can tell you 15kph is no trouble at all for someone who makes their living taxiing people by rickshaw.

The place for privately owned cars in Velotopia, would be underground, in an air-sealed network of parking basements and tunnels, completely paid for by users, and powered by renewables only. In practice, therefore, we don’t need to think about motoring. Too few could afford to pursue it in a way that does not negatively impact on others.

So, if ever a city of 2,000,000 cycling enthusiast is planned for a flat plane where currently nothing is built, we have just seen our model. We will lay down a fine web of cycle-tracks inspired by radiolaria or soap bubble patterns and raise the entries to buildings on mounds in between so cyclists can make near-beelines across the whole city.

Utopian models don’t exist to be built. Their value, as I said at the top of this post, is as touchstone notions. There are very few actual car cities. Rather, there are car-centric districts on the outskirts of old cities, planned by people with something like the 1939 Futurama in the back of their minds. Likewise, there are very few transit oriented cities or true garden cities. What happens in practice is cities have transit oriented tracts interwoven amidst areas with a greater car focus, by people who hold Ebeneza Howard’s garden cities plan at the back of their minds. With my next post I plan to discuss ways bicycle oriented development layers might be interwoven into actual cities, with Velotopia at the back of our minds.

4 Comments

  1. andreengels says:

    I don’t really agree with your view regarding private motor traffic. It may be because my experience of cities only about 1/10 of your proposed city, but I would go with large car parks just outside the city, where both inhabitants and visitors can park their cars to continue to the city by bicycle or public transport (or if they lived nearby, on foot).
    Of course the whole view is as you write rather unrealistic. A more realistic view would be like Houten or some parts of Almere – separate networks for car, bicycle and public transport, with the bicycle network tight and direct, and the car network coarse and relegated to the outskirts.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks for those sensible words. Yes, large car parks on the outskirts for the farmers and for hire-cars would be a sensible addition to the utopian model. Real-world applications might be even trickier. We get a glimpse with car-free campuses, enclaves (like Christiania in Copenhagen) or near ferry wharves serving residential islands without bridges. In all those cases you get big car parks and a transfer situation. I’m not so impressed by Houten, or perhaps Milton Keynes in the UK (N.B. I’ve not been to either, but have ridden around Nijmegen North which has a similar layout). In these places all the buildings are served by cars and bikes, which—I can show with experimental design—means cycling does not reach its full potential. Thanks again!

  2. crank says:

    I always like to imagine the mental state of the inhabitants of such a city. The large majority of stress in my life is caused by motor traffic. The physical threat to my children, the inhibiting factor on them playing outside, and the noise motor traffic causes in my house, and in my environment. (I will never understand why people will pay tens of thousands of dollars more for a *noisier* car, which implies *worse* engineering).

    It seems to me people making appointments by bike are in greater control, and far less stressed than people trying to drive or take PT to appointments. I know I am.

    Currently, if I feel my cargo bike is going to hold up fellow cyclists, I say “hey, go ahead!”. In a car, I feel anxiety as I drive the speed limit while impatient drivers tailgate me. Cyclists can still easily pass my cargo bike anyway. I frequently chat with fellow citizens while riding somewhere. It’s a positive experience.

    I remember stressing about the state of my car. My entire bicycle cost less than every service or repair my dad has done on his car. In fact, I like to measure the cost of peoples car prangs in number of bikes I could purchase for that amount.

    While, now, the Dutch consistently show us up in happiness and well-being rankings, a place like Velotopia would reveal them as cranks!

  3. […] Steven Fleming has written about his idea of Velotopia on his blog, Behooving Moving. Dr Fleming and his collaborator Prof Angelina Russo held a workshop at the Queensland Museum in […]

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