Why design bicycle cities?

We get it all wrong if we talk about bicycle-centred urban design as a great thing for the economy, or the environment or public health. The moment we start, we get sidetracked, mentioning other ways to encourage physical activity, other modes that save energy or natural resources, or other ways to stimulate commerce or minimise public spending.

We want to make bicycle cities because 60% of people say they would be interested in using bikes for transport if their built environments made it safe to do so. And we have proof they are not lying in Groningen, the safest city for cycling, where precisely 60% of all trips are by bike.

Groningen Bike Parking

Groningen Bike Parking

It’s one of those cases where what people want—clean drinking water, daylight, bicycle transport—just happens to have all the externalities we in our wisdom as designers would like to impose from on high. And we haven’t even started to think of ways to make cycling the obvious choice when leaving the door, the way we have made driving automatic, with internal access garages, and car roofs to keep rain off. Why is it, again, that bike paths aren’t covered from rain?

Rio Hondo Bike Path

Rio Hondo Bike Path

I stand by my often made claim that our current reliance on cars for 90% of all trips, is an aberration belonging to a brief window of human history.

When we wake up from auto-mania, it will be the most efficient and nimble transportation device thus far invented, the bike, that will cater for 90% of our trips.

If you have been following this blog for the past month, you will know I am leading a design studio at the school of architecture I teach at. We’re at the point where we are starting to see some issues that would crop up for anyone designing a new bike-fouced district.

I am pushing the view that cars have some place in the outer margins of cities, and in the country. That makes me receptive to proposals to build ride-then-drive stations in urban fringe areas. Residents of the new bike-focused district can ride out to these stations if they want to hire a car to go to the country. Drivers coming to the new bike-focused district, could park their cars here and come the rest of the way on a bike.

I’m liking designs that cater for cars the way medieval walled cities cater for cars:  not at all. Deliveries that can’t be made using a bakfiets, will have to occur before 10am, after which the district will be closed to all but emergency services. Cool.

I’m beginning to see how much, as architects, we rely on car parking as putty. The site we are designing for is beside a noisy highway. Ordinarily, architects would shield apartments from highway noise using car parking stations facing the noise source. Without car parking, we’re having to use the back sides of apartments (bathrooms/kitchens/laundries), or trees.


The site is separated from a river by levee banks. Ordinarily, architects would consider an elevated ground plane to give public spaces a view over the levee. But how could we fill up the empty space between the natural ground and a new, higher ground plane? The usual answer would be parking, but parking in cities is a source of more traffic, which is a menace to cyclists. The best I can think of would be old fashioned fill, but what a huge undertaking! As well as some fill, perhaps we could add a few semi-underground shed spaces, to store a few bikes, boats, or retired old men tinkering away, as they do. What about cisterns to store harvested rain? I doubt though that fill, sheds and cisterns could fill underground space as readily as car parking does, and that we’ll have to settle on elevating just a few parts of the ground plane.

More on all this when I have some images I can share.


  1. Terence says:

    I love this. Where is there a bicycle-designed city? I want to relocate there now. I am two weeks short of one year gasoline free.

    • Steven says:

      My hope is that derelict docklands will be the first to redevelop as bicycle districts. Hopefully the first won’t be too far from where you are now!

  2. Terence says:

    Where do you mean?

    • Steven says:

      sorry, I was not making myself very clear. I think every disused port district, in every city, is a candidate to be redeveloped with a bicycling focus. One reason is these districts tend to have rail corridors and waterfronts converging upon them, those being ideal sites for greenway connections. But if you let me know what city you live in, and where there are under-utilised industrial tracts, I’ll see if I can’t push things along for you 🙂

  3. Terence says:

    I live a voluntarily simple lifestyle. I’m doing it, whether or not there is supportive infrastructure. Not taking on a big project of trying to change my locality, more likely to move to a place that is already going that direction. I assume Rio Hondo is Texas and Groningen is Netherlands, yes? I’m near Seattle, Washington. Thanks for your vision.

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