Building for Bikes in Car Cities

Among those of us batting for bicycle transport, many hold a quaint misconception that travel mode choices are made voluntarily. They suppose that whole cities will swap cars for bikes when they have their awakenings. Those holding onto such hopes make the inductive fallacy that because they personally choose to ride bikes, everyone else will choose to ride bikes when they see cycling is quicker, healthier, greener, etc.. If they could only stand back and take a whole of population view, they would see a city’s mode share is not a matter of cultural practice. Mode shares are built.
A city that illustrates this clearly is Rotterdam where 56% of all trips are by car, as compared to 28% in Amsterdam. Both cities have the same culture, the same “strict liability” laws to slow drivers, the same pancake flatness, the same kind of tram network and the same bike infrastructure. The difference is Rotterdam has motorways discharging traffic directly into the heart of the city where there are dozens of multi-storey car parking stations. The motorways and parking in Rotterdam are what makes this a city with double the driving. Relative to cycling, rates of driving in Rotterdam may appear to be falling, but that is only because cycling has excess capacity. The actual numbers of car trips in a city only ever increases once the mode has been built for with concrete and steel.

Museumpark: camouflaged car parking in Rotterdam

Museumpark: camouflaged car parking in Rotterdam

Aldo Rossi’s term “fact” seems apt in describing motorways and car parking stations in a car-city. These structures are facts in the way historic monuments in a city are facts. If destroyed they will be rebuilt in some guise, or at the very least they will live within cities’ memories.
Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle

Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle

The notion we hear from many bike advocates that one day all these monumental facts will be discarded or repurposed, relies either on Right beating Might at the ballot box and cars being taxed from existence, or on an energy crisis. Unfortunately, Right is yet to beat Might since democracy was devised by the Greeks. As for any fossil fuel supply hiccup, it will more likely usher in a nuclear age than one that is powered by pedals.
Neither does a recent doubling of bike trips world wide make it inextricable that car trips are now set to plummet. In fact these car cities we have built (among which Rotterdam is quite a tame one), could yet see their capacity for car trips increasing. If driverless cars had their day we could see existing car infrastructure handling ten times the number of car trips. Braking distances and cautionary gaps at intersections would be filled with computer driven cars programmed to miss each other by inches. Most would be driverless taxis.
Gardiner_aerial exist_main1
The motorways and car parking stations condemning our cities to car-centric futures are already there. They are built. They are facts. As a civilisation we have been spending our surpluses building these things like Egyptians building their pyramids. Humankind’s busiest 7 decades of urbanisation has coincided with: motorways aimed squarely at city centres; multi-storey car parking stations in cities; internal garaging in homes; the disappearance of cloakrooms because cars keep us dry; and the emergence of specialised jobs, schools and hobbies that have us driving all over our cities instead of staying put in one neighbourhood. Cars are like bytes, cities like hardware, and our organisational structures are software.
Conservatives needn’t worry about bikes screwing up the hardware and software of car-focused cities, just as they needn’t worry about the common cold virus infecting their harddrives. In cities organised around driving, bikes are not bona fide bytes. So long as car infrastructure exists and cycling is forced onto the crumbling edges of the street network, its modal share will max out somewhere between 5 and 10% like Portland’s in Oregon. Add Rotterdam’s unsurpassed bike infrastructure and you might reach that city’s bike modal share of 14%. The city will not be bike dependent. Families will not be car free. Specialised schools will keep drawing kids from the whole region. Little-league sports would still have away games. Your employer could still move to new premises on the outskirts of town. Choosing bikes will still call on your reserves of tenacity, like choosing to eat healthy in a world of fast food.
We might assume someone aiming to maximise their wealth and their health by going car free and depending on bikes instead would be better off living in Amsterdam than in Rotterdam. Employers and little league sports bodies there would surely be a little more mindful, after all, there are more trips by bike (38%), than driving (28%) or transit (30%). But if we look at the experience of cycling itself, in some ways it is better in Rotterdam.
Rotterdam has more bike parking in homes, thanks to most of its housing being built post-1950 when bike rooms were mandated by Dutch building codes. Better security means being able to use better bikes because there is less risk of having them stolen. The cycle tracks are generally smoother, and certainly less congested, and you can park your bike closer to the train station.
Thinking this way you begin to realise that all those extra bike trips in Amsterdam are not because the cycling is better, but because the driving is worse. The only lesson we can borrow from Amsterdam and take to the world, is that we need to demolish the freeways that run through our cities and demolish our car parking stations. In our car-loving democracies, that cannot happen.
The best minds in bicycle planning have car cities on a trajectory toward Rotterdam’s level of bike use, if we are lucky. But in the context of global warming and rising obesity, 14% is not enough. We need to stop hoping against hope that a democratically elected government will ban cars, or electric cars, or tax fuel, or not consider nuclear power if that’s what is needed to keep the cars running. We need to think more creatively, even obliquely, about ways to make cycling significant across the whole population. If you have followed this blog for a while, you will know that is what I am about. I’m largely drawing ideas from the history of the automobile’s ascension. There are lessons there that we can apply to put cycling on par. Actually, better than par, because the bike is an intrinsically rational tool where the car is full of redundancy.
Don’t be surprised if what you just read appears as the first few pages of my next book.  I would be delighted to hear your opinions, suggestions, corrections, whatever.


  1. Hamish says:

    Absolutely. But don’t just demolish the freeways. Build bike freeways. Beautiful, sculptural networks that entwine our cities with their own cloverleafs and onramps just for bikes. A fraction of the cost of car freeways, they will create their own induced demand, just like car freeways have done.

  2. Jim Moore says:

    Thank you for this very good post. I’m interested to know a architectural “rule-of-thumb” answer to whether it is cheaper to demolish a multi-story CBD car park or to retrofit it as an apartment building with commercial facilities on the ground floor.
    I ask this because I live in Adelaide where there are more public car park spaces (41k) than Sydney (30k) and Perth (10k) combined* (NB that is actual *spaces*, not per capita), so by the logic of your blogpost, which I am inclined to agree with, Adelaide would struggle to achieve Rotterdam’s 14% cycling mode share whilst most of these car parks remain. Personally/selfishly this wouldn’t be a bad thing for exactly the reasons you give but as you state, that’s not the point.
    Jim Moore

    • Steven says:

      Hi Jim, the floor to ceiling height in a multi storey apartment building is insufficient to accommodate living units. The code requires a 2.4 ceiling height for residential. I would argue for an easing of that restriction, for this very reason, and would like to know the real health and safety argument against low ceilings, that are permissible elsewhere in the world. But that’s a whole other can of worms.
      I honestly don’t think you will ever get rid of those car parking spaces (are there really 41,000!?). Your city is addicted to them. The next part of my argument is that the progressives in each city need to colonise brownfields for bicycle oriented redevelopment and protect those new areas from car parking. When the new city proves more competitive than the one with the 41000 car parks, peoples minds might be opened.

  3. That would be very fine (to colonise the brownfields) but in our money-loving democracy “progressives” aren’t allowed anywhere near the decisions, and the approval of towering apartment blocks is about the only economic lever the States have to keep foreign cash coming in to prop up the economy.
    Watch how Fishermens Bend turns into a mini Hong Kong over the next 20 years. Look at the disaster in Docklands (both Melbourne). I think your vision is as unlikely as demolition of car parks and motorways, unfortunately.

    • Steven says:

      well said! But I’m thinking of sites that aren’t as valuable to empty nesters and yuppies. Some other drivers of the kinds of development I have in mind would be affordable housing subsidies, and a demographic shift brought on by rising energy prices.
      I met a head honcho in Boston recently who let it slip that the car lobbie had seed funded the seaport redevelopment, to ensure it would be developed with wide roads and parking. My source clammed up when I asked him for details. There’s a story there, for some investigative journalist, I think.
      The situation is different though as we move further back from big CBDs.
      Thanks Nik!

Leave a Reply to Steven Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *