Bicycle urbanism: know the ropes

Recently the Island Press released two books about bicycle urbanism. Two informative books that provide insight into the myths and advantages of this active means of transport. The focus is on the pioneering work in the Netherlands and Denmark and the struggle with the modal shift in North America. This review list some of the most important lessons.

As mentioned before on this blog, a good bicycle infrastructure is essential for vibrant public spaces and playable cities. It increases the accessibility of many places and makes an important contribution to the human scale in cities. But there are many more benefits. Cycling costs (society) less money, is good for the climate (less CO2 emissions and consumption of fossil fuels), good for your body (exercise, fresh air) and for combating traffic congestion (less space is required), class inequity (cheap conveyance) and social isolation (increases social contact and the activity range).

Bicycle urbanism is a hot topic according to the many tweets that go viral on the subject (#bicycleurbanism; #sneckdown; #cyclechic; #quaxing; #ParkWhereYouWant). In addition, there are the frequently read blogs, such as Bicycle Dutch, As easy as riding a bike, Streetblog, and Guardian Bike blog.
Last year two other digital media published a book. The blog from Danish-Canadian urban design expert Mikael Colville-Andersen was transformed into the book Copenhagenize; the definitive guide to global bicycle urbanism. And Canadians Melissa and Chris Bruntlett, owners of the Twitter-account and blog Modacity, wrote Building the Cycling City; the Dutch blueprint for urban vitality. In this article a combined review.

The City of Copenhagen in Denmark - the main subject of Colville-Andersens book - is one of most well-known user-friendly cycling cities. According to the Copenhagenize Index ("the world's most comprehensive inventory and ranking of bicycle-friendly cities") Copenhagen was in 2017 the number one in the world (defeating Amsterdam who won in 2011 and 2013). This ranking, based on fourteen parameters, is a direct consequence of investment and innovation. The city has invested over €134 million over the past ten years in facilities and bicycle infrastructure, such as bridges for cyclist. Culminating in a cohesive, coherent, and well-designed bicycle infrastructure network.

The needs of cyclists are the starting point for a lot of traffic decisions. The city has over twenty sensors under the asphalt and does regular counts at 200 location. This data is used with direct-observations to study cyclist behavior and using it for future planning. Next to desire lines this data showed that in 2016, the number of bicycles entering the capital center exceeded the number of cars. Around the same time more citizens arrived at work or education by bike than with cars. The modal share for bicycles was around 30%. The goal is to go to 50%. This kind of results are possible because Copenhagen meets the most important success factor for bicycle urbanism: cycling is the fastest way to get from A to B. Or as Colville-Andersen summarizes: "There is no chicken or egg. There is only infrastructure". If you build it, they will come. So, people are riding a bike because it is quick (56%). And because they get some exercise (19%) and because it is inexpensive (6%).

The Netherlands
The married couple Bruntlett write about that other little country in Europe. They explore seven Dutch cities (Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Groningen, Arnhem, Nijmegen), accompanied with in every chapter also a trip to a North America city where they are trying to implement the Dutch way of cycling. In addition to the cities mentioned, The Bruntlett couple also looks at the country as a whole. They write for example that the Netherlands are the only country in the world where the number of bikes (22.5 million) exceeds the number of people (18 million). Where 86% of the kids walk or bike to school (in the US this is 11%). Where a quarter of the road network is of fully separated bike infrastructure. And where the government - which is not a dirty word on this side of the Atlantic Ocean - spends € 30 ($ 35 USD) per person per year on bike infrastructure, fifteen times the amount invested in nearby England. Together with the fact that 75% of the urban streets are traffic calmed to a speed of 30 km/h (19 mph) there are far fewer traffic fatalities in the Netherlands (3,4 annual deaths per 100.000 inhabitants) than in the United States (10,6). Also good to know: although only 0,5% of all cyclists use a helmet, the Netherlands have the lowest rate of bike-related head injuries in the world. Safety does not come through head protection but through road design! (see also this article on Streetsblog)

The Bruntletts are, by the way, slightly oppose to the Danish story: "Copenhagen may get a great deal of press and endless plaudits as the world's foremost cycling city - but quite frankly, that is as much a product of effective marketing as a result of effective policy." 

You will only see it, when you get it*
What the books have in common, is that they want to emphasize that cycling is not a special lifestyle, recreational activity or a hobby of a separate group of people. It is just an ordinary transport tool used by people in their normal street or work clothes (not sportswear!). Drifting along at a moderate pace. Sitting upright on their city bike equipped with fenders, chain casing, rear racks, lights, a frame lock, a kickstand and a bell. If done properly cycling can be the most easiest, practical, efficient, functional and enjoyable way to get from A to B.

This is stating the obvious when you are born and raised in the Netherlands (like me). We are used to it. It is part - as the Bruntletts call it - of our social fabric. Riding a bike to school, work, train station or supermarket is as normal in our country as a television in a living room. Everyone does it. Kids learn to ride a bike - without training wheels - when they are approximately five years old. Both books are therefore not very informative for fellow countryman in terms of how such a cycling culture and cycling infrastructure should be. However, it probably opens their eyes how other countries look at this subject. And shows how lucky we are (a feeling that I also got when I was cycling in Barcelona, Berlin and Paris).

Change of perspective
Colville-Andersen devotes one amusing chapter on this vision from people who for the first time come into contact with urban cycling. That produces a lot of cynicism and skepticism: "That would never work here". He distinguishes and invalidates eleven myths, just as: people will only ride when it's flat, when there is a mild climate (climaphobia), we never used to cycle here, Danes ride bikes because cars are so expensive, we have sprawl, and you can't do that on a bike. He refutes them all with examples and some historiography. In Building the Cycling Cit Janette Sadik-Khan - former transport commissioner of New York - gives answer to the myth that there is not enough space for bikes: "Traffic engineers have historically designed automobile lanes to be 12 feet (3,6 meter) in width - even in an urban setting - despite the typical Toyota Camry being just 6 feet wide". By reducing this lane width to 9 or 10 feet the City of New York were able to find additional room for wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes.

So, for those not familiar with bicycle urbanism, these books are great starting points to get into the matter and see the world from a different perspective. Summarized with this reverse pyramid of transport. Leaving the car-centric planning and the outdated mathematical theories, models, and engineering solutions. And welcoming slow traffic and user-designed engineering. Giving streets back to pedestrians and cyclist, which both operate at a safe speed and using less amount of space. An urban environment in which children can play outside and not only in fenced playgrounds (according to Colville-Andersen playgrounds are "an invention of the automobile industry to get the little rascals out of the way").

If you combine all the strategies, suggestions and best practices of the two books you get this guideline: prioritize cycling (and walking) in city planning (see also this reverse traffic pyramid). Create a well-connected web of bike routes (directness) so that there are enough safe and comfortable roads to train stations, shops, schools, parks, playgrounds and other public spaces. And take care of the smallest possible differences in speed between different road users.

Although you would expect that they would take the human scale and human speed as starting point for planning, both books look at the volumes of cars and their speed in a certain street for designing cycling infrastructure. This produces four types of areas:
  • First we have the dense residential streets with sidewalks, trees, signage, road surface treatments and narrow roads that force cars to slow down: below 30 km/h (20 mph) or rather 15 km/h (10 mph). On these neighborhood roads cyclists share the road with motorists in so-called shared spaces, 'living streets' ('woonerf' in Dutch) and bicycle streets ('fietsstraten' in Dutch). Here the motorist is a guest.
  • Second we have the streets were the cars hit speed limits of 40 km/h (25 mph) and the volume of cars rises. Here you should paint a separate lane for cyclist alongside the sidewalk with a minimum of 2.3 meters/7.5 feet. Make it recognizable with red pavement or different materials, elevation and cues. Not allowed: bidirectional cycle tracks, lanes that cross car-travel lanes to allow cars to turn right, and cycle tracks between the door zone of cars and moving traffic.
  • When cars are driving 50 or 60 km/h (30-37 mph) physical separation is mandatory between fast and slow users. This can be achieved through segregated cycle tracks that are physically separated from the road space through the use of a wide median or grass. Or through protected cycle tracks via the use of parked cars, cement barriers, planters or bollards. They physically protect cyclist from motorized vehicles. The aforementioned width also applies here (wider when there is a higher volume of cyclists).
  • And finally, in areas where cars reach highway speeds there should be a buffer as big as possible. In fact, to connect cities one should build superhighways for cycling. Like the ones between the Dutch cities of Nijmegen and Arnhem called 'snelfietsroutes' (fast cycling routes). They enable the user to ride 16 kilometers (10 miles) in under 45 minutes on a 4 meter (13 feet) wide path of smooth red asphalt, without having to stop even once (at intersections priority is given to cyclists). And on an e-bike the distance in time decreases even further.

In addition to these basic rules, there are numerous measures that can enrich the life of the cyclist:
  • High level of maintenance and prioritize snow clearance of bike lanes;
  • Safe, long-term, weather-protected bicycle-parking capacity;
  • Reducing waiting times at intersections by coordinating light signals and with LED lights in the asphalt that tell the cyclist if they have to speed up to get the green light (creating a Green Wave);
  • Separate bike traffic lights with traffic light countdown timers and giving cyclist a four-second advantage over cars;
  • Good lighting and adequate sight distances around corners;
  • Pulled-back stop lines for cars and trucks so they can see the cyclist in front of them;
  • A footrest or handrail at a light signal to hold on;
  • Public repair stations with air pumps and basis materials to fix your bike;
  • Traffic calming measures for cars for safety, such as narrowing car lanes, tree lined streets, bumps, bumpy cobbled surface, chicanes, chokers, curb extensions, pinch-points, raised tables, speed humps and speed limit (signs);
  • Create multimodal trips, for example like the Dutch bike-train combination, which creates a door-to-door system: fifty percent of train users cycle before or after using the train. Using their own bike or an 'OV-fiets' [public transport-bike], which is a national bike-rental scheme at train stations.

Although the authors of both books are not against cars, they both launch a bitter attack on the automobile industry. Colville-Andersen for example shows in a fine way that car manufacturers always focus on the safety of the car driver (inside) and not on the safety of pedestrians and cyclist (outside). "Don't we need external airbags on cars?", he asks.
(In line with this way of thinking differently: on social media a commonly quoted statement - from @fietsprofessor - is that "we don't need driverless cars, we need more carless drivers!")

The authors are sometimes a little bit too emotional involved and forget to stand back to reflect. Colville-Andersen: "The moment I learned to ride a bike is so completely and deeply embedded in my memory as a defining moment in my life that just sitting here and writing this brings tears to my eyes". As a result they become - at certain points - a little propagandistic (being a fan rather that an analyst). Bruntlett: "the bicycle as a multi-pronged solution to many of their most acute twenty-first-century problems" and "giving the streets back to their rightful owners". Colville-Andersen: "If you don't see cycling as part of the solution, you are part of the problem". Although I agree, I don't think that we win the most critics over with this worship. It is probably their enthusiasm (Colville-Andersen calls himself an idealist) that is hindering a more critical eye (and pen). For example I would have like to have read something about the bottlenecks and pitfalls during the implementation of a new urban cycling infrastructure. Or something about the way you can mingle all the different means of transport (intermodality). And that - besides enough connected cycle tracks - it is also about building in higher densities and mixed-use zones (see the article Happy City from a Dutch perspective). These are the issues that are important to convince the biggest opponents and it would have made the books stronger.

At the same time there are also some important differences between the books. Both in writing style and content.

Copenhagenize consists of twenty separate articles that reads like blog articles, columns and short essays. With a lot of personal stories (as a cyclist, father, lecturer), great examples (best and bad practices), powerful metaphors and funny comparisons: "If Le Corbusier were alive, he wouldn't watch porn. He would google images of the Skywalk [sealed-in walkways above the street connecting skyscrapers in Calgary] to get his kicks". The book is sharp and critical, for example: "Smart cities is a fancy, seductive catchphrase but one without any specific definition". But he is also critical on the globally worshiped term 'placemaking' which in his opinion focus too much on pedestrianism. And it goes on: "One thing is moody academics pondering paving tile designs and bench aesthetics in creatively cluttered NoHo offices, another is 'stararchitects' who suddenly stick their noses into urban planning". Colville-Andersen calls designs like the Inner Harbor Bridge (Copenhagen) and the SkyCycle (London) - in which bikes are moved away from street level - 'magpie architecture': attempting to attract people to big, shiny things that dazzle but that have little functional and practical value in the development of a city.
The disadvantage of the separate chapters is that you have to discover the common thread yourself and that it doesn't work towards a conclusion. The last chapter (called 'Conclusion') is more an epilogue than what the title suggest.

Building the Cycling City is far more journalistic. The story is told by letting various experts speak. Supplemented by a historical description of some Dutch cities and the view/opinion of the two authors who watch the Netherlands through their North American glasses.
There are some black-white photos but models, figures, graphs, images are missing. Visualization that makes Copenhagenize more readable and attractive. The subtitle (the Dutch blueprint for urban vitality) does not - gratefully - correspond with the content of the book, because the authors give room to a lot of experts that say that a copy-paste approach to other countries is not possible. Moreover, the subtitle of Copenhagenize (the definitive guide to global bicycle urbanism) is a bit exaggerated. Both subtitles are probably thought up by communication staff to stimulate book sales.

Going electric?
In terms of content, it is particularly striking that the authors have a different opinion about electric-assisted bikes (known as e-bikes and pedelec). Mickael Colville-Andersen sees the potential for increasing the mobility radius of cycling citizens - especially the eldery - through adding a battery-powered motor, but for the rest he is critical. He doesn't see any advantages in densely populated urban centers ("just like nobody want more scooters"), he points out the number of (hard) crashes with e-bikes, he raises questions about the lithium in the batteries and calculates that E-bikes reduces the health benefits of cycling by up to 70%.

No critical comment is given by the Bruntletts on the subject. In fact, they only let Kevin Mayne speak about these e-bikes. He is the president of the Cycling Industry Club, a support group representing forty of the world's biggest bike companies. A bit strange. It's like asking an oil tycoon about his opinion on electric cars. You know the answer...

Points of attention
Is it all peace and harmony? Did the Netherlands and Denmark built utopia? When you read the books, it sometimes looks like that. That is because the books pay little to no attention to some important issues. To name a few:
  • During rush hour in inner cities you have bicycle congestion, especially at traffic lights, which creates a lot of frustration between different transport modes (and causing cyclists to choose another means of transport);
  • Bike parking is a consistent and growing problem around train stations, especially in the weekends when students go to their parents and park their bikes in the covered bicycle garages. When they are full, there are parked (or dumped) somewhere in the public space (see photo above);
  • Bike parking is also a growing problem due to ever-increasing size of bicycles (i.e. cargo bikes and bikes with wide handlebars or large baskets at their front rack). They do not fit into the (double-decker) bike racks;
  • Another problem are some of the bike share systems. In potential they are great, but with the new smart sharing systems (working with an app and QR-code) you don't have to return your bike to a dock station, so they are left behind at all sort of places;
  • And while countries like Denmark and Switzerland have a great system for bikes on trains, in The Netherlands this is still a hell of a job.
For others these are luxury problems, but nevertheless they have a (growing) influence on cycling pleasure and comfort. They are important tasks that need to be addressed in the coming years. And they are great ingredients for a next book. I look forward to read more about it.

* Famous pronunciation of football player Johan Cruyff

(c) Photos by Gerben Helleman

Sources and notes for further reading

Melissa Bruntlett & Chris Bruntlett (2018) Building the Cycling City; the Dutch blueprint for urban vitality. Island Press.

Melissa Bruntlett & Chris Bruntlett (2018) Blog Modacity.

Mikael Colville-Andersen (2018) Copenhagenize; the definitive guide to global bicycle urbanism. Island Press.

Mikael Colville-Andersen (2019) Blog Copenhagenize.

Gerben Helleman (2018) Playable cities: how. Blog Urban Springtime. 

Gerben Helleman (2019) Slow traffic ahead. Pinterest.

David Roberts (2018) No helmets, no problem: how the Dutch created a casual biking culture. Blog Vox.

Mark Wagenbuur (2019) Blog bicycle Dutch.


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