Vision for a Bicycle Utopia: Part 2

I made the point at the beginning of Part 1 in this series that urban growth for the rest of this century will be focused a lot more on brownfields (old docklands, landfill areas, old factory sites, gas works etc.). How will we develop this land?


If we were having this discussion in the post war era, we would be talking about developing these sites with towers set in an imagined park setting. We’ve seen though how those parks quickly turned into indefensible car parks.

Loughborough Estate in Brixton

Loughborough Estate in Brixton

If we were living in the 80s, we would be using theories drawn from the Urban Design conferences that started at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in the late fifties. We would be drawing up masterplans that would look good on paper to people like Jose Sert, Jane Jacobs, Gordon Cullen, and today’s poster boy for low-rise, high-site coverage development, Jan Gehl. The most recent development cycle would have spawned new style versions of Paris.


The reason that didn’t happen, is architects spent the early 2000s paying lip service to urban design principles, but actually serving ultra conservative financiers who insisted apartment buildings all have enormous garages. Here’s why: Stefan van der Spek at TU Delft fitted tracking devices to condo dwellers in Rotterdam, and found they virtually never came out on the street. They would take the lift down to the parking garage and shoot off like Batman to all the same shopping centres they had frequented during their years in the burbs raising their kids.

stefan van der spek

Without instant car access to suburban shopping malls, national parks, beaches, Ikea, mountaintop lookouts and Hoover dam, we know a person will die within a few months. We don’t actually know that for sure, but at the same time, we don’t want to provide apartments without ample garaging, in case it is true.

1939-worlds-fair-futurama-swscan01514-copy-2-copyIn architecture courses and urban design programs we talk about contemporary development patterns in terms of exemplary notions, for example, towers in a park and European typologies. It’s a pity neither of those models has ever had a huge knock-em-dead expo pavilion built to explain them, with 28,000 people per day passing through, and bottomless sponsorship from General Motors. To understand its impact, you have t understand this was a diorama that was one acre in size, and the #1 attraction at the World’s Fair. People viewed it as though from a low flying plane, sitting on seats attached to the kind of conveyor we all know from baggage carousels. Historically, its timing could not have been better, coming out of the Depression, just before WW2. It would be the basic impetus for President Truman’s National Highway project and Levittown, that Australia would copy.

The Futurama didn’t only show suburbs. It showed mixed-use buildings in city centres as well, all with parking garages and instant access to major roads. Now that we’re consolidating our city centres, it’s worth a second look at Bel Geddes’s predictions. To my eyes the similarities between what he predicted, and the city apartments we’ve just started building here in Australia, are glaring. They make all our high talk about Transit Oriented Development, ecologically sustainable development, walkable neighbourhoods, and now bike friendly development, sound like pure filibuster. Fundamentally, we’re building on an automotive mobility platform. The only difference is, these days, we like to disguise it.

Museumpark: camouflaged car parking in Rotterdam

Museumpark: camouflaged car parking in Rotterdam

Why should it bother me, as a cyclist, if all this car infrastructure goes in behind? Surely cars serve a wider spectrum of society than bikes ever could. We’re told too that driving is a user-pays system, that motorists pay for quite handsomely with rego, fuel tax and car parking fees. And can’t we design for cars in ways that don’t impede cyclists? I don’t agree with any of these assumptions.

First: car based urbanism only properly serves drivers, which means people with good eyes and health, who are over 18, with 5K a year in expendable income. Thankfully for most of us, it’s okay to occasionally get a bit tipsy, or answer our cell phone, or run a red light, or sneak over the speed limit, or park on a footpath or bike path. Otherwise we would all be excluded from a car based society.

But give me a bike based society any day. There aren’t many around. Perhaps Groningen in the Netherlands, Copenhagen to a degree, Ferrara in Italy for a few people whose lives don’t take them far from the town centre. What we do see in these places, is anyone from age 8 to 80 can enjoy bicycle transport.

if driving were user-pays

I don’t agree either that driving is a user pays system, not when a moving car and the braking space in front of it occupies at least 100 meters squared. My footprint as a cyclist is more like 5 meters squared, while a pedestrian occupies less than 1 meter squared of public land. I wish driving were user pays. By the hour, pedestrians would pay a buck, I would pay 5 for riding my bike, and drivers would be charged over $100 per hour.

But the real problem with cars, is they slow cyclists down. I don’t mean that to be some kind of “Man Bites Dog” grab for a news headline. I’m being serious. Commute times were shorter in cities when bikes set the pace, and shortest in cities where many of bikes overwhelmed a few cars.


For all our efforts with road engineering, the best effective speed (which means distance divided by time) we’ve been able to achieve for cars within cities is around 10kph — if you count time spent circling the block for a park, or walking to and from parked cars, that would come down even more. The irony is the more we try to increase effective car speeds, the lower they become. No city has wasted more money to help cars than Los Angeles, where the average motorist spends the equivalent of 4 whole days every year frozen in gridlock, not moving at all.

bike flow

Cars are a doomed mode, and wherever they are introduced they bugger up a mode that has been proven to work. If you watch footage of bike traffic in Denmark in the 1940s, you note that cyclists don’t stop, and that was on city blocks inherited directly from horse and cart days.


Imagine the effective speeds we could achieve with modern bikes and if cities and buildings were designed around cycling, the way LA is designed around driving, or Venice is designed around boats?

rs_1 Kopenhagen, groene golf voor fietsers

We know from Copenhagen’s “green wave” traffic light phasing that the average cyclist can cruise at around 20kph on the flat. The brownfields we need to develop to cope with population growth are generally flat, as are the easements that once ferried commodities between all of our brownfields. Let’s run enclosed back-drafted bicycle highways along all those easements…


…and develop the brownfields on a bicycle mobility platform. If we figure out ways for bikes to move as the crow flies between destinations, without ever braking, we’ll be building urban districts with the lowest possible travel times relative to the size of the populations connected.

bicycle mogul field

If you’re able to get along to The Dollars and Sense of Building for Bikes in Sydney next Tuesday, I will be revealing some morphological and typological studies of new approaches to city planning designed around cycling, that I can’t publish here on my blog. “Dollars and Sense” is an initiative of Short Communications, in collaboration with BIKESydney and the Australian Institute of Architects. I’m being flown from Tassie to Sydney by Omafiets, who offered to dink me, but next time.


  1. kfg says:

    “We know from Copenhagen’s “green wave” traffic light phasing that the average cyclist can cruise at around 20kph on the flat.”
    Although the timing works at double that. I want an express lane.

    • Steven says:

      It took me two reads to figure out what you were saying, but you’re right, a working peloton, velomobile, gun time trial rider or kfg could cross copenhagen at 40kph. Do you?

    • kfg says:

      I think I was born on the wrong continent.

  2. crank says:

    Found this great image regarding space requirements
    “GE streetcar ads from 1928, left, and the early 1940s, right, emphasize the efficiency of mass transit over private automobiles.”

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