Protected bike lanes: the Beta cassettes of bicycle planning

They may well be remembered as the Beta cassettes of bicycle planning. In cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, that retained high bike modal shares when cities elsewhere in the world had lost cycling completely, they were the easiest elements to photograph and adopt. They were viewed as the silver bullet solution.
But in those places where they were replicated, did they actually work?
Yes and no.
Generally no.
They worked the way toilet bowls work when you give them to primitive tribes. Sometimes they were used as intended. At other times they were used as foot paths or car parks, the way toilet bowls often get used as fire places in the third world — here’s an old blog post of mine to explain.

Last week, through a partnership with the International New Towns Institute, I had the opportunity to design a bicycle network for the Guangming new district, just North of Shenzhen. Here’s the thing though: Guangming already has a bicycle network! Virtually every street has been built with a protected cycle track at the side. The problem, as you see in the image above, is those cycle tracks are being used for car parking. Move from the town centre and you will see they are being used to store rubble, and even as sites for police posts. They’re as good as toilet bowls given to remote tribes.
The whole time we were designing a more robust system for Guangming—based on a network of traffic calmed streets and greenways beside rivers and parks—I was wondering: “Why even bother?” Outside of bike advocacy circles, interest in safe cycling networks comes and goes in barely discernible ripples. Meanwhile something far better for cycling is rising like a tsunami: interest among planners in car-free centres and districts. Streets like the one pictured below in Shenzhen are so successful you could expand them like a lattice across the whole city. London is filling with POPs (privately owned places), most of them completely car free. Redeveloped brownfields are invariably oriented around car-free streets at the centre. In many cities so much car free space is being established that it’s likely all to link up long before you will be able to say the same of the so-called “bicycle network”.

Among architects and planners in the two cities I’ve been working in lately, Oslo and Amsterdam, the talk is not about cycle tracks. It’s about stopping cars before they even enter the ring roads. Look what UN Studio are proposing for Amsterdam’s A10 ring road: spiralling park-&-ride centres for motorists to exchange their car for a bike if they want to go into the centre.

Already this interest in car free districts and centres is creating examples like Markveien in Oslo, a street on which a cycle track has been made redundant (the small image on the right shows the before situation). A little redirection of traffic at both ends of the street, and the removal of parking, means the carriageway now belongs to cyclists and the tiny number of motorists remaining are now merely treated as guests. As for the “Copenhagen style” cycle track at the side of the street, well now it’s just a curious curb in the middle of a very wide footpath.

The conversation has changed. While bicycle advocates have been politely accepting the presence of cars and lobbying for cycle tracks that skirt around them, those at the vanguard of city planning are saying cars will soon stop at the ring road. Even the pragmatists are more radical than the bike planners, talking of car free city centres and car free redevelopment districts.

The questions to ask now, are: 1. how can the car-free districts in cities be linked with linear space of the same quality? and 2. how large can car free districts become, before people need cars to move in them? I’m not going to answer either question here in a blog post, not when I’ve just released a new book with both answers!
The question I can answer, is, why are cities going car free? Rarely is it for noble reasons. In Northern Italy, where they have been creating car free centres the longest, it has been for tourists and commerce. In more recent examples, air pollution is the big driver. In cities lacking that blessed raw nerve, the phenomenon will be happening in smaller pockets. Don’t think those pockets are insignificant though. There may be a possibility of joining them up.


  1. Luke says:

    Steven, no-one is more delighted than me to hear you’ve released a new book…I am just a wee bit concerned about the proofreading. I will be buying anyway.
    Has news of the furious London cyclist reached you?
    Without wishing to defend someone riding an unadapted track bike, it all seems a bit hysterical to me. Conspiracy theorists are suggesting those behind driverless cars are conspiring to empty the roads of cyclists (and eventually pedestrians).

    • Steven says:

      Alas, the book was written in the colonies, proof read by an American and published by Dutch. There goes the neighbourhood 🙂
      As for the story about the pedestrian death, it would appear this lad really was hookin’! A great man–bites-dog story for the newspapers. For the rest of us, an “unavoidable tragedy”—as they say when the culprit was driving.

  2. Interesting thoughts on Guangming. My own experience trying to design and build networks has always pointed towards an analysis that its impossible to build a dense network in a city with quite a lot of car access without combining cycle tracks, quiet (cycle) streets and routes through green spaces. Take away any one of those and the density of the network drops down to a level where it starts to become unusable. If a city won’t keep its existing bikeways clear, then it probably won’t control car parking on quiet streets or properly maintain green routes – none of this comes for free, all require some political capital. Streets with one narrow cycle track on one side of the road were probably never seriously designed for efficient bike use in the first place.
    In car free city centres cycle networks still maybe serve two aims? Firstly to protect people on bikes from buses, which still in their current form represent a real and perceived hazard. Secondly to route large volumes of commuter cyclists around areas of very high pedestrian footfall, bikes need to keep enough momentum and speed to stay an efficient mode of transport. Neither of these necessarily need to look like “cycle tracks”, so not arguing with the Betamax analogy.

    • Steven says:

      Well made points! Thank you!
      Regarding busses, I would like to remove their roofs and put them on streets, to maximise the number of people choosing the bike over the bus. At that point the bus will be a cart (or dynamically routed driverless electric cart) that moves at the speed of a bike.

  3. Eveline Mos says:

    Wondering: why did you leave out the bikeroad (fietsstraat in Dutch, best examples in the city of Houten), the broad bike lane where car’s are guests. Because of the material cars are always stuck behind bikes. This works when there are enough bikers.

    • Steven says:

      Notwithstanding Houten’s lack of car traffic within the ring roads, I don’t see bike-centric arterials being related to the car-free city agenda, because more often than not they have car-centric streets running parallel. For example, in Amsterdam, Haarlemmerstraat is bike-centric, but 50m away there is Nieuwe Westerdokstraat, an arterial leading motorised traffic right to the centre of town. The netherlands does a great job at separating cars and bikes, but remains a car-loving nation.

      • Eveline Mos says:

        I don’t know about that last past of your reply.
        Off course there is almost always enough space for car traffic in the Dutch city’s, to keep the possibility for buses, supply stores and get people to there home – in contrast to other country’s there are actually living people above store and in alleys in de citycentre’s. But when you look further then just the roads, you will see there are a couple of other ways to discourage car use in citycentre’s like high costs to park and combinations with bikes or public transport to get the speed out and get them you use other routes when possible.
        Thats doesn’t mean the Netherlands is a car-loving nation. In my opinion it is a transport-loving nation.The freedom the choose your way of transportation to fit the trip you have te make (listen to the last commercial of NS, the public train company). That means we are switching bike to car to train for our comfort and all that has to fit in tight public area’s because of all the monumental / old structures and buildings. Maybe that’s typical Dutch, the ‘polderen’ and transporting everything by bike without needing a separate bike lane or dedicated road.

        • Steven says:

          I hate to generalise, but it is typically dutch to defend the status quo and blind yourself to the need for improvement. Dutch municipalities have minimum car parking requirements with new developments, you’re about to lose baby boomers who have been propping up your cycling participation rates and technocrats there are excited about driverless cars coming into your cities: all indictors of a coming downturn in cycling and national productivity as a result. Explaining why you’re so great won’t help in the slightest. What will help, is listening to me about car free cities, spiralling apartment blocks, covered bike paths and ride-inside retail.

  4. Torbjörn Albért says:

    My impression of Amsterdam is that it is very car-centric. Almost everywhere the bike can go, the car can go as well: Amsterdam – the city of bollards. Desperately trying to defend itself against cars. The streets could settle for two – one in each end.

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