Why a bike city? Why not a mix of biking and transit?

BOOK-COVERLike the visionary architects of the 1930s who imagined a city where everyone would drive cars, I am imagining a city where everyone cycles. So much has been written about the folly of single mode travel, and the spurious ethics of the last generation who pushed one means of transport (the car) upon every person, that talk of point-to-point travel using one mode (even if it’s a good one like cycling) naturally raises alarm bells.

There are people in our society who due to neurological or physical impairments, or extreme frailty, will never be able to cycle, or ride a trike. I’m not so concerned about people in that category if they are relying right now on motorised taxis. Presumably they would be better serviced by pedicabs anyway—remembering a purpose-built bicycle city would be concentrated on flat lands, unencumbered by traffic lights, dense and permitting of beelines, and be built up with apartments that had big enough corridors and big enough lifts for a pedicab to bring our frail friends right to their doors.


I’m thinking of people who due to impairments, or even just preference (like Taras Grescoe the author of Straphanger[1]), will rightfully demand public transport. Surprising though it may seem, I’m not one of those bicycling zealots who thinks every bastard from 8 to 80 must cycle, or that everyone with Parkinson’s has to learn from this guy, or that the blind should have to stoke tandems or use sonar as though they were bats. There will always be people who reasonably require public transport. Where does the bike-city vision leave them?

To be clear, I am not about making public transport bad to help cycling. I am about making cycling so easy that public transport, regrettably, may no longer have enough patrons to support frequent services. Its users will be in the position of begging for subsidies (the way bicycling advocates these days must beg for some asphalt), or expect services to contract.

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From survey data gathered by the Dutch Ministry of Transport in 2009[2] we know there are seven times more people who derive joy from cycling than there are people who enjoy public transport. 1 in 10 get joy from public transport. 7 in 10 find joy on their bike. Even dirty old driving brings joy to just over a half. That explains why if you provide Dutch people (or anyone, really) with amenity for driving that at least half of all trips will be taken by car, as happens in Rotterdam, and why if you give them great cycling amenities that most are going to cycle, as they do in Groningen. People like Taras Gresgoe can rave all they like about trains being fun. 9 out of 10 disagree.

The ease of driving in Rotterdam and cycling in Groningen explains why relatively less has been spent on transit in these two cities than in cites where it is harder to drive or ride bikes (take New York for example). These are people with the option of travelling by either one of two modes that bring a lot of them joy. The handful remaining who by choice or necessity demand a bus or rail service, would not have the numbers to fill a great service that ran every 10 minutes and covered every nook of the city. In places like these that have lesser demand, public transport can only run according to an infrequent timetable, or alternatively only cover a few transit-oriented tracts through the city.

Looking out of my window at an Australian city, I see nothing wrong with replacing the hegemony of cars with the hegemony I am proposing, of bikes. Those who need buses would be no worse off than they are now. But a problem would come if a city like Amsterdam had a bike modal share of 90 percent, as could achieved if end-of-trip strategies were built into all buildings to eliminate the problem of bike theft, and if shelter removed the inequity of cycling being the one mode remaining where people get wet. Without genuine safeguards (human rights charters, or whatever) Cycling’s success would lead to a whittling away of either frequency or coverage of public transport in a mixed-mode city like Amsterdam. It would do that, quite simply, by stealing its patrons.

No, my work will never be printed in brail or made into an audio book for the blind. They and others relying on transit are not natural benefactors from my bike-centric vision. I bank on the fact that people like these who can’t cycle are outnumbered fifty to one by others who are going to die early unless cycling takes over. Rates of obesity and chronic disease related to inactivity in the course of our days, are in the order of 20 to 60 percent, depending on what study you read. Blindness is a real bummer for a handful of people, but obesity is a first-world disaster. And public transport, alas, is doing nothing to change that.

The polite fiction of our era, that architects and urban designers have been all too willing to buy into, is that 30 to 60 minutes a day walking between bus stops and buildings, is a sufficient dosage of movement to maintain our health. Unfortunately our species evolved to do a lot more than that. Colleagues of mine at the Harvard School of Public Health checked up on 18,000+ middle aged women whose weights they knew from another study 16 years prior. The long and the short of it, is the women who reported plenty of brisk walking each day had been putting on weight while the smaller number who reported they were regularly cycling, had not. You can read that study here.

In a society such as ours where work no longer helps us burn calories, cycling helps control weight because it raises ones metabolic equivalent of task (MET) by on average 8 times, compared to the base rate of 1 we have while we’re resting. The only other activity that speeds our metabolisms like that is walking up stairs, which few of us are likely to do for any duration. Walking on the flat has an average MET score of 3. Here is a neat summary of those MET scores.

I’ll leave this blog post for my learned readers to offer conclusions. If you haven’t read it already, it would really help the discussion if you took a moment to do a little background reading here, on the viability of a bike-centric city. And as always, even if you think I stink, thanks a lot for actually reading!


  1. Nick zintilis says:

    I think you should call your book VELOPIA.
    I agree with much of your writing but there are two factors you do not mention- The Weather and Lazyness.
    Around here the sevo assisted bikes are what sell.
    Nick Amstelveen Holland

    • Steven says:

      Velopia just got added to my list of (now) 3 possible titles. You guys and the Danes have made a grave mistake allowing powered bikes on your bicycle infrastructure. Conditions for cycling are in many ways safer in Australia, for those of us who ride on the footpath. That said, I did see an e-bike on the footpath in Sydney last weekend. Which is why these disguised motorbikes aught to be banned 🙂

  2. Nick zintilis says:

    As long as these hybride bikes are electric,they do not bother me.

  3. […] I see zero wrong with replacing a omnipotence of cars with a omnipotence we am proposing, of bikes. Those who need buses would be no worse off than they are now. But a problem would come if a city like Amsterdam had a bike modal share of 90 percent, as could achieved if end-of-trip strategies were built into all buildings to discharge a problem of bike theft, and if preserve private a inclination of cycling being a one mode remaining where people get wet. — cycle-space.com […]

  4. Peter Normand says:

    I think a bike focused city is limited by size, that dimension is based on terrain, climate and the basic arrangement of bike paths and bike lanes, this is the sweat dimension, how far can you bike before you are sweaty, Chicago is flat but in the summer it is hard to pedal more than a few miles before being drenched in sweat. Cites where the temperatures are not so hot have a longer pre sweaty travel distance and can be covered by bikes instead of cars. In Atlanta or Miami this distance before sweating is too short. As for the buildings having wider halls and or bike storage, this is also a hard thing to sell since it is not leas able area and can drive up the cost of housing pushing the poor further out into the periphery of a city away from jobs parks and other social ammenities

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Peter! The sweat radius… great way of saying it. Reminds me of the importance of shade, and maybe even cooling mist… whatever we can throw at the problem. After all, far more is spent on drivers in a car city. When I consulted on cycling to the singapore government I was even talking about air showers in doors on arrival. Wider access galleries (think Robinhood Gardens or Park Hill estate in the UK) aren’t so expensive when they are only on every third level and replace giant car parking podiums. And yes, when I say every third level, I am implying maisonette flats with internal stairs. We have to start building for families in cities. Thanks for bringing an architect’s perspective!

  5. Nick zintilis says:

    Yes noise and moderate speed.

  6. “The long and the short of it, is the women who reported plenty of brisk walking each day had been putting on weight while the smaller number who reported they were regularly cycling, had not. You can read that study here.”
    With respect, the study appears to say no such thing. It shows a tendency to lose weight by more of either brisk walking or bicycling. In fact, the negative mean weight gain due to an increase by 30min/day of brisk walking (-1.81kg; 95% CI -2.05kg to -1.56kg) is a greater loss of weight than what was due to bicycling (−1.59 kg; 95% CI −2.09kg to −1.08kg). This gap is more pronounced for obese or overweight subjects.
    Perhaps you meant slow walking? That category does show a slight mean weight gain (+0.06kg; 95% CI −0.22kg to 0.35kg) despite an increase of 30min/day. Even so, being sedentary predicts much greater weight gain, so it’s not for nothing to be walking at all.

    • Steven says:

      My reading has always been affected, I’ll admit, by time I’ve spent with the authors on later bike related projects. I’m going to try to wash those conversations from my mind and read it with fresh eyes the way you have.
      Anne Lusk, one of the authors, presents a neat summary when she gives public talks. She says cycling doesn’t really let you slacken off, because you’re often having to lift the effort to get back up to speed after stopping, or having to tackle slight rises (bridges over canals, if you live in Holland).
      Between you and me, and my 2 or 3 other close readers, empirical studies don’t really help urban design theorists. Deduction is used to reach findings, but induction is needed to put those findings to use.
      Once again, valuable input! Thank you!!

    • I totally agree with the notion that bicycles offer a greater capacity for exertion than walking; I tend to do more of the latter these days, but my doctor, quite correctly, won’t accept it as sufficiently strenuous exercise. Bicycling is recommended, but it must be done the point of elevated heart rate and breathing for at least 15-30 min/day. That goes against my no-sweat policy of transportation by foot or bike, however, so I find I have to go out of my way to achieve that standard of exercise. Good urban design should make it easy to choose to take the scenic or hilly route at my discretion, just as my bike (or even e-bike) allows me to choose how hard I work upon it.

    • Steven says:

      I just read the paper again and must confess to understanding nothing of the first half whatsoever. The comments at the end confirm your point, that brisk walking does control weight. The problem is that people who already have a weight problem can’t walk briskly, so get stuck on a slippery slope, becoming even more obese in a pedestrian/transit oriented city.

  7. Luke says:

    “I’m thinking of people who due to impairments, or even just preference (like Taras Grescoe the author of Straphanger[1]), will rightfully demand public transport.”
    Not sure you need to do anything very drastic:

    • Steven says:

      I’m thinking of myself in Holland a few weeks ago, with an infected eye, unable to ride a bike that day.

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