Tag Archives: multi-modal integration

Semi-formalism: a new global agenda for “development”?

As you may have noticed, I have been offline on this blog for the past few months. Needless to say, my thinking has been shifting quite considerably on where I see the future of transportation heading and the role of the bicycle within it as a piece of a broader system- not the end objective of a “sustainable” city. I still love my bike, but I’ve been becoming increasingly interested in developments in shared vehicles, multi-modalism and the idea of “mobility as a service”.

I’ve moved to San Francisco and started digging into these issues in some specific startup projects which will be unveiled over time, though one can be viewed in a recent New York Times write-up.

This blog will likely take a new shape (and perhaps a new name) to reflect these changes. In the meantime, here is grand theoretical musing for your reading pleasure to get a sense of where my head is these days. Looking forward to feedback on what is still a somewhat nascent idea.

#####

“Semi-formal” systems should be the new model for global development.

Generally, I see the global north being “too” formal in its development. Formalization can improve health and well being, and reduce societal risks (eg, traffic rules). However, it can also be far too rigid and slow moving and restricts innovation, possibilities and potentialities that do not meet all regulations.

The global south is “too” informal. Excessive informality can lead to corruption, safety and health issues, lack of consumer rights, etc. The north’s development efforts (and funding) largely go to formalization of the south under the premises of “modernization” and “progress” with the north presumed as the zenith. This doesn’t always work for lots of reasons (cultural, political, etc.).

For instance, an experiment in Phnom Penh to put in a bus line failed. Why ride on this thing that only leaves once every 15 minutes and gives a fixed route? Why bother when I can hop on the back of anyone’s motorcycle taxi and go anywhere anytime?

In Bangkok, however, they have what I see as the trappings of a semi-formal system. It’s easy to become a moto taxi but you need to register and get a license, have a helmet for passengers, and wear a special yellow jacket. It’s not as regulated as say the NYC taxi system while still providing some level of protection for consumers. Minibusses and shared cabs, when somewhat regulated, could also provide a semi-formal transport mode which provide the benefits of a flexible system with the safety regulations of a formal system. And why don’t we have any of these systems in more “developed” countries?

What I think we are starting to see (rideshare, carshare, bikeshare, collaborative consumption, etc.) is a move toward a new form of development, a new concept. In my more radical theorizing, we are even moving beyond capitalism. Our means of exchange are in flux, borrowing from older concepts (trade/barter/share) but advanced by some of the securities of new technologies (trust/reputation/accountability).

We will start seeing new monetary systems developed (eg, bitcoin) and new funding mechanisms that are more grassroots and peer-to-peer (eg, kiva, kickstarter). There will be more “money” than ever before in the new economy. We are living in the times of economic deprivation by comparison.

I think the north is becoming less formal as an economic system, particularly as we continue into our fourth year of economic “downturn” with no upturn in sight. What we should be setting as a new target for development globally is something less formal than the north, while more formal than the south. The north should stop presuming it has all the answers and start learning from the south. The south should be reflecting on its own context and develop solutions that grow out of its own needs.

My proposition is that semi-formality should be the new target to be met, putting north and south on equitable terms toward a common, more sustainable global pursuit, hybridizing the best of formal and informal systems. Specific solutions can draw on other models globally for inspiration but should be refined and rethought – perhaps even radically – to be locally and contextually relevant. Collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer carsharing, bikesharing, and ridesharing particularly, are just instances of a much larger trend that I see in the horizon.

Let us build toward this convergence toward a common global aim. The lines between public and private transport will blur. The lines between modern and old fashioned will blur. The future will be better. The future will be semi-formal.

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.

Bikeshare for robust cycle cultures

There are currently 238 bikeshare schemes in the world. This appears to be increasing at roughly 50% per year. If this rate continues, we will have some 1.200 bikeshare schemes by 2014. The next areas of major growth is in the US, Canada, and Australia, all of which also have pitiful cycling rates of around 1% of people biking in most cities. It will be exciting to see how these cities adapt European models for their local context.

But w hat about rapidly developing countries like India, China, and South Africa that have high cycling rates now but that are losting cyclists as the economy picks up and more people move to cars? They have many large contextual differences with Europe, but if they are to take any inspiration from bikesharin models, maybe they should consider looking at countries with robust cycling cultures like Holland, Denmark, and Germany- who are trying to keep people on bikes- not those with few cyclists like France, UK, or Spain who are trying to move people onto bikes.

Early innovation in bikesharing came out of robust cycling cultures like Holland and Denmark where about 20-40% of the population bikes. Most of the early growth in recent, high-tech bikesharing has come out of countries like France, Spain, and the UK where only  1% of the population rides a bike for transport.

Another big expanding market will be in rapidly developing countries like Brazil, China, South African and India which all have very high cycling rates which range from roughly 20-70% of the population. These are mainly ‘captive users’ who bike because they can’t afford other options.  As people get richer, they move to motorized vehicles, in part for speed and in part to gain higher status. These cities will need to develop their own local models, which are only just beginning to crop up in cities like Hangzhou, Buenos Aires, New Delhi, and Taipei.

These new models should develop from the local context up. However, if they are to take any leads from European cities, maybe they should look to those with a high modal split, like Denmark and Holland, not a low modal split like France or the UK.

In Holland, the OV-Fiets system is hooked into the national train company. Many people live and work in different cities, but when you have a huge number of cyclists, it is hard to fit them all onto the trains. Anyone who has ridden a train in Holland knows that there is virtually no integration for cyclists on the trains. It costs an exorbitant amount, you have to put them into the entryway of the car with no special racks (except on long distance international trains), the elevators are small, and none of this is easy given how heavy Dutch bikes are.

The solution, until recently, was to buy two bikes- one for the ‘home’ end and one for the ‘work’ end. You then bike to one station, ride to your destination city, and then pick up your second bike to ride onward.  OV-Fiets is integrated with the train operator. You pay only €10 per year in membership and then €3 per ride for up to 24 hours. This seems to be well enjoyed and used by Dutch I have spoken with.

Odense in Denmark is trying a similar concept geared toward commuters that is set to launch this spring. This program will cost you about €7 per week, €13 per month, or €33 per year. In the meantime, since October of last year, they have been using a phone based service where you pay about €2,50 per hour as a flat usage fee that comes off your phone bill.  JC Decaux, who runs many existing services, will operate it. It’s not clear to me how well used this service is since I haven’t met anyone who has used it yet.

Germany, with about 10% of the population biking, has NextBike and Call-A-Bike which I have written about in an earlier post. These are both floating systems, with no parking stations. Both use cell phones, not smart cards. Call-A-Bike is integrated with the DB train system and NextBike is a private operator, whose money comes from advertising and usage fees. NextBike is €1 per hour or €5 per day. Call-A-Bike is €0.08 per minute, €9-12 per day, and €45-60 per week. You can also pay €27-36 per year and then get the first 30 minutes free. NextBike uses extremely cheap bikes with no technology, while Call-A-Bike uses extremely expensive, high-tech bikes. Call-A-Bike bikes have to be placed in certain areas, while NextBike’s can be placed anywhere in the central city. Anecdotal evidence from one user suggests that forcing people to return Call-A-Bike bikes to a certain location is a deterrent, however given the spread of both of these systems throughout a multitude of cities in Germany and abroad, they must be doing something right.

These services pricing models are unlike systems like the oft touted London, Paris or Barcelona schemes which typically cost more like 50€ per year where the first 30 minutes is free and then there is a tiered hourly pricing thereafter. These systems for robust cycling communities are also more focused on daily commuters and many use cell phones, not smart cards. The German ones have also experimented with floating models which do not require parking spaces, and may help with the distribution issue.

As rapidly developing cities begin to implement bikeshare schemes, we will start to see new paradigms emerging. These contexts are dramatically different in that they consist of large, dense, cities coupled with cheap labor, high theft issues, massive social inequity, completely different cultural norms, and limited technology and data access. These cities have high cycling rates now but they are all dropping due to all manner of motorized alternatives, just as we saw in western cities 50 years ago with the entrance of cars.

This context provides its own limitations while also opening up new possibilities and local models will have to be developed. But if there is anywhere to look for inspiration in Europe, it could be from systems where cycling rates are high and municipalities are trying to keep them that way, not cities where rates are low and they are trying to increase them.

bike lock frozen so I had to take transit. yucko.

Yesterday my bike lock was frozen so I couldn’t unlock my bike. It was -5C. I poured boiling water over it which worked. But then when I went to leave the university, I couldn’t even get my key in because some water had gotten in and frozen solid. So I had to take the metro, which was annoying because I was going to go to two different events in two parts of town and it was freezing cold out.

The ticket machine at the metro was broken so I just got on the train. Guess what? Two seconds after I sat down, the guards checked me for my ticket! I explained to them that the machines were broken and they were fortunately nice enough to let me punch my ticket at the next stop. Spared a $100 spot fine but score major minus points for transit for the stress and crappy experience.

Then on my way to the second place, I took the metro to a bus. There was probably a better way to go but I don’t really know the bus lines that well since I never ride them (and I can’t take my bike on them) and I don’t have internet on my phone.  The bus was of course 5 minutes late and there were about 100 people getting on it because their bike locks were probably frozen too. It was freezing to wait and I had to stand in the packed bus. My girlfriend also had to wait for me at the other end for about 10 minutes, and that was including stopping back at the bar on the way because she forgot her hat. Again, twice as long, twice as cold, twice as expensive (actually infinitely more since biking is free).

On my last trip home, I decided to just ride on the package carrier of my girlfriend’s bike. Not so comfortable and probably the coldest way since I was just sitting and moving with frigid -10C (at night) air blowing on my face. But probably still better than waiting for and paying for the bus. I offered to pedal but she refused. I think because she knew it would be colder to sit!

Overall, taking transit took twice as long as biking, cost several times more and was actually colder. Walking to and from the station is colder than biking because you are less active. Maybe we need some indoor bike parking so we don’t get this problem!

Copenhagen city archeologists ride customized cargo bikes

So, obviously, the mail gets delivered by bicycle in Copenhagen. But now there’s a custom bicycle for a lesser known urban profession: archeologists. The entire city is getting dug up to put in a new metro system which means that urban archeologists are scurrying around town making sure each cultural artifact uncovered is carefully taken care of.

The Copenhagen City Museum has provided them with their own custom cargo bikes to carry all their tools, lunchbox, etc.  They say it saves them the hassle of parking and a lot of time, especially with the green waves that time lights on major streets so  you sail through town at 20 km/h during rush hour.

“Sweden: Illogical Rules for Bikes on Trains” (in Lapland)

This is an article about some Danes who travel up to Lapland in northern Sweden above the arctic circle and then find out that you can’t easily take your bicycle on the train. The Danes, of course, assumed they could just stick their bikes on the train when they were tired. But it turned out they were not allowed unless they gave 5 days notice. Using some clever thinking and Danish ingenuity, they decide to wrap their bikes in cardboard and call them ‘packages’. It worked and they managed to get their bikes to Stockholm.

Sverige: Ulogiske regler for cykler i tog.

Sled-bike integration

In Berlin, everyone took their kids sledding in the park on these great wooden sleighs. Since the sidewalks weren’t cleared of snow, they also pulled them along behind them on the way to the park.

But sometimes, you might want to leave the sled on the street while you get a hot cocoa.

And when you are done, you might want to carry the sled home. Who knows where the kid went…

Cuban cyclists hanging onto a bus

I love how they are not just holding onto the bus but onto each other. It reminds me of bike messengers in New York stealing a ride from taxi cabs.

Moving from Amsterdam to Copenhagen by train with my bike

So I decided to take the train when I moved back from Amsterdam to Copenhagen so I could take my bicycle (and a bunch of stuff). I bought the ticket through the Deutsche Bahn (German Railway) online site because they are one of the few train companies in Europe that sell international tickets. However, they didn’t include the special additional bicycle ticket.

So I had to go down to Amsterdam Centraal in person and pay an extra 10 euro service fee in addition to the 12 euro bicycle ticket.

I was hoping to get to ride this charming beauty, which one of the founders of De Fietsfabrik was going to lend me for free. But the once-in-5-years Sail festival was going on and the streets were clogged with people and traffic. My (small, Japanese) girlfriend didn’t feel comfortable riding it back from the station alone. It was probably a good decision to skip it though it was a very cool cargo bike.

I had to leave my bike at the station, go to my apartment by light rail, pick up my bags and bring them back to the station by light rail. It took a bit longer than expected and I might have missed my train but the door to one of the Russian trains was delayed and we left 20 minutes late. There was no ramp to get up the steps to the car so it was tough to get it in. It was also tough to lock the frame since the rack was designed just for the wheel. I left some clothes in my saddlebags and hunkered into my seat for the 18 hour ride.

My companions were a Dutch guy in his early 20s who was doing an exchange program in northern Sweden (Umeå). I don’t think he really understood that it was 35 hours of train rides away until he sat down in the car. We were later joined by a Danish woman who had a super cute mixed girl.

I got into Copenhagen only an hour delayed. My friend was supposed to pick me up but we had a problem. Nowhere for him to park his bicycle with an attached trailer and no elevator or ramp on the stairs. I had too much stuff to move and he couldn’t leave his bike. Finally, I put all my stuff balanced on my bike, locked my bike on the platform and then we quickly hauled it up the stairs.

His tire was losing air so we had to keep pumping it up but managed to find my new place a couple km away. It was a bit tricky but felt nice to come home on a bicycle. Special thanks to Tim and Ayako for their help!