Tag Archives: bicycle infrastructure

A city with real problems worth fighting for

Now compare that last post with a city with real problems like New York City. Here’s a great video by of an intersection in the Big Apple showing very clearly that what cyclists do (or should) fear in NYC is definitely not other cyclists, but everything else on the street.

Copenhageners fear other cyclists and complain city is ‘not doing enough’ for bikes

Here’s an article from the Danish media I thought others might enjoy. I did a quick google translate of the original Danish so it’s a bit choppy. Sorry I don’t have the time to do a better translation myself.

It just shows how incredibly far advanced the Danes in cycling but also how you have to keep pressing for change even as some of the most incredible changes are already happening here. But it’s a bit of a silly article because the municipality knows this issue (the research is just confirming a known issue) and they are actually doing a lot from what I can see, certainly compared to most cities. Advocating better conditions for cyclists in Copenhagen seems a bit excessive to me. Ah Denmark, you don’t know how good you’ve got it!

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Cyclists fear cyclists
20th June 2011
They fear neither right turn accidents, doors opening or cars crossing the bike path. What the cyclists in Copenhagen and Frederiksberg fear most is other cyclists.
It shows the preliminary results of a survey in Copenhagen and Frederiksberg, says senior scientist at the University of Copenhagen, Hans Skov-Petersen:
– One would immediately think it was right-turning trucks or cars that run across the bicycle path that was the problem, but it turns out that most cyclists are worried about is other cyclists.
Mix concrete
When the cyclists fear cyclists, partly due to lack of space on the bike path, says Hans Skov-Petersen, and therefore local authorities look at the concrete that is reserved for cyclists:
– The problem is that there is not enough room for the many different riders. There must be room for both those who want to ride fast, those who want to ride gently with their children, and those who will ride with cargo bikes. There must be room for everyone and it could well indicate that the cycle path network is not adapted, there are many different riders simultaneously, says Hans Skov-Petersen.
Fine words are not enough
The Cyclists’ Union would also like to have municipalities mix concrete.
The league is pleased of Copenhagen’s high ambitions to become the world’s best, but it is no longer enough with fine words and lofty ambitions.
– We demand more action behind the words, because if they just need to reach near their ambitions, there must be something NOW in relation to multiple and broad cyclists, says head of media Cyclists Federation Fritz Bredal.
Bike lanes are on the way
The municipality of Copenhagen there is action behind the words. Better and wider bike lanes are already under way, assures program manager for Copenhagen bike area, Andreas Røhl.
– There is something concrete and we also have a strategy where this is clearly a focus area. The goal is to create a framework where it is possible for parents and children and colleagues to hold a conversation while they are busy, can get past, says Andreas Røhl. Copenhagen is just now starting to extend cycle paths on Nørrebrogade and build a bicycle bridge over the harbor.
Bikeability.dk
Approximately 4,500 of Copenhagen and Frederiksberg citizens have participated in the survey, which is part of the research Bikeability.
Behind Bikeability Among other things Aalborg University, Southern University and University of Copenhagen. The project aims to identify what motivates riders and ultimately create better conditions in the city for cyclists.

Should we be Copenhagenizing Cape Town?

I just got back from a week in Seville, Spain at the Velo-City global bicycling conference. Velo-City began as a european bicycling conference in 1980 and was held bi-annually since 1987. As of last year, it became an annual event and opened its doors to presenters from around the world.

This is great progress. However, to what extent are issues in Africa relevant to those in Europe? Can Cape Town learn from Amsterdam or Dallas learn from Copenhagen? How much is “knowledge sharing” between such radically different contexts valuable?

At this year’s event, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the few folks who had made the trip up from the lovely “country” of Africa since it is a part of the world which is still a bit of fuzzy territory for me. Most of these people were from English speaking countries in southern Africa, and many of them were ex-pats themselves working on various bicycle related projects.

It became rapidly clear, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the issues people are addressing in Africa are in a completely different universe from those in Europe.

In the global north, cycling is seen as a means of urban transport which is promoted mainly by city planners as a means to reduce motorized transportation for health, “liveability”, and environmental sustainability. Most of those of us involved in this movement are well educated and generally reasonably well off as are most of those actually cycling. Most people have access to other means of transport such as busses or cars and are choosing the bicycle, perhaps in addition to other modes.

By stark contrast, African projects were dealing with people (often women) who were typically rural, poor, and do not have access to other means of transportation. The goal of many of these projects is to give people greater mobility, thereby decreasing the amount of time necessary to access basic needs like jobs, water, food, etc. Most people working in this sector come from international development, not urban planning.

This contrast was perhaps starkest in the fourth plenary session with Kayemba Patrick from ITDP in Uganda and Joaquin Nieto from the International Labour Foundation for Sustainable Development discussing economic benefits of cycling.

Nieto spoke about how European bikeshare programs create jobs for cities (largely through what I would consider to be high degrees of inefficiencies in redistribution and maintenance). Patrick spoke about how getting access to a bike reduces the amount of time women in rural Uganda have to spend getting water and access to economic opportunities. They were then engaged in a discussion afterwards where it was clear that neither one of them really had any idea how to find any sort of common ground.

Another strange pairing was between Marie Kåstrup from Copenhagen and Gail Jennings from Cape Town speaking about women and bicycling. Kåstrup spoke about the “cycling girl” narrative in Denmark where woman and cycling are portrayed as soul mates, which logically and intuitively serve as icons for the national past time of cycling. In Denmark, almost as many women bike as men. Jennings talked about how woman are sexualized in their portrayal next to bicycles, with images of women in tight mini-skirts sexually pumping air into tires. In Cape Town, most cyclists are riding for sport- not transport- and about 75% of cyclists are men. Very few women ride bicycles and to do so is to ask for censure at every turn.

The point here is not to get into discussions about the specifics of these issues (I refer you to the people mentioned for those details). My point is more to question what we hope to gain by bringing people together from different contexts and what can be learned from “European best practices” from Copenhagen, Amsterdam or anywhere else.

There is a growing cadre of professionals who would like you to believe that a bicycling culture is something that can be readily “transferred”. It’s easy. Simply find somewhere that lots of people ride bicycles, copy the infrastructure and policy that “worked” there in your home town and then stand back and wait for people to start riding.

But guess what? What works in Copenhagen may not work in Cape Town.

What I heard from many people coming from the global south in particular was that they didn’t really care much about what was going on in Europe. What they wanted was to share knowledge between cities in the global south. South African cities probably have more to learn from cities (and rural areas) in India than from Europe.

The same is likely true in the global north. Gas guzzling Dallas came to Velo-City to learn how car-centric Seville has seen increases in bicycling from 0.5% to 6.6% in the past three years. Dallas planners won’t be making any trips to Copenhagen, even though Danes bike 37% here in the capital city.

A Velo-City global venue may still be useful but we still need to do some thinking around how, exactly, it is useful. In the meantime, we need to be facilitating venues for the sharing of knowledge between similar cities and working to develop context specific solutions from a deep understanding of local needs, not trying to make Cape Town into the next Amsterdam.

Albertslund: a town with a completely segregated bike network

Recently, I went for a trip out to the Copenhagen suburb of Albertslund. This town has a history of progressive city planning, particularly in bicycle infrastructure. In the 1960s, they developed a completely segregated network of bicycle trails throughout the whole town, with the idea that kids would safely and easily be able to get to school without having to have conflicts with car traffic. Now they are planning to be the first municipality connected to inner Copenhagen via a 15 km segregated bicycle superhighway or what they are calling in Danish a “super bicycle path” (cykel superstier). I went to investigate both the old bike infrastructure in Albertslund and to pilot the new “highway”. I’ve put the section on the highway ride into a separate post since it was too long otherwise.

When we got off the train in town, we immediately spoke with a middle aged Danish woman and told her we had come out to visit their bike infrastructure. She didn’t seem the least bit surprised (apparently, we were not the first) and gave us a little trip plan. She seemed perfectly delighted and proud of the bike network.

The first path we came to was nice enough and followed along a little canal that ran through the center of town. I’m not sure why the path was made of bricks rather than pavement but nonetheless, it was nice not to have to hassle with any cars.

In particular, it was very nice that they had signage everywhere telling you where different things were in town. Sometimes there was even a map. All of these places were accessible by a completely segregated network of biking and walking trails.

On the other hand, no intersections with cars also meant lots of tunnels, which might not be so nice late at night.

Also, if you happened to accidentally get up on the “wrong” network, it could be challenging to find your way back to the “right” network and you didn’t want to be on the car network since there was no place for bikes or pedestrians. However, as we can see here, people may occasionally need to (or prefer) to be where the cars are and they had to adapt. These conflicts are not planned for and may be more dangerous than a typical intersection as a result.

In the background, there is a girl who was about 10 years old. She couldn’t figure out why I was taking pictures (particularly after I told her I was studying their bicycle infrastructure). She said she didn’t ride a bike but that her friends did. She took a bus to school, even though it was within biking distance. I wasn’t really able to find out why.

It was really nice to have all the paths segregated. You got a very carefree and easy way to experience the town. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel a bit detached from the more urban “life” of the town since while you were on the bike paths, you never passed any store fronts which were still oriented toward the car streets. Also, I was concerned that there might be greater conflict and higher rates of accidents in the situations were there did happen to be bikes or pedestrians on the car streets since these interactions were not planned for with any infrastructure and cars might be more surprised than usual to find someone on “their” street. However, I do not know the data to tell if this concern is well founded.

I am very glad that Albertslund was daring enough to try such an interesting and innovative concept and executed it relatively well. However, I left convinced that don’t want towns to be fully segregated. Otherwise, it seems to create an “us and them” situation where shops choose to cater to one or the other. Can’t we instead build cities and streets for all people and all modes that function together? I’m by no means a John Forester “integrationist”, or a hater of segregated paths. Bike lanes are important and have an important place in cities. But going to the other extreme of complete segregation between motorized and non-motorized infrastructure is not the city that I aspire towards either. We need to develop safe and comfortable experiences where all types of road users can contribute to the street life in order to develop more dynamic and enjoyable cities.

What good are “bike superhighways”?

After our tour of Albertslund, we started heading out of town to try out the “new” bike superhighway. It’s not technically built yet, but you can view the route here. As it turned out, the trail didn’t seem to be new at all, but simply bike trail number 58, which already exists. Perhaps they will just add some new signs to spiff it up a bit but it looked pretty much like a rebranding job from what we could tell.

The first part of the path was really segregated- sunk a few meters below grade and rather disconnected from the street. There were bus stops on the road above but only steps to get to them, no parking and no way to put your bike on the bus.

It was nice enough on a sunny afternoon with a fair number of folks running or biking along it, but didn’t seem like it would be so welcoming after dark since no one could see you if you got into any danger. It was nice to not have to make any stops, but after a couple kilometers of non-stop peddling, we started getting a bit sweaty and actually hoped for a stop light to get a little break!

After several kilometers, we got lost and accidentally wound up in the suburban town of Glostrup near the train station. We knew something was amiss because the path follows in parallel to the train tracks, but at a distance of about 2 km the whole way. Rechecking our map, we went back and eventually found the trail again.

This turned out to be a fateful mistake. As soon as we were about as far from a train station as possible, Ayako proceeded to get a flat tire. We then found ourselves about 3 km from the nearest station- and any sort of town center, bike shop or anything else useful- and in no mood to walk back to the station we just passed up.

We had a patch kit but with the weather hovering around freezing and the sun on its way down in the afternoon, we weren’t that interested in stopping to fix it. We stopped to pump up every few hundred meters at first and then, finding the air leaking out too fast, we gave up and walked the last 2 km to the next station. We were a bit grumbly by the time we made it.

Ultimately, I feel that the concept of a segregated superhighway (and perhaps this extreme segregation we found in Albertslund) just doesn’t really add up. This experience of the flat tire really drove home the fears I already had about the system. Why would anyone want to ride 10-15 km (30-45 minutes) into town on a path that is far from any grocery, day care, or bike shop and feels unsafe at night? Perhaps this would be a nice change of pace on a sunny day in August when temperatures can crack a balmy 25C (~75F) if you are lucky. But when it is freezing cold, windy, and rainy- like it is most days in Denmark- I’d be hard pressed to imagine all but the most avid cyclist to be keen on biking that far.

Given that you could take the train (and even park your bike or put your bike on the train) and be in the city in less than 20 minutes, why not focus your resources on getting people from a few kilometers away in to the train station, which also conveniently has access to things like shopping, bike and repair shops, schools, and day care?

Multi-modal integration seems like a much more reasonable approach than assuming people want simply “speed and safety” like car drivers. Bikes aren’t cars. We shouldn’t apply traffic planning that works for cars for bicycling. We will need to have a more comprehensive and systemic experience to offer cyclists if we will capture more than the most extreme recreational riders on such trails.

How to make biking for all, not just the rich or poor?

Why is it that cycling seems to be primarily for poor people in developing countries like India, rich people in developed countries with low cycling rates like the US and a middle class phenomenon in developed countries with high cycling rates like Denmark and Holland?

Most cyclists in developing countries are what is known as “captive users”. They are riding not because they want to so much as because they cannot afford other options such as busses, let alone cars.

When I was in India this summer, I learned that many of the people who are cycling are men who are delivering things, like milk or vegetables. What was really shocking was that many of these people earned so little money that they could not even afford to buy their own bicycles, even though they only cost about $50. Instead, they were renting them for about 10 cents/hour from local bicycle shops. To my knowledge, there is no one with a rent-to-own system, but it would be great to set one up if anyone is looking for a social entrepreneurship project.

Milk delivery man in Pune, India

Most anyone with any money in India will immediately start riding the bus or (in the case of delivery men) buy themselves a motor scooter. If they have a bit more money, they will buy a car and if they have even more money, they will buy a fancier car. If they really have some money, they will hire a private driver to get them around. Basically, the more money people have, the more likely they are to drive a motorized vehicle and the less likely they are to consider anything non-motorized (including walking).

There are a few crazy people in India who are wealthy but still ride bicycles. I think I spoke with all four of them while I was there. Personally, I feel that these are the people who will be able to make a push for cycling in India since they have the political and economic capital to make it happen. But this is the topic of another article to come.

I just recently came back from my home country, the USA. There are many exciting developments going on in the past few years and I truly applaud the efforts there. But one thing really struck me from my visit to DC and New York (see links for cycling maps): most of the cycling infrastructure being developed is in neighborhoods inhabited by mainly wealthy, well-educated people like Park Slope and Dupont Circle and not in poorer neighborhoods like the Bronx or Anacostia.

Innovative cycling infrastructure near Dupont Circle in DC

One could be cynical and argue that this because planners are themselves living in these neighborhoods. While there is perhaps a degree of truth in that (and I believe there are some race and class issues in the planning field that need to be discussed more), I think there is more going on.

In speaking with planners, they said that they had tried to make inroads in some of these communities, but that they had received lower adoption rates. For instance, the DC bikeshare scheme Capital Bikes has a station in Anacostia but it is not used as much as in other neighborhoods. They said that this use of the bikeshare system mirrored the cycling demographics in general.

 

Anacostia waterfront neighborhood in DC cycling infrastructure

I went over there and investigated that area. There was a big fancy new development near the station, but much of the rest of the neighborhood seemed a bit more lower class and black. Most people seemed to be driving around in big SUVs. I met a young white man on the train who said he liked my bike and that he had just moved to the neighborhood and wanted to get a bike but complained that there was no infrastructure.

My guess is that the neighborhood is gentrifying and that the people who are using the bikeshare there are the young, largely white and educated, professionals moving in- not the poorer, uneducated black population.

In Copenhagen, by contrast, cycling is a decisively middle class phenomenon. However, what constitutes “middle class” here would be considered quite upper class in the US or India: most people have a college degree (which the government will pay you to get), being able to afford a fur coat is practically considered a human (though not animal) right, everyone has free health care, and there are virtually no homeless people.

Middle class Danish SUV

In Copenhagen you will see ambassadors, politicians and rock stars riding bicycles next to the average Dane. What you won’t see, however, is many muslim immigrants on bikes, despite the world class cycling infrastructure. Is this a skills and training issue, or is it more about integration and culture? Is bike riding just a particularly nationalistic endeavor? Is it still something for rich, white, educated people here too and it’s just that Denmark is a more homogeneous society of rich, white, educated people?

I don’t know the answer to that question though I clearly have my suspicions. What we really need is more research, discussion and action on issues related to race, class, religion, culture and cycling. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating increasing inequities in cites under the auspices of creating a more equitable transportation infrastructure.

Getting Britain on its bike – can Copenhagen show us the way?

Last month I visited Copenhagen, in my capacity as member of the International Scientific Advisory Board of the Danish research project, Bike-ability. Whilst there, as well as talking to lots of people about cycling, I got to ride around the city. Ezra Goldman, who’s involved in the project’s research, asked me to blog on my experiences of and thoughts about cycling in Copenhagen.

Richard Lewis, a principal town and transport planner at the London Borough of Newham, crafted a wonderfully thoughtful response to my blogpost. As part of that post, Richard probed me on whether or not I saw Britain as best following Copenhagen’s example, when it comes to building a cycling culture. Here follows my (perhaps less thoughtful and less crafted, but I hope equally concerned and committed) response. It’s posted here, rather than as a comment, at Ezra’s suggestion, and in the hope that it continues debates as to how – across the globe – we best boost cycling.

Hi Richard
First off, thanks very much for such a thoughtful response to my observations of Copenhagen, and for so considered a set of questions. I ap0logise that it’s taken me so long to respond; in an ideal world, I would have done so immediately!
I will try to respond directly to your three specific questions.
1) Do I like Copenhagen’s cycling infrastructure?
Not really, no. But whether or not I like it seems slightly irrelevant. My main consideration is whether or not it transforms – or has the potential to transform – the city. And here my response is ambivalent. Currently I do not think Copenhagen’s cycling infrastructure is transformatory, and before talking to a range of experienced and knowledgeable people in Copenhagen I doubted the potential for the city’s approach to cycling infrastructure progressively to de-centre and displace the car. But now I am less sure of myself – precisely, I have more optimism that Copenhagen’s approach (the provision of segregated space for cycling, which means people are effectively pedalling down narrow urban corridors – in relative ‘safety’ but also in relative ‘confinement’) contains both the ambition and the capacity to move beyond the model of the corridor, and incrementally to re-colonise ever more urban space for people, and thus de-privatise it from the grip of parked and moving cars.
2) Would, in the UK context, dedicated cycling infrastructure increase cycling?
Yes, I think so. For the last year my colleagues and I have been doing extensive and intensive ethnographic fieldwork in four English cities, and we have talked to many, many people who say (and I believe them!) they would like to cycle, but who are too afraid to cycle under currently dominant cycling conditions. The provision of dedicated, segregated cycling infrastructure is an obvious mechanism for helping such people to cycle. But I would emphasise, it is only one such obvious mechanism. Such provision should be just one of the tools in our kit for getting Britain on its bike. Here I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that such provision makes most sense along wider, key arterial routes, and should comprise part of a cycling network which embraces the existing – but hugely civilised (through for example slower speed limits and changing cultural sensibilities and legal responsibilities across different mobility users) – road network.
3) Because of the precarious state of cycling, is dedicated infrastructure the only realistic way of triggering a step-change in cycling in the UK?
My response to this question depends on my capacity to imagine a set of British politicians prepared to bite the bullet, and instigate – and then survive – a broader and sweeping portfolio of progressive changes to Britain’s transport environment. Because if UK government is capable of civilising the car, then no, we do not need a comprehensive dedicated cycling infrastructure (there will always be a case for some, selective, such infrastructure) – Copenhagen has such infrastructure because it was not prepared so to civilise the car, although clearly it has managed to ameliorate some of the car’s worst effects.
However, adopting a (slightly!) more pragmatic perspective, then yes, I think the installation of very high quality segregated cycling infrastructure along key arterial routes within and between British cities, alongside a range of other measures, is perhaps the way most effectively and quickly to reach a tipping point for cycling, which can trigger its elevation to a qualitatively different level (in terms of both practice – say, 20% of all urban journeys across the UK by 2025 – and perception – so that cycling becomes a perfectly acceptable and unremarkable thing for anyone at all to do); i.e. the ‘normalisation’ of cycling. This range of other measures would include the implementation of slower speeds (30 km/hr) across the rest of the road network, and would be aligned with other changes; infrastructural (such as modal filters, as you suggest), legal (such as stricter liability rules), and cultural (such as the adoption of cycling amongst high-profile charismatic individuals, and the consignment – and commensurate stigmatisation – of ‘cyclist-baiting’ to the most reactionary fringes of the gutter press).
In general, I seem increasingly to be moving towards what I’d call a ‘messy vision’ for cycling in the UK. By this I mean that getting Britain moving by bike will require many different interventions, which produce multiple (and potentially unpredictable) synergies, which together ‘spin’ us into a qualitatively new transport culture. Relatedly, I seem also increasingly to be adopting a position marked less by fixed adherence to some model over another (which when it comes to debating ‘the proper place of cycling’ (on or off road; integration or segregation) in the UK might be seen as a hindrance to debate about progressive cycling futures), and more by recognition that a heterogeneous rather than homogeneous ‘cycling system’ might be the inevitable and best outcome of our current and future efforts. But going back to the thrust of your questions, I think increased provision of specific and segregated cycling infrastructure might be key to getting the velorution rolling. The current and massive problem with otherwise wonderful initiatives such as Bikeability (a UK cycle training scheme, not to be confused with the Danish research project of the same name!) is that, given the existing cycling environment, we’re destined to lose the vast majority of those we train. However well we train them, only the hardy minority will stay on their bikes for long. We have strategically to crack, and then mine, the current dominance of car-based urban automobility, and the establishment of cycling corridors – a la Copenhagen and (in a fashion) London – on key, highly visible arterial routes seems one way of doing so.
Finally, I want to alert you to an upcoming event which is designed to explore precisely these kinds of question. ‘Building Cycling Culture/s’ is taking place at The Phoenix Digital Arts Centre in Leicester on Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th June 2011. I’m co-organising it with Rachel Aldred, who leads the ‘Cycling Cultures’ research project at the University of East London, Andy Salkeld of Leicester City Council, and John Coster of ‘Citizens’ Eye’. We’ll be announcing further details soon, but suffice to say that our vision is both to recognise and celebrate the myriad ways in which many people are currently working for cycling, and also to explore and debate what now needs to be done to produce in the UK a broad and inclusive cycling culture.
They’re some thoughts pretty much off the top of my head – but I hope they clarify my views (though as I hope I’ve suggested, my views are always under construction and so in formation ….), and that we have more debate over these and similar matters into the future. All the very best, Dave

What is the role of bike paths?

There is a lot of discussion about segregated cycle paths, with most on the one hand suggesting they are a critical and necessary element of creating bike friendly cities but then a few more radical John Forrester anti-bike lane advocates who suggest that we should all ride together with car traffic. I’d like to suggest that bike lanes are an important component of what makes a bikeable city, but may not always be the most critical factor. Bike lanes may also increase cycling in cities that are starting to see the cracks in a car-based life style (e.g., Europe), but may have minimal if any impact on cities where people are just getting their first car (e.g., India). Finally, if you create compact cities with severe restrictions on car usage and easy integration with a strong transit system, you may still be able to get good cycling rates even without any lanes (e.g., Japan).

See this video of the history of Dutch bike lanes, which is similar to Denmark (thanks to worldstreets for the tip).

First, while there is a lot of evidence to suggest that places with high cycling rates (mainly Holland, Germany, and Denmark) also have a lot of segregated bikeways, I haven’t read any reports yet that prove demonstrably that this correlation is causative. I found the video above interesting but found it to be lacking in serious discussion about why bike lanes were built at different times or the effect they had on ridership during different eras.

An alternative reading of the history of the bike lane could be that the initial cycle tracks were designed for cyclist comfort (let’s say roughly 1890-1950).  There already where a ton of cyclist on the road (somewhere around 70-80% mode share in many Dutch cities around the 1930s, 50% in Copenhagen), so this was mainly just for their benefit not to attract more riders.

When the car entered the scene around the middle of the 20th century, there was a push by modern planners to clear the roads to make way for them to increase the flow of traffic. At this point, most European cities had their cycling rates drop by 50% or more- including cities in Holland and Denmark- despite having bicycle lanes. In Copenhagen at this point, some lanes were even reduced.

Around the mid to late 1970s, after the oil crisis, the more progressive European cities began advocating to get lanes and infrastructure back and most experienced increased rates of cycling, particularly in cities where they also employed a cocktail of other pro-cycling measures (not just bike paths) combined with restrictions on car ownership and use. It wasn’t really until the 1990s, I would argue, that bike lane construction really started being advocated as a way to increase bike ridership. Rates in Dutch and Danish cities have since gone back up but only to half or less of their original rates from the early part of the 20th century (about 40-50% modal split in Amsterdam and 25-40% in Copenhagen, depending which data and who you ask).

Quite possibly, it is not until people have become sufficiently tired of cars and traffic and they start looking for alternatives that bicycle infrastructure can truly have an impact. There are several stories I have heard and seen of bicycle paths being constructed in Delhi and Pune in India and Cape Town in South Africa where there are probably twice as many bicyclists as in Denmark or Holland but the bike paths are not being used or being misused. This is a question worth exploring. Are they not designed properly? Do motorists, law enforcement agents and cyclists just need time to learn about them?

My hypothesis would be that these places are more comparable to where Holland and Denmark were in the 1950s and 60s, with their first intoxicating taste of cars. Here, most people are “captive users” biking because they have no choice. The second they get money, they buy a scooter or car. Even if you build bike lanes in this context, you will likely still see declines in cycling rates. However, it may lay the groundwork for subsequent increases when they come down from their “car high” in a generation or so.

Finally, cities in Japan have pulled off cycling rates that most would dream of without hardly any bicycle paths of any sort. Tokyo has rates of 20% and Osaka has rates of 25%. Compare this to US cities that typically have 1% or less aside from a few places like Portland, Oregon that get 8% share on the nicest day in July. Japan’s secret is probably its huge density, a solid train system with good bike parking and making car driving almost impossibly difficult and expensive in the city. Therefore, people live far from their jobs but ride their bike to the nearest train station which they take into work. No bike lanes. At least, not yet. Cyclists do cause conflict with pedestrians on sidewalks, so there has been some discussion about putting them in but it’s unclear where it is all heading.

Bike lanes are an important element of a mix of strategies, but we should not become overly convinced of their silver bullet power. Building a cycling city takes a lot of time and patience and requires a large variety of supportive bicycle infrastructure and policy combined with restrictive policies toward cars and integrative strategies with transit. Furthermore, different strategies are required for cities with different relationships with car ownership.

More research should be done trying to demonstrate that bike lanes are a cause of ridership (rather than as an effect of it). More research is also needed to show to what extent it is possible to transplant infrastructure designed for northern European cities which have a very particular socio-cultural, historical and urban context. Where does it work? Where does it fail and why? We also need to better understand and advocate on reducing car usage if we want to improve cycling rates. We can’t get there just with pro-bike advocacy alone.

Don’t get me wrong. I love riding on Copenhagen bike paths and now I have been spoiled into not being able to ride on the road together with cars. But I also want an explanation as to why there are also examples (even in Denmark!) of segregated bike paths not being used. Anyone have a good explanation?

Copenhagen

I was in Copenhagen last week, for a meeting of the Danish research project, Bike-ability. Ezra, who works on the project, kindly sorted a bike for me to ride around Copenhagen the next day, so I could get a cyclist’s view of the city.

And what a beautiful day I had! Cold, sure – very cold (especially my feet, despite packing my best cold weather socks – woolie boolies), but blue sky and sunshine bathing the Danish capital in glorious light. I don’t usually ride this style of ‘sensible’ bike, but straightaway I liked how suited it felt to the ‘difficult’ conditions. It felt solid and chunky moving over the ice, and the step-through frame gave me confidence that, should I slip, I’d be able quickly to dismount.

A big difference between the UK and Copenhagen is the treatment of cycling infrastructure. In the UK, cycle routes are very rarely cleared of snow and ice. This means that, in conditions such as those we’ve been having recently, people who ordinarily cycle either stop cycling and find some other way of making their journeys, or they are pushed into using the main roads. It’s a different story in Copenhagen. Some of the back streets weren’t clear, but all of the main arterial cycle routes I rode were.

Apparently there were far fewer people cycling than would usually be the case, even in early December. But again, from an English perspective, huge numbers of people were riding bikes. I stopped often, to watch them flowing through junctions; a beautiful sight, graceful in its silence and wintery light.

People cycling in Copenhagen rarely use their bells! I’d be fascinated to know how this particular mass cycling (non-)behaviour has come about. Mixed with the cold and the drab colours (all the leaves are now gone), the silence gave the cycling procession a funereal quality, which I rather liked (though it also produced a melancholy which made me want to find a warm and cosy cafe and sip hot coffee whilst reading Kierkegaard, whereas my mission was to stay out in the cold and see as much of the city by bike as possible …)

But yes, the numbers of people cycling … very many. I knew it already, but participating in it is another thing – Copenhagen has developed a ‘mass cycling culture’. Cycling is ‘mainstream’ here. I’ve no doubt that the kinds of people you see cycling will vary according to the part of the city and the time of day and week. Where and when I was riding I seemed mainly to be surrounded by younger people, more women than men; many students, I assumed. I stayed behind and followed some, not as a stalker but as a sociologist! Others I overtook, many more overtook me.

It was partly because I was new in the city and unclear on where I was going, and it was partly due to riding an unfamiliar bike, but along the main arterial routes into and out of the central city I felt very much as though I was pedalling a treadmill (yes, I know that’s mixing a metaphor!). Once I was on one of these cycle lanes which aim flat and straight, it felt hard to get off again. The snow had narrowed them, and people overtake, coming past really quite close, which increased my sense of being ‘hemmed in’.

There are important and intersecting tensions here, between ‘freedom’ and ‘confinement’, and between ‘the mass’ and ‘the elite’. It is crucially important how we negotiate these tensions across the world, as we move towards producing cycling as a very major means of urban mobility.

Speaking personally, I don’t like feeling part of a mass, feeling so regulated and restricted in my cycling movements. I don’t like feeling that I’m ‘merely’ playing my part in the rhythmic, quotidian reproduction of urban space in the name of the continuation of a neo-liberal capitalist economy. Rather, I like to explore and to conquer the city through cycling, to be an urban rebel. (Sure, most people might think me a jerk, but when I’m drinking freedom on my bike I really don’t care …)

But my elitist orientation to cycling in the city is antagonistic to (my ambitions for) cycling as a humdrum, mundane, ordinary practice – one which we need huge numbers of people to embrace in order to move towards a planet on which human habitation is viable over the long-term.

So I am in conflict both with my self and with Copenhagen. Which, luckily for me, is an OK place to be. Though of course, I am slightly worried that through my academic work I am arguing for the kinds of place (cities with high modal shares for cycling, such as Copenhagen) in which I personally wouldn’t want routinely to cycle. (Down with Kierkegaard, up with Nietzsche?)

I have two highlights from my day spent pedalling around Copenhagen. The first is that I spent a day pedalling around Copenhagen (which maybe makes it a longlight ..). The second is getting to visit Christiania, a place to which I’ve long wanted to go.

Christiania is of course the home of Christiania bikes. I love cycling and I love all those who work in creative ways towards alternative, progressive, socially and ecologically liberated futures. So this is my kind of place!

I’m also a sociologist, and although I recognise that I’m not always – or even often! – very good at it, I do like to think critically. I am very fond of Denmark and the Netherlands, I love cycling in both countries, and I love how useful and stimulating they are to thinking about cycling and cycling futures. Heaven help us if we didn’t have their shining examples.

But I’m sometimes puzzled how the Dutch and the Danish seem resistant to opening up their cycling practices to critical scrutiny. Amongst many of the Dutch and the Danes whom I’ve had the great privilege of meeting, cycling is somehow something which people simply and unproblematically just do.

The purpose of sociology is to crack open and scrutinize such taken-for-granted, common-sensical perspectives, not to reveal them as false but in order to understand better the complex processes through which they are constructed, maintained and,  yes, routinised.

So what I most love about Christiania and its bikes is how as a concrete place it provides evidence, both ‘actually’ (materially, in the form of a factory) and symbolically (culturally, in the form of the production and reproduction of particular ethics, aesthetics, sensibilities) of how a cycling culture gets built.

Can we copy the Copenhagen model?

There’s a rather interesting debate going on on a Madrid bicycling blog about how replicable the Copenhagen segregated bike lane model is in other places. I’m reposting my comments to the feed since they are fairly generally relevant around this hot button issue:

Studies suggest that bicycle lanes may be more important to attract new, inexperienced cyclists who primarily fear for their safety. Experienced bicyclists seem to be more concerned about speed (eg, signal timing) than safety.

As cycling rates in Copenhagen have increased in recent years, safety has increased but the perception of safety has decreased. This is probably due to the fact that increased numbers of cyclists are a primary reason for a reduction in accidents due to increased visibility of cyclists. However, the perception of safety has gone down because cyclists in Copenhagen are more afraid of other cyclists on the bike lanes, not other cars (which are largely ‘tamed’).

Cyclists in the global south (India, Brazil, Cuba, etc.) are typically what are called “captive” cyclists who bike because they cannot afford other options. Cycling is tied to status and wealth. As these societies develop, you see people transitioning to higher status transportation options, especially motor scooters.

Bicycle lanes that have been developed in places like India and South Africa have largely failed, perhaps due to the informality of traffic rules and regulations leading to heavy encroachment of lanes from motor vehicles (see previous posts on this blog).

I think we need a different model for these cities than what might work in the global north. The Copenhagen model works in Copenhagen, but I don’t think we can just “copy/paste” it across the world and expect the same results.

The blog is in Spanish but if you aren’t already using Google Translate and Google’s Advances Search functionalities, you are probably missing out on most of what is happening on the internet outside of your own country since Google searches filter away hits that are not in your language and outside of your country in order to increase speed and “relevance”.