3 things to build before bike infrastructure

Should it be the case that you live in a freestanding house, with a double garage, your only access to work and to schools via roads surveyed in the age of the streetcar or later, then woopsy my bike loving friend, you bought the wrong house, and you are never going to have that cycleway network you sketched on a napkin. That is because 98% of your neighbours can’t see the point of a cycleway network, at least not if they already have some sort of trail for walking their dogs.

Brief aside: I’m lucky to live in a city where the bones of such a network was established in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis, as happened in Minneapolis too. But when the oil crisis ended, so too did the need to service car land with bikes.

Here’s a question to ponder. Was bike infrastructure the first thing great bicycling cities built that led to their cycling, or had each already been building in ways that would predispose them to cycling when the bike was invented? I can count at least three things that were being built in bike cities before bikes were invented. If you want yours to become a bike city, you should be promoting these first.

1. Levees. When powered transportation machines came on the scene, overnight it became cheaper to take new development into the hills than it had been to build on the lowlands. The 19th century city was down on the flat to be near the barges and carts. Having to protect the lowlands from flooding with levees or encased drains was easier, at that time, than transporting people and goods up and down hills.

Streetcars and cars were game changers. The clearest example among hundreds of cities is Lisbon. The small plane it was built on—that had been destroyed once already by a tsunami—was turned over to the dirt poor and tourists in the twentieth-century (from the 1870s to 1950s) when the streetcar network was being developed. It’s the first European city I ever flew into. It sprawls for miles like any other. The old part of town appears as a dot. Look to the yellow tip of the plane wing:


In the twentieth-century flood-prone land was passed over for urban development. These days it’s where you will go to buy bricks or where old tractors sit rusting. The blue map we produced after our workshop in Brisbane shows just how much flat land is going to waste, because they’re too cheap to build levees. The canal district of Amsterdam, where they did spend the money on levees, could be built twenty times over on land being used now for storage or unused reserves.


2. High Density Housing. Since an African tribesman knows more about high density housing than the average white suburbanite slob, there are things I need to explain. The building type you associate with high density, the tower block, in fact tends to lower the number of people, per square kilometre, in a high density city. Paris, Barcelona, Manhattan, etc, are dense thanks to 5 and 6 storey buildings built right to their boundaries with narrow courtyards and light wells punched down the centre.

The beauty of the mid-rise/high-site-coverage perimeter block, from our point of view as bike lovers, is it kills driving dead as an option for cities. These buildings produce densities in the range of ten to thirty thousand people per square kilometre. What percentage of those, even if they all had garaging, could take their car on the street at one time without breaking the system? In round figures: zero.

Cycling becomes the natural option for urban mobility in a city of perimeter blocks. It’s only enemies are unnatural options, like driving, motor scooters and trains. Barcelona and Amsterdam are two of many daft cities that have given a green light to fume-spewing and dangerous scooters, pushing away families with children, thus becoming cities of rats. In fifty years they’ll see sense and revert to their natural state, which is to be cities of cyclists. In New York they tried moving apartment dwellers to the underground for their transport as a way of clearing room at street level for rich people’s cars—revolutions show us how plans such as that one are likely to end.

The default position of the democratic high density city is cycling.

3. Short Blocks. Cycle tracks designed to protect cyclists from cars have become symbols of progress, but they’re not even needed in a city with a fine network of streets. Are there cycle tracks running East West in Manhattan? No and there never will be, because the frequency of streets diffuses the traffic. The southern tip of Manhattan has a super fine (seventeenth-century) grid of streets running each way, and has become so dense that only Obama would bother with driving. Possibly the most euphoric experience I’ve had on a bike was with my mate David riding our Bromptons around there at ten in the evening, feeling as though we were riding in a purpose-built bike park. Downtown Manhattan doesn’t need bike infrastructure to be a bicycling paradise.

Summary: you’re swimming against the tide with your cycleway plans for the suburbs, and with the tide by supporting the densification of lowlands. So there.


  1. Nik Dow says:

    Couldn’t agree more, fly over an Australian City and see the absurd disconnect between the super-high towers in the small CBD (it’s a dot on the map, like Lisbon’s old centre), and the suburbs, which don’t rise much above 2 storeys, all detached dwellings. Sydney is the partial exception where the inner suburbs do have more apartments but the height drop-off between the CBD and even the inner suburbs is dramatic even there.
    As I mentioned in a previous comment, the terrace houses that surround the city centre in Melbourne and to a lesser extent in other AU capitals, are much loved and now occupied by wealthy people who fight against “development” in their backyards. In-fill in these suburbs that doesn’t knock down the fine old terraces, and does knock down the crappy single story workers cottages and weatherboards is resisted. So we have suburbs.
    Even the City of Melbourne’s modest plan to house a million people by building 4-6 storey apartment blocks along fixed rail routes was quietly buried by the NIMBY captured one-term conservative government that also effectively banned wind-farms and tried to spend 12Bn on a new road tunnel.
    Those inner suburbs don’t have the density but they do have pre-tram road networks which could be reclaimed, and a lot of their housing stock should be bulldozed (I know, I have owned two of them, shitty weatherboard dumps) and rebuilt properly. Some infill in these suburbs is 3-4 stories, where developers and councils can override the local NIMBYs but not enough to make a difference to the urban sprawl, which continues unabated, building tomorrow’s slums when petrol is too expensive.

    • Steven says:

      I’m so glad that idea isn’t being lost on all bike advocates’ ears 🙂
      I’m looking for an angle with the book I’m now writing to reach a broad audience with the idea that they shouldn’t be encouraging sprawl through their own spending. I’d like to see everyone driving into a mega mall tarred with the same brush as sex tourists or people building decks out of merbau.

    • Ian S says:

      I now live in a country centre. How the hell do you even start to suggest such a sane change to the landscape? Here the car is king and designing for mobility that doesn’t involve rough transitions between path-road unheard of.

      • Steven says:

        I was called and asked to go work in Launceston Tasmania a little over 3 years ago. Great job. Fine freestanding house looking over the town centre with mountains behind. I recently left with a better understanding of the high rates of suicide among middle aged men in country towns.

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