Why a bike city? Why not a mix of biking and transit?

BOOK-COVERLike the visionary architects of the 1930s who imagined a city where everyone would drive cars, I am imagining a city where everyone cycles. So much has been written about the folly of single mode travel, and the spurious ethics of the last generation who pushed one means of transport (the car) upon every person, that talk of point-to-point travel using one mode (even if it’s a good one like cycling) naturally raises alarm bells.

There are people in our society who due to neurological or physical impairments, or extreme frailty, will never be able to cycle, or ride a trike. I’m not so concerned about people in that category if they are relying right now on motorised taxis. Presumably they would be better serviced by pedicabs anyway—remembering a purpose-built bicycle city would be concentrated on flat lands, unencumbered by traffic lights, dense and permitting of beelines, and be built up with apartments that had big enough corridors and big enough lifts for a pedicab to bring our frail friends right to their doors.


I’m thinking of people who due to impairments, or even just preference (like Taras Grescoe the author of Straphanger[1]), will rightfully demand public transport. Surprising though it may seem, I’m not one of those bicycling zealots who thinks every bastard from 8 to 80 must cycle, or that everyone with Parkinson’s has to learn from this guy, or that the blind should have to stoke tandems or use sonar as though they were bats. There will always be people who reasonably require public transport. Where does the bike-city vision leave them?

To be clear, I am not about making public transport bad to help cycling. I am about making cycling so easy that public transport, regrettably, may no longer have enough patrons to support frequent services. Its users will be in the position of begging for subsidies (the way bicycling advocates these days must beg for some asphalt), or expect services to contract.

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From survey data gathered by the Dutch Ministry of Transport in 2009[2] we know there are seven times more people who derive joy from cycling than there are people who enjoy public transport. 1 in 10 get joy from public transport. 7 in 10 find joy on their bike. Even dirty old driving brings joy to just over a half. That explains why if you provide Dutch people (or anyone, really) with amenity for driving that at least half of all trips will be taken by car, as happens in Rotterdam, and why if you give them great cycling amenities that most are going to cycle, as they do in Groningen. People like Taras Gresgoe can rave all they like about trains being fun. 9 out of 10 disagree.

The ease of driving in Rotterdam and cycling in Groningen explains why relatively less has been spent on transit in these two cities than in cites where it is harder to drive or ride bikes (take New York for example). These are people with the option of travelling by either one of two modes that bring a lot of them joy. The handful remaining who by choice or necessity demand a bus or rail service, would not have the numbers to fill a great service that ran every 10 minutes and covered every nook of the city. In places like these that have lesser demand, public transport can only run according to an infrequent timetable, or alternatively only cover a few transit-oriented tracts through the city.

Looking out of my window at an Australian city, I see nothing wrong with replacing the hegemony of cars with the hegemony I am proposing, of bikes. Those who need buses would be no worse off than they are now. But a problem would come if a city like Amsterdam had a bike modal share of 90 percent, as could achieved if end-of-trip strategies were built into all buildings to eliminate the problem of bike theft, and if shelter removed the inequity of cycling being the one mode remaining where people get wet. Without genuine safeguards (human rights charters, or whatever) Cycling’s success would lead to a whittling away of either frequency or coverage of public transport in a mixed-mode city like Amsterdam. It would do that, quite simply, by stealing its patrons.

No, my work will never be printed in brail or made into an audio book for the blind. They and others relying on transit are not natural benefactors from my bike-centric vision. I bank on the fact that people like these who can’t cycle are outnumbered fifty to one by others who are going to die early unless cycling takes over. Rates of obesity and chronic disease related to inactivity in the course of our days, are in the order of 20 to 60 percent, depending on what study you read. Blindness is a real bummer for a handful of people, but obesity is a first-world disaster. And public transport, alas, is doing nothing to change that.

The polite fiction of our era, that architects and urban designers have been all too willing to buy into, is that 30 to 60 minutes a day walking between bus stops and buildings, is a sufficient dosage of movement to maintain our health. Unfortunately our species evolved to do a lot more than that. Colleagues of mine at the Harvard School of Public Health checked up on 18,000+ middle aged women whose weights they knew from another study 16 years prior. The long and the short of it, is the women who reported plenty of brisk walking each day had been putting on weight while the smaller number who reported they were regularly cycling, had not. You can read that study here.

In a society such as ours where work no longer helps us burn calories, cycling helps control weight because it raises ones metabolic equivalent of task (MET) by on average 8 times, compared to the base rate of 1 we have while we’re resting. The only other activity that speeds our metabolisms like that is walking up stairs, which few of us are likely to do for any duration. Walking on the flat has an average MET score of 3. Here is a neat summary of those MET scores.

I’ll leave this blog post for my learned readers to offer conclusions. If you haven’t read it already, it would really help the discussion if you took a moment to do a little background reading here, on the viability of a bike-centric city. And as always, even if you think I stink, thanks a lot for actually reading!