Bike Citizens: An Interview with Daniel Kofler on Raising Levels of Urban Cycling

Daniel from bike citizens

Daniel Kofler, CEO and founder of Bike Citizens: Image credit: Bike Citizens

Today I am speaking with Daniel, the CEO of Bike Citizens, an urban cycling route-finding application. We discuss key issues on how levels of urban cycling can be raised.

Daniel: So what is your ambition with your cycling website, what do you want to achieve? When you look back in four years, which road did you cycle down?

Kieran: For me it’s about exploring my own interest and at the same time helping raise general awareness of what I see as key to healthy cities. Hopefully this can help build momentum. So, first question, quite broadly how do you think levels of urban cycling can be most effectively raised?

Daniel: What do you mean by levels?

Kieran: In terms of cycling modal share; the percentage of all journeys taken in a place by bike.

Daniel: So, let’s break this down – from 5% to 15% is fairly usual, and then up to a city with one of the highest cycling modal shares like Groningen at around 40% of all journeys conducted by bike. I would guess on average the Netherlands is around 20-30%  modal share over the whole country.

Let me clarify something: Are you thinking about the countryside, or only journeys through the city?

Kieran: I’m talking about urban cycling, cycling for utility, not for pleasure. Though the two are not mutually exclusive. Urban cycling in the sense that these kind of journeys most commonly happen in cities.

Daniel: Lets split this into the four categories;

  • 0%
  • 3 – 5%
  • 5 – 15%  
  • 15 – 35%

I would say from 3 to 5% most of the cities are already there already percentage-wise. London is around 3% generally, so there is a need to focus on raising above this level.

The most obvious reason for cycling is cycle infrastructure. You see this especially In Copenhagen where the city focused on building comfortable and safe cycle infrastructure in order to get people cycling more often.

However I think that most cities, at least in part, created cycle infrastructure simply where the space was considered good enough, on an ad hoc basis, and this was seldom planned as transport systems are for cars and public transport.

Image from Bike Citizens

Image from Bike Citizens

Kieran: So most cities built cycle lanes on leftover land, sort of as a second thought?

Daniel:  Yes, and I would say that the modal share is dependent on the infrastructure. The better the cycling modal share, the better the infrastructure.

The second factor I would suggest is cycling culture and communities. This is very important in getting the habit of cycling from person to person, which usually means from parent to child.

When you are used to cycling all childhood long, the probability that you will keep on cycling in adulthood if you live in an urban area is pretty high. Also, the sustained usage of your bicycle is more likely if you know how to fix smaller mechanical problems.

Many people are positive about cycling but will tell you they stopped because their bike was broken. And you are asking, what was broken? Well the chain dropped, and yeah, I mean experienced cyclists would say that that is not a valid reason, but a bad excuse, but if you haven’t ever learned how to fix a tyre or how to adjust a derailleur then these problems will be too high a barrier to keep on cycling

So this is part of a cycling culture. Social interaction is vital to cycling’s success. I consider this part of the second point, cycling and communities.

Kieran: OK,  so what about post-war cycle planning of 1930s and 50s, where infrastructure was built but still people didn’t cycle? Places like Stevenage for example.

Daniel: Back then the landscape was completely different. people didn’t necessarily have to travel so much.

From my point of view, the paradigm of the people was completely different. Back then it was based on getting up again from what was broken down by war, i.e. about growth, about the pursuit of more.

The priority was creating more possibilities, in any possible way. This meant a better economy, and improved personal mobility. The car was central to this. Car factories had a positive impact on the economy. Moreover, there were only a relatively small number of cars so not so many problems with pollution, air quality, traffic safety, overcrowding etc. I would say since then that the amount of vehicles in the streets has increased by around a factor of ten.

But now we are in a different phase, the paradigm has changed. If I may speak for future generations, the focus is more on sustainability and looking forward. This is very different to the situation back then. People are striving for different things.

What also changed is the dedication of space, the equality of the spatial usage.That is, how you use the streets, how you dedicate the usage of streets. In the 20s and 30s, space was for everyone?

With this came the problem of alot of people getting killed by traffic, so separation was introduced. sidewalks for people, and roads for cars. Since then, room for vehicles has continually expanded, taking room away from people.

If you were to now provide more space for people to travel on foot or by bike, then this offer would be acknowledged by a higher usage of that mode.

Image from Bike Citizens

Image credit: Bike Citizens

Kieran: My research interest is how change can be created with little resources, The Pareto principle states that 80% of the outcomes in any given situation come from 20% of the cause. How can the maximum of change be precipitated with the minimum of investment? If a city has a minimum budget for investment in urban cycling, how they should place that minimum investment?

Daniel: Yes, there are more cost-effective methods than building cycle infrastructure. One of the easiest is to decrease the allowed speed within the city. People feel differently about cycling depending on the speed limit. Graz has large areas with a 30km hour limit; this is a huge difference to cities that don’t have that.

The next thing is to introduce cycle streets, not cycle lanes or paths, but whole streets that are dedicated to people that use the bicycle. Cars can use it but not overtake or drive faster than bikes. It is prioritised for bikes, so you can use already existing space.

One of the most important factors is speed, reduce the allowed speed for vehicles. The more you do this, the better it is for cycling.

Secondly, one should know where you should build cycle infrastructure. If you get yourself in the position of a traffic councillor for the next decades cycle infrastructure. Where should you put it? Through which corridors are people moving?

With this in mind we started to work on our analysis tool. While using our app you can agree to upload your routes to our service. Through this we have collected a huge database of cycle routes.

Kieran: When you say cycle routes do you mean routes with cycling infrastructure or just routes that people cycle?

Daniel: I mean cycle journeys, regardless of infrastructure, but you see a dependency.

Based on this GPS data we can now make an analysis to gain deeper insight into the behaviour of cyclists. Where do people start cycling? Where do people stop? What route do they take? What is their average velocity? What are the problems with infrastructure that lead to a lower velocity? Where do cyclists have to wait more than the average waiting time per stop?

This allows us to identify intersections where cyclists are where cyclists are slowed down or stopped unnecessarily, and compared to other traffic do not have equal rights.

This data also allows us to do a simulation where you see how many people would use a potential cycling corridor, and what the journey time saved would be if for example you created a cycle superhighway between point A and point B.

In Berlin, a project is currently going on which looks at a journey where point A to point B takes 43 minutes, but this could be decreased by more than a third if a cycle superhighway was built on this way.

Kieran: So, sort of like building from A to B , from busy area to busy area, along main corridors of movement. Not on leftover land, sort of like desire lines?

Daniel: Yes, but desire lines on a macro scale. If you compare the actual routes people cycle in a city with an imagined map where everyone took the shortest route from point to point, then you would see that everyone takes convoluted routes at the moment.

If you overlaid this map of existing infrastructure with one showing the shortest possible routes, then you would see the difference. You could call this new map a desire map.

Returning to the question, you asked if it was possible to increase levels of cycling without heavy investment. I think it is important to bring in a situation I saw in Vienna. Here sometimes people complain about the city because it doesn’t provide enough cycle paths.

However, If you take a look at the numbers, it provides more than 1500 km within the city. Of course this could be improved, made better or longer, but relatively speaking the city has alot of cycle paths.

The question is how can you increase the visibility of existing cycle paths, and increase the visibility of cycle-friendly infrastructure, like 20mph roads etc.

If you use a navigation system like citizens, you can give people the impression how it feels to be on a bike. People can experience the bike lanes, the bicycle infrastructure.

bike citizens app

Image credit: Bike Citizens

Kieran: So this helps make cycling a choice for people? To make cycling an option?

Daniel: Yes, because at the beginning we thought most people don’t ride their bikes because they don’t know where the cycle paths are. Not knowing the way is one of the biggest barriers to cycling.

But bigger than this is a lack of awareness.  If you don’t consider cycling as a means of transport you will never cycle to work. Likewise, If you consider it as a leisure activity you will not use your bike. That is why i said cycling communities is second most important thing.

The last point I would like to make is that I see some thresholds within increasing the cycling share. A threshold of within 15 – 35% can be reached by the provision of dedicated cycle infrastructure.

Kieran: Where do you take these numbers from?

Daniel: Our observations from working together with cities, and seeing how cycling rates are shaped by the environment.

Kieran: Okay.. so what is the ceiling? What is the limit to urban cycling levels?

Daniel: If you want to get above 35% then it is highly important to reduce space dedicated to cars. By that point you really have to provide spatial equality by takingand take away space from cars in order to provide it for people walking and cycling. Otherwise, the capabilities of the infrastructure will not be enough for people walking and cycling.

This is what you see in some cities in germany, e.g. Munster, and a city in Northern Italy, Bolzano. They have a quite a huge cycling share at around 30% but that is the ceiling, it is not possible to increase it further.

We have not spoken much about Groningen, but it is similar to our city here in Vienna, Graz. They both have a similar population of around 300,000. But the cycling modal share in Graz is around 15%, and in Groningen it is around 40%.What is the difference between these cities? The difference is cycle infrastructure, cycling facilities, cycle racks etc.

Returning to the question on minimum investment, this is an additional answer. What is the difference between Groningen and Graz?  We have parking lots in public space. This is a storage of private goods in public space. It stands there 95% of the time, static, like putting your piano on the street, but of course this would bring more happiness. To say it briefly. The accessibility of your vehicle is crucial. If a car is in a garage, or down on the street, then the probability that you will use it is far higher.

Groningen doesn’t allow cars on public space, or does so seldomly, and this is also a huge and easy way to shift the balance in favour of the bicycle. Although it is cheap and easy to achieve, being just paint on the pavement, it is hard to achieve politically. It requires strong political will to enforce it and to keep it in force.

Thank you very much Daniel

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