If you need an e-bike you need a new city. I’ll explain it to you this way. Suppose you moved into a new house where all the taps had tiny handles and you couldn’t turn any of them without reaching for locking pliers. Would you carry locking pliers in your pocket? Or would you bite the bullet and get the taps changed?
Almost all of us in the western world live in cities that are too spread our for the majority of people to navigate them without motorised assistance—yes, I’m talking about our Dutch friends as well. These “garden-city” or “broadacre” cities leave us two choices: use machines for our transport (cars, trains, e-bikes etc), or bite the bullet and densify them the way cities were densified in the 1800s. Manhattan was not always so dense. In the early 1800s there was one house per lot in Northern Manhattan, just as you see in our suburbs today, but one-by-one Manhattan’s houses all got demolished and replaced with blocks of 20 apartments built hard up to the side and front property boundaries.
We can fix our suburbs, like fixing Manhattan, or fixing our taps. We just need to change zoning laws to permit 5 storey construction hard up to the side and front boundaries of every block where currently there is only one house. In every city a wave of redevelopment would flow from the centre outward, giving all those currently relegated to the suburbs an opportunity to live in the city. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Might property prices rise as they continue to rise all over Manhattan? Might our genteel* inner suburbs become creative centres like Copenhagen? Might our boring streets that are currently used mainly for driving get lined with cafes and patisseries as though we were somewhere in Paris?
E-bikes are just bandaid solutions to the problem of sprawl. They’re the locking pliers in your back pocket. In some ways it would be better if every man woman and child drove a tank for every last trip. That way the underlying problems with our twentieth-century models of urban development would be revealed.
I wouldn’t be writing if humanity had no more small country towns ready to balloon and become cities, but there are thousands of them, all over Africa, India and much of China, just waiting to become cities of millions or more. When they look to the West for inspiration, what do they see? They see cities with densities just low enough that driving is viable for anyone who can afford their own car, but spread out so much that the poor need a motor to cope with the distances of every day trips. What they need are densities so great that cars can get nowhere, so nobody tries. Moreover, they need an inspiring model of city planning coming from the countries which they look to for inspiration.
One country that can provide that inspiration is the Netherlands, for the simple reason that it is already providing the developing world with architectural services. Asian leaders admire Dutch rationality born of similar restrictions to available land faced in their countries. This is why I pick on my bicycle advocate friends in the Netherlands who naively think their garden cities/new towns can be reproduced all over the world and used as they use them themselves. They will be used the way remote villagers in Greece were found to be using the toilets that were given to them by the English: they used them as fireplaces. A Dutch cycle track in Africa will be used by riders of 125cc 2-stroke motorbikes to reach speeds of 100kph or more.
The challenge I’m setting myself with this blog is to conceive a city model that Westerners choose over garden cities, but which a dog-eat-dog world can’t ruin with motorbikes and with cars. Apologists for e-Bikes have a petty agenda, simply trying to redeem sprawling cities instead of biting the bullet and making them dense.
So what would entice you to live in a new city as dense as Manhattan? I’ll tell you what would get me to live in such a place, mobility, something that New York doesn’t offer. Unless New Yorkers are prepared to commit to a 40 minute train trip (walk/ wait/ ride/ stop/ ride/ stop/ ride/ stop/ ride/ stop/ transfer/ ride/ stop/ ride/ stop/ walk) they are generally trapped in their neighbourhood, unable to avail themselves of the opportunity they should have to connect with someone they have just met on the web who may share some very strange interest. Progressive politics, right now, is giving some New Yorkers the chance to make trips a little bit faster with bikes. But progressive politics is a transient thing. Nothing is stopping a mayor from being elected on the promise of giving motorbike riders the right to use Bloomberg’s bike infrastructure. The city would witness its second great influx of scum bags and exodus of nice people like me who have kids.
So I’m imagining a city as dense as New York, but which is inherently more suited to slow cycling than fast motorcycling or driving down at the ground plane. That’s my blogging reflection done for the day. Now back to the drawing board! Thanks for any comments or thoughts.