Velotopia: A Touchstone Notion

It is time we had a touchstone notion of a Cycling Utopia. Tempting though it may be to dismiss such a thing as a straw man, it is worth remembering that the garden city and car city both have their Utopian models for planners to hold at the backs of their minds.

Bike planning does not have such a model. Our best substitutes are 18th and 19th-century cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where the streets have been re-engineered for walking, cycling, and driving. However, the urban morphologies (street widths, for instance) of those now-bicycling cities weren’t determined by the dynamics of cycling but by the modes of the day, i.e., walking and horses.

This is fine while our ambitions for bicycle urbanism don’t extend beyond our 18th and 19th-century urban cores in countries like the UK, US, or Australia, where we have managed to fill our historic city centers with cars, but what model do we have to inspire us when we redevelop our brownfields and greyfields, or branch out onto greenfields, or build new cities from scratch? Evidence suggests we fall back on the garden-city and car-city vision hybrid. It is time both got put to one side in favor of a vision that would be better for health, commuting times, and the environment.

Velotopia a touchstone notion

Let’s start by imagining a perfectly circular city because that’s what visionaries have done since Plato imagined his Polis in the Laws: they have imagined a civic center with neighborhoods radiating outward perfectly circularly. In the imaginary realm where city models are conceived, there are no coastlines cutting radial patterns in half or mountains to compress them into the shape of a sausage. Here, let me draw it:

Velotopia a touchstone notion

Next, let’s make our imaginary city the size of a city, by which I mean it should not be smaller than most major cities before they all started sprawling unnaturally in the 50s and 60s. That would be 15 kilometers in diameter or 177 square kilometers in area.

If we said that Velotopia had the same average population density as New York’s five boroughs (10,000 people per square kilometer), it would accommodate 1,770,000 people. Still, since Velotopia will not have New York’s industrial wastelands, we can round that figure up to 2,000,000 and still be confident that Velotopia would have plenty of parks and not have people crammed into shoebox apartments without any outlooks or sunshine.

At this point, Le Corbusier, Robert Moses, or Norman bel Geddes would add a network of highways and batteries of car parking stations. Ebenezer Howard would cluster development around satellite towns with a train connection back to the civic core.

Today’s planners would complicate our 15km diameter city even more with PRT (Personal Rapid Transport), P&R (park and ride), ERP (electronic road pricing), HOVL (high-occupancy vehicle lanes), LRTS (Light Rail Transit Systems), and anything else an acronym can help seem intelligent. Add to that car share cable cars, e-cars, maglev, moving platforms, and driverless taxis from Google. Velotopia is somewhat more elegant. It has none of that crap whatsoever. Here, let me draw it again:

Velotopia a touchstone notion

Velotopia’s main premise is that a mum with her bub in a box bike, cruising at 15kph, can reach the center from the outskirts in 30 minutes. She doesn’t need machines. She needs machines out of her way. We can see from 1924 footage of cyclists in Copenhagen that bike traffic does not slow the flow of bike traffic the way car traffic slows both.

Even when cyclists don’t have the whole width of the road but are squeezed onto cycle tracks at the edge, bike traffic does not reduce the speed of bike traffic. The best demonstration of this is “simultaneous green” intersections in the Netherlands. Swarms of cyclists are released all at once to filter from every direction into narrow cycle tracks without bumping or causing anyone to ride below their average cruising speed of 15kph.

Is there any place at all for motorized vehicles in Velotopia? Yes: buses, ambulances, police vehicles, and fire engines. Delivery vans are already on their way out, with DHL and FedEx shifting to pedal power as the faster way to make rounds in several cities in Europe. And as someone who has worked riding pedicabs, I can tell you 15kph is no trouble at all for someone who makes their living taxiing people by rickshaw.

Velotopia a touchstone notion

The place for privately owned cars in Velotopia would be underground, in an air-sealed network of parking basements and tunnels, completely paid for by users and powered by renewables only. In practice, therefore, we don’t need to think about motoring. Too few could afford to pursue it in a way that does not negatively impact on others.

So, if ever a city of 2,000,000 cycling enthusiasts is planned for a flat plane where currently nothing is built, we have just seen our model. We will lay down a fine web of cycle tracks inspired by radiolaria or soap bubble patterns and raise the entries to buildings on mounds in between so cyclists can make near-beelines across the city.

Utopian models don’t exist to be built. As I said at the top of this post, their value is as touchstone notions. There are very few actual car cities. Rather, there are car-centric districts on the outskirts of old cities, planned by people with something like the 1939 Futurama in the back of their minds. Likewise, there are very few transit-oriented cities or true garden cities.

In practice, cities have transit-oriented tracts interwoven amidst areas with a greater car focus by people who hold Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities plan at the back of their minds. With my next post, I plan to discuss ways bicycle-oriented development layers might be interwoven into actual cities, with Velotopia at the back of our minds.

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