Saying “yes” to the e-bike is saying “no” to good city design.

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?

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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.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDoRmT0iRic

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.

*Thanks Luke for correcting my spelling

36 Comments

  1. Luke says:

    A few things

    1. You’ve done gentile for genteel again.

    2. What would it take to live in Manhattan? I suspect the potential of earning lots of money. All the bollocks surveys of “good places to live” miss out this bleeding obvious factor – yes, Alnwick is a nice place, but you can earn shedloads more in London.

    3. Repeating myself – “So what would entice you to live in a new city as dense as Manhattan?” The opportunity to have a an interesting job that pays absolutely shedloads of money. Unlike Hicksville, where you have a boring job that pays sod all.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Luke, my brief time as an evangelical Christian in my late teens has come back to haunt me. I’m so embarrassed I will edit the text. Thanks!
      Points 2 and 3 complete my post, thanks! The whole point of being able to meet people face to face who share peculiar interests, is to develop knowledge, patents, products, services and other things that make money. My wife and I spent the first half of 2006 in New York, by the end of which I have a novel being reviewed by a half dozen agents thanks to face-to-face contact I had been able to make at authors’ groups. Okay, so that novel didn’t make me a million. But it could have!

  2. perthbiker says:

    I like this analogy. And, when we knock down those single houses and put up the 5 story constructions let’s make sure the first two levels are not a car park. That’s the current planning requirement once you leave Perth’s central business area.

    • Steven says:

      each of those new car parks will slow the speed of all cars in the city, until the property owners give up taking their cars out and elect you a mayor who designates car space for cycling. At that point the body-corporate will want to make a bit of a windfall by repurposing the car parks as they are doing in Sydney in London. A council with foresight will insist on higher floor to floor heights in those car parks so they can later be converted to apartments, or perhaps shops. I think bicycle advocacy groups, liek Bicycle Network, have a role in educating local governments so they write this requirement into their development control plans. Otherwise they will be left with strata-title building stock that can’t be demolished or fully used— unless of course building codes are changed to let people walk around beneath really low ceilings.

  3. crank says:

    It won’t surprise me if everyone is driving Marauders in ten years. Remember when Mercedes and BMW etc were known for making fine vehicles? Now they are just another “me too” SUV maker. Most cars these days are already taller than an average person, and tinted to opaqueness.

    • Steven says:

      I suspect we are heading toward a tapestry in most cities: a grey network of roads fought over by individualists and teslar, and a layer of parkways for those of us wanting to ride to work in fresh air. If you’re ethically minded you will insist on buying from merchants and service providers who stick to the green network as you do.

  4. user1 says:

    “use machines for our transport (cars, trains, e-bikes etc), or bite the bullet and densify them”

    You’ve forgotten about making the hills flat or rather demolishing the parts of cities which are placed on hills (which sometimes mean town centres, like in my town). But I like the sound of this post much more than the previous ones: e-bikes are not needed in ideal cities (at least if older people had an alternative), they are only needed in real ones.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks for mentioning hills. Their development is a complete aberration and may they go back to the goats 🙂

    • mariposaman says:

      Those pesky old people, and the disabled, can’t walk or ride a bicycle! What do we do with them in Velotopia? Lock them away in basements or turn them into Soylent Green? I guess Velotopia is only for the young and fit, and the few of us that age gracefully with no disease or disabilities to slow us down.

      Strangely ebikes could accommodate (some of) them and at the same time figuratively flatten the hills. It would make more sense to live on the hills, and leave the fertile flat lands for food production, not the other way around.

      Your Velotopia is a scary concept, built around the bicycle machine, as scary as the present cities built around that other machine, the automobile.

      I doubt the presence of absence of ebikes is going to make city planning any different one way or the other, unlike the way automobiles have, nor the way bicycles have. There are no ebike lanes or facilities, not even ebike charging stations, open hostility in city councils. I am surprised you do not at least support pedelecs, where an underpowered motor provides a pedaling assist only.

    • Steven says:

      If I’m right, you live in toronto, a vast sprawling city, and are part of a group of people who get together on e-bikes to explore long trail networks. Seems like a fine way to make something good out of the sprawl.

    • mariposaman says:

      Close. However ebikes are banned in trails in Toronto until recently. In fact Toronto City Council until recently considered ebikes as motor vehicles and were allowed in only live traffic lanes. There was a recent softening of this position allowing pedelecs anywhere bicycles are allowed, but heavier scooter styled ebikes are still banned. Lest you think the City Council are your kindred spirits, their bicycle infrastructure is rather primitive compared to some other cities and countries.

  5. mariposaman says:

    E-bikes are illegal in New York.

    • Steven says:

      Nice to know! Thanks!

    • mariposaman says:

      The reasons are more racist than idealist. Mainly Chinese that deliver take out have become a “nuisance” on the streets and sidewalks. Instead of training and enforcement of existing laws, New York has decided on banning, high fines and confiscation.

      I wonder what happens in Velotopia to the rebels who use motors to get around, will they be jailed, sent to “re-education camps” or eliminated? Or like New York, use fines and confiscation?

  6. mariposaman says:

    This is one of the lamest excuses for not using ebikes I have heard, that ebike use might delay good city design. Personally I think good city design includes walking, bicycle and ebike use as a priority, it makes a city a better place to live than the car centric cities we find as the present default model.

  7. crank says:

    I think you’re missing the point of the Velotopia *model*. The e-bike is an enabler for sub-optimal choices, be it great distances between home and work, putting things on the top of high hills, or going directly up steep gradients. It can become an excuse.

    If the *model* deems the bicycle or walking should be sufficient, it guides our decision making to make that happen, with a better outcome for non-motorist transport.

  8. crank says:

    that was meant in reply to maripsaman@nov19,7:58am.

    the ebike ban is interesting. I remember pedaling up a hill in NY when a old guy smoking a cigarette flew past me laden with bags of fast food. what the!? I have to admit there was some pretty nutty riding by some of them (warning, that was anecdotal evidence).

    https://www.electricbike.com/ebike-illegal/

    However, seeing some of these ebikes becoming fetishized like urban trail-bikes, it lends credence to Dr Behooving’s stance.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Crank, but I doubt Maripossuman was paying full attention himself 🙂 People want praise for ways they themselves have adapted to their own urban environments. Few will ever be able to see how we produce space with our planning, constructions and actions.

  9. I will have to plead guilty here. As my commute to work is 42 kilometres each way and the return journal involves 42 km of coastal riding (literally on the coast for most of it) into Fremantle Doctor which on a good day is only a 20 to 30 km/h headwind in summer (last week it was a 60 km/h headwind on two days) I have caved in an converted one of my bikes to electric.

    On a positive note my other three bikes are still fully human powered 🙂

    • Steven says:

      You haven’t caved to the ebike. Your city has caved to sprawl.

    • crank says:

      So your commute would have taken you twice across the breadth of Velotopia!

    • Well if Murdoch University would like to give me a job I wouldn’t need the e-bike as my commute would be more reasonable 🙂

      On a positive note I live in Fremantle and the council is working hard to reduce car usage in CBD and to replace it with walking and cycling but it only really plays out in the CBD not the fringes or in the greater Fremantle area.

  10. Pete says:

    The excuse they like to call a power-assited bike (e-bikes are a European standard design, a very different thing) are defacto motor-bikes and would be illegal in Australia. Some are legally sold up to 750W in the US and capable of travelling at up to 80kmh, using bicycle brakes and technology. All throttle controlled. These are illegal, unregisterable, motor-bikes in Aus, so please do not confuse the two.

    A 250W e-bike (with automatic throttle), or a 200W PAB with manual throttle will generally be ridden at bicycle speeds, not a madcap racer, nor an anti-social moto. Mostly they are ridden by the elderly, middle-aged newbies to cycling (getting rid of their car), preple with disabilities, drivers who have lost the licence and are making a life-change (permanent or temporary) and some young urbanite hipsters. There are illegal power-assist bikes, modified or over-powered. These are mostly ridden in the outer burbs by teens, various bogan types, and a few who feel the 200/250W limit is beneath them.

    The answer is not to ban e-bikes (would you like to see all these people jump into the car instead?). The answer is to more rigorously enforce the e-bke/PAB rules.

    • crank says:

      Pete, these are all good and valid points (thanks for highlighting the technicalities) but it’s apparent you aren’t familiar with the Velotopia model Stephen is extolling here – read back through previous posts, such as:

      http://cycle-space.com/recipe-for-velotopia/
      http://cycle-space.com/velotopia-a-touchstone-notion/

      Why shouldn’t an elderly person be able to get around our utopian vision for a city on a bicycle? I hope to one day! Also there are no cars in Velotopia, so there is no risk of people jumping back into them and slowing us all down 🙂

      Dr B, you may need a disclaimer on your blog much like what Scott Adams often uses. Comprehension is scarce on the internet 🙂 Many readers are so head-down trying to make their car-centric cities cycle-friendly (aren’t we all?) they are completely missing the point here.

  11. Pete says:

    Velotopia…… like the density of New York City? Nup, personally I couldn’t think of anything much worse. Too damn crowded, way too many people. Socially isolating and anonymity rules.
    I could thnk more favourably about living in a cycle-friendly city the size and shape of Lucca or Florence. Long walk or short ride to the countryside (accessible for farmers), a compact form but not alienating, a human scale to the buildings, much less need for high-tech construction methods or building services, and much easire to provide the space for people to park their bikes or store their personal materials (as opposed to a 3 square NYC apartment). Five floors up – that’s all.
    http://i1327.photobucket.com/albums/u666/petesig26/Italia%20Tour%202013/Into%20Tuscany/IMG_0606_zps19c66487.jpg

    • Steven says:

      Work takes me to Florence each year. Lovely spot. Population, less than 300,000, from memory. Meanwhile Africa and Asia are sending billions looking for jobs in new cities.

  12. Pete says:

    There’s your problem – trying to cram tens of millions into just one city. It becomes impractical and unsustainable as the journey time to get into/out of the city by walking or bicycle is intolerable. Travel anywhere else is not readily possible, transport of goods in particular becomes punitive.

    • Steven says:

      I’m not so sure. I lived for a while in New York, and have been back quite a few times with a bike. I can reach the farthest of two million people in half an hour by bike.

    • crank says:

      Manhattan != New York. While Manhattan is dense, New York is sprawling. The Velotopia model depicted has about the same population of Manhattan living in roughly twice the area. Lucca and Florence are cool. Eliminating wasteful suburbs allows space for cool towns, and productive farmland.

  13. Christine Laurence says:

    I agree with most of this but still see a place for ebikes. Would have loved one when I lived in a flat in Coogee, one of the densest and hilliest parts of Sydney. They would make it a dream to cruise up the hill to the shops.

    • Steven says:

      I don’t know the history of Coogee but am guessing those flats were built after a tram was put in to the cope with the hills. In one sense that was the beginning of machine-powered sprawl. If only Sydney had burgeoned in the 19th century, it would have developed with New York style density on flat lands leading South of the CBD

  14. Anonymous says:

    You’re absolutely correct about the tram-led development – we lived just across the road from the old tram cutting and our bus followed the old tram route. However, not sure I’d characterise Randwick, Redfern, Paddington, Kings Cross, Glebe, Potts Point, early centres of terraces and apartments, ‘sprawl’. Not New York, certainly, but entirely walkable (or cycle-able).

  15. mariposaman says:

    One last post and I will leave you alone. In the zeal to densify, what happens to elevators? Are these not just vertical (electric) motorized vehicles. You will just be swapping vertical people moving for horizontal people moving. Maybe you can point me to your position on these, I am sure you have addressed the issue.

    • Steven says:

      the main focus of my work is the creation of building typologies that remove elevators. Look to the top of this page and click “slip-block” and “velohome”. No need to leave me alone. I appreciate your thoughts about ebikes. This is a good place to have them read by people who are thinking about these very issues. Thanks 🙂

  16. […] and sprawl: E-bikes are “just bandaid solutions to the problem of sprawl,” argues Stephen Fleming. The real fix, he says: 1800s-style dense […]

  17. Colin says:

    “E-bikes are just bandaid solutions to the problem of sprawl.”

    For me they’re a solution to the combination of hills and heavy loads. Neither on their own is sufficient, but together they render cycling impractical even for a fit enthusiast like me. Cycling a steep >100 metre hill carrying 30 kg is a common thing even in dense cities. Not many people will do this without some help from a motor.

    I know your theory that hilly cities are just another outcome of auto-centrism, and while there’s some truth to it there’s too many exceptions for me to accept it. My city (Sydney) has genuine hills throughout much of its pre-auto era footprint, and even within its pre-tram and pre-railroad area, and I can think of a bunch of cities throughout the world that are the same.

    If you’re interested in the design of “new” cities that are designed around (non-e-) bikes, then you’ll have to do some bulldozing to remove the hills, and perhaps a zero-child policy to minimise load-carrying. Once you’re in the “let’s design a society from scratch” mode such policies aren’t too far-fetched. It could be Dr Behooving’s year zero.

    And that’s where talk of utopian models, even for a “velotopia”, takes me.

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