Yesterday I joined Steven Fleming, also known as Dr Behooving Moving, for a virtual discussion on raising levels of urban cycling. Steven has recently finished writing his book, Velotopia, a follow up to Cyclespace.
Steven: Hi welcome to my kitchen! Thanks for joining me…
Kieran: So you have recently finished writing your book?
Steven: Yes, it’s an immense relief, so much work and then towards the end late night after late night to get this thing done. It’s beautiful. I’m really happy with it. It’s just going off to the publishers now.
My experience of 15 minutes of fame after my first book was a little bit hollow, what i really wanted was a book that people were really going to take notice of, policy makers and academics in particular. So it’s aimed at policymakers, planners, architects etc. Everyone recognises the concept of transit-oriented development, but my real agenda is for people to acknowledge and recognise bicycle-oriented development as a thing.
If that gets across, if in 5 years people are talking about Bicycle-oriented-development then I can relax. It means that developers can build at greater density with less car parking, that buildings are super bike friendly, and that they reinvest in safe routes and bike infrastructure. Then, I will be able to relax and feel as though I’ve really achieved something.
I try and do this through consultancy, and by lobbying developers for bike-friendly development, but where it hits a wall is that developers just don’t think that bike infrastructure is real infrastructure in the same way that they might think about light rail for instance. So they won’t give density concessions or parking concessions as they would for these other modes.
Kieran: So, are you saying that it’s not a level playing field, that as other forms of transport are subsidised it’s not equal, and if cycling was subsidised then the situation might be different?
Steven: That’s a different way of looking at it, but it comes back to the overarching point that bicycling is not really seen as transport. Now it is kind of in the Netherlands, but only to a point. in Netherlands they still believe in Transit-oriented development. They allow the bicycle to increase the catchment of train station for instance, but the whole idea is that you can have a city like Amsterdam which could hypothetically be densified and expanded to the north, which could be gotten to a point where you could then remove most motorised transport.
This could have really fast trip times relative to the population, as the distances are actually quite short, but it’s still a matter of cars slowing bikes down. At the core of it is still this idea that development needs to be clustered around train stations, and for regional transportation this is true, at a large scale, but Amsterdam itself could densify. Transit-oriented development is still understood by planners, and bicycle-oriented development not really acknowledged.
Kieran: Maybe it sounds as farfetched as zipline oriented development or something?
Steven: When you do the numbers on it and model it as a hypothetical exercise you realise it, try looking at average trip times in an average city. Take a big city like Barcelona, If you discount outer suburbia where the sprawl happens, then average trip distances are still only in the order of around 6km.
Transport planners always talk about the average trip to two thirds of the rest of the city. Now If they thought this way about bicycling. Bicycling is thought of as slow, but it is only slow because it has to stop for the other modes. If you actually gave bicycling precedence, which is not to say the other things can’t be there, but that they have to fall in behind bicycling, then the whole city speeds up. You ultimately end up with a faster more connected megacity.
That’s the thought experiment that I really wanted to work through with this book.
Kieran: Has it been successful in this regard?
Steven: That depends on the patience of people to sit down and really read through it. It explores the underlying root causes for the biases we have. E.g. it includes a chapter about utopias, and why people think utopias are bad, and should we really think they are so bad?
Kieran: So that’s more exploring social and psychological roots?
Steven: So ideas enter the playing field in architectural thinking and over time form dogmas, and we forget how the idea got in there. So when Jane Jacobs was talking about small walkable neighbourhoods and the urban village in the 1960s, what was she reacting against?
Now in the fullnesss of time looking back over 50 years, is the situation different, what did she overlook? What has changed since then?
Kieran: So it’s about examining the uniqueness of the situation?
Steven: Yeah, alot of these things have changed over time i think
Moving on, My research interest is in how change can be created with little resources. SO bearing in mind the pareto principle which states that 80% of the outcomes in any given situation come from 20% of the cause, if a city has a minimum budget for investment in urban cycling, how they should place that minimum investment?
It’s dirt cheap, physically, and politically potentially. One thing on a website of mine, I have is a thing called ‘green maps’ – it’s almost like a product, or a standardised service, that we provide to different cities and package up with different things.
You are probably familiar with the Nolli map principle, which is basically where this guy in the 1700s painted black everywhere you couldn’t go in Rome.
So what we do is colour green everywhere that you can be on a bike within an 8km2 square area of the city. That is everywhere that you can be on a bike and feel as protected as you might in the Netherlands. What very often happens is that there is a wealth of space. Most space is OK to use like that because there are all these quiet back streets and parks and waterways etc. There is alot of space but when you zoom in you realise it’s all broken up and so there is no way to cross arterial roads.
Most often when people think about bicycle planning they think about those main arterial routes and think how can we put a protected bike lane down that route. It’s politically expensive to do that.
Take a look at a city like Amsterdam. Of course when tourists go to Amsterdam they look at the protected bike lanes, and there are a few of those, and they also take take photos of traffic lights where you get a bottleneck , so you can fit fifty people in one photo. But 99% of cycling is happening everywhere, it’s really diffuse, its happening in all of the backstreets, and the back streets were achieved simply by traffic calming.
Kieran: So are those sort of equivalent to the quiet ways in London? Like a shared space dedicated to cycling?
Steven: Thats right. The trick is to make sure that cars don’t want to use it for a rat run. So you could use bollards to restrict movement so that they can just use it to get to heir house but then have to turn back out onto the main arterial road, or just buy throttling it, like the classic example of a Dutch T intersection.
So, cars turning out onto an arterial road must bump up over the cycle road and back down before making the turn, so the bike path is clear as day.
The trick is trying to decouple, so we say, that road over there is for cars, and these five here are just neighbourhood roads, so they are all quiet.
Kieran: Is there then a problem with directness, and people actually seeing these routes as efficient routes that go from busy places to busy places?
Typically not, it depends what happens when you get to a main road from a traffic-calmed street. If you have to stop and wait before you get a chance to cross, then this sucks! And you want to minimise this…
In Holland, you find that they have put the brakes on driving so much that typically on these roads there is not much traffic anyway, so as a cyclist you still feel a right of way.
In other contexts you can look at underpasses or overpasses, so that you can keep that continuity in lower density contexts. Maybe this wouldn’t be the approach in London, but in Rotterdam you can take such an approach to keep smooth passage. Sometimes it is just setting up lights on an intersection in such a way that arterial traffic doesn’t have right of way.
If you map it all out, and my experience of mapping it out in these cities is only that there’s no reason for these routes to be indirect.There is no reason why a network of parallel streets that picks up parks and picks up rail corridors and all this other circuitous stuff can’t be just as fast if not faster for the cyclist and more direct than the main road, if its really looked at and done completely.
Kieran: Would that depend on the situation from city to city? Do some places lend themselves more to this sort of intervention?
Steven: The nice things about these green maps is that they throw into stark relief all of that space you’ve got to work with and you can see opportunities for stitching these things together that really make it happen.
Whereas normally those opportunities are typically invisible because we could be looking at a cul-de-sac, or a park, but it might just need a tiny little link to open up and join all these islands.
You see, politically, it’s very difficult to go after that route that the car drivers take , if they are the voting majority, then they are very precious about that space. You could get yourself into a trench war for a whole lifetime over one bike lane that would never be built
Meanwhile there are these opportunities that are right under your nose that noone is really looking at, and the reason is that cyclists are paranoid about being relegated to secondary space. There is a terrible feeling of being a second-class citizen, and that you will somehow be left out of the better world if you can’t have that main street to cycle on.
There is kind of a root cause to that bias, and this guy Kevin Lynch, one of the great urban theorists with his book mage of the city ,had this idea that if all citizens don’t have the same image of the city then you’re going to have fragmentation. Well I would argue we’ve got fragementaton anyway. People live in different parts of the city, and use the city in different ways.
I think also, that Jan Gehl, for what a great speaker and nice bloke he is, some of his ideas have had too much influence, and so Copenhagen has become an article of faith for alot of people.
Kieran: It is seen as the perfect city? It has been marketed that way, right?
Steven: It’s got very few bridges and it’s got giant perimeter blocks, so it is inherently impermeable. These streets act as funnels because as they lead to the city’s only bridge they have to deal with everything. Because there are too few bridges and the blocks are really huge
Most cities are more permeable than that and have alternative routes. So take a Dutch city which is more able to give individual routes to cars and to bikes. Instead this policy is saying, that road is for cars and the bike is the guest, if you ride down this one you will have alot of traffic around you and feel unsafe, and it’s deliberate because you are not welcome on this arterial road. The road across from that is the one where the car must fall in behind the cyclist. Perhaps if Jan Gehl had come from Amsterdam, his message would have been more useful to alot of cities
Kieran: Can I turn that back to social and cultural issues around urban cycling and talk about Japan? Have you looked at the cycling culture in Japan and how cities might cycle in spite of infrastructure, and this might be facilitated by their culture? E.g. in Tokyo where there might be a relatively high model share but not really the infrastructure, and yet it seems to work and pedestrians seem able to share?
Steven: There is the infrastructure there, footpaths for very short trips, because thats a city with great density and deep rail infrastructure coveage so a trip in Tokyo is very short.
I havent been there, but i know form people ive speokn to, they have a few of these canal route swhere you can really cross the city safely, but generally speaking cycling is a 1km trip to shop or train staiton, so if you only go 1km, then you are quite hpapy to have bike with small wheels and ride on footpath alongside pedestrians,quite slowly but it is only 1km.
And thats not really harnessing the full portential of cyfling because you still have this problem because there is still the problem of indirectness, where you want to go south, so you will go north to for a km to get on a train to go south by 3km. It’s a weird situation where peoples mental map is strongly linked to subway stations, they dont realise that they are popping up not far away from where they went in.
I think this is problem in Asian cities hat have been modelled loosely on London. London is the progenitor of a big rail nework city, with train stations very close together, maybe 1km, and very short trips to trains that then stop quite alot.
Kieran: Yeah i saw a video on Youtube where people race the London Underground, and manage to keep up.
Steven: That was the situationists, Guy De Bord and the situationists were these guys in the 1950s who were marxists against capitalism that saw the subway metro as an instrument of capitalism, just like road networks and cars and buses, these mechanical modes would take you to work, take you to the shop to spend your money, and take you home to sleep so that you can go back to work.
They would get drunk and just walk a straight line across paris to deliberately obviate that setup, and would get across there and realise they had diseregarded all of that and still arrived efficeintly
Kieran: One last question, we looked at social and cultural issues, and I was wondering if there might be an economic policy that could be put into place that would have a similar effect on raising levels of urban cycling? Like we touched upon with desubisedation, e.g. removing free parking etc, is this sort of approach a neccesary component of an urban cycling strategy? Do we need to wage war on motorist, or can we just ignore that?
Steven: Its fruitless to talk about anything that 51% of voters won’t go for, and the trouble with bicycle advocacy is that it’s coming from a reactionary point of view, from people that don’t represent the political mainstream or are reacting against mainstream politics.
There is this expectation that the government will do what is right. Well the government doesn’t do what is right when it comes to sugar, or cigarretes, or war, or anyything else. The government does wthat 51% of people want it to do, and if at least 51% people are invested in driving, have a car, have a house with a garage, thats a big investment of money already, heavily invested in that. And so why talk about things that the government will do that will be right for cycling that affect the other people who don’t want that.
Kieran: But is it neccesary in the sense that unless you make cycling esier for people, then it will always be easier for people to just get in a car?
Steven: In alot of places its easy at the moment, so 51% of people are doing it. Take Rotterdam for example. Rotterdam has fantastic bike infrastructure, better bike infra then will ever have in Denmark, but also has parking in the city centre, so 55% of trips are by car. So Rotterdam, the parking infra is there, the road infra is there, you cant flood it you cant blow it up, you cant get rid of it, so 55% of people drive, and the bike modal share is only something like 15% – 20%. Even though they have fantastic bike paths, and you could say this is a bad thing. But this is a very good thing if you want to live in Rotterdam and ride a bike, you dont care abut the 55% of people that drive; thats their funeral.
Kieran: But doesnt this have a negative effect on the city as a whole generally?
Steven: To some extent, but if you’re cycling or crossing the road or walking in Rotterdam, you wont be particualarly aware of cars in the next street going down the road or into their basement garages. There might be a little bit of air pollution, you might be paying for their obesity through your taxes, but more detrimental is the fact that other cities around the world might look to Rotterdam as a model because it looks as if they can have it both ways, cycling and driving and keep everyone happy, which is bad for global warming, killing us through the earths resources, so setup as a bad model.
But my thinking is that we don’t have dictators and we have democracy, so we are not going to find solutions that rely on the government coming in and punishing 55% of the population that are attached to driving at the moment. It’s a wasteful pipe dream to hold onto.
But if we think about only 5% of population that want to ride bikes, and they would be prepared to move house, to live in an area of town that might be a bad area now, but has a great bike path, that connects them to schools and shops etc.
You can identify a part of the city that can provide a great experience to that 5%, and if you recognise thats their intention, they dont want a train and they dont want parking, they have chosen a lifestyle that is bicycle-orientated, so lets give them greater development opportunities, more housing without having to put in parking, build even though its not close to a train station, as they want to ride bikes, and if in the process we can let them develop something that’s really amazing, then the other 95% look across there and see something different. If other people can see something different and special, it can make them jealous. Foucalt called these heteretopic spaces in cities.
Steven: Meaning other spaces different from the mainstream… I’ve always found it coincidental that they had demonstrations in Copenhagen for more bike paths, the year after Christiania appeared as a bike-centric car-free part of city. Also across the water from Toronto in Canada there is a car-free island, if people can experience in one of these heterotopias something different and see that there is something else going on there, then something can click with them.
Ive just consulted on a city here where I live in Australia, which im really happy with and think is a good example.
The whole city here has a 1.8 bike modal share so is totally car-dominant, but we’ve got in one area, which has a got a great path that goes thorugh it, and all the neighbourhoods along this area have bike modal share of 5-6%, because of this one piece of infra. So you go down there in the morning and it looks like a bike-city, coming in and out going to these areas, completely different from the rest of the city, and I’ve managed to help a property developer argue to the local gov. that they should have little bit less of car parking.
And now they’ve got really bike-friendly with housing so the ramp goes up and you can take the box bike through the kitchen and have bike parking in the house, and this can go to market and sell for a premium even though it has less car parking because people can capture the fact it’s next to the bike path, so this is where you live and ride a bike.
Kieran: So that’s like appealing to a small group of people, a niche, that you’re suggesting would grow?
Yes, because their travel times are better, and obviously they are saving money, keeping fit and cycling might be cool, it’s got other factors, but we worked out trip times to the city once you factor in parking etc their trip times are faster, and people re jealous of this when they are stuck in traffic and the bike path is overtaking them. Then thats when they try the bike. So its making people jealous.
Then what i’d really like to do is put a roof over the bike path, so if you’re sitting in you car, and youre going well that’s alright they are getting rained on. Easy, we put a roof over bike path.
Kieran: Is that something thats inplace anywhere?
Steven: We’re trying to pilot it at the moment in Almere north of Amsterdam. We’ve got a developer that does bike paths and they want to do something for PR, so weve been looking at the details of how to design this, and its a bit tricky because we want to put solar panels up there and harness energy. But you gotta think about vandalism in the public realm in these sorts of places.
Kieran: Lighting? In Singapore i saw lit walkways, sidewalks with roofs.
Steven: I used to be an architect there and I had to design those walkways, and strangely they were usually used to connect multi-storey car parks, but yeah, so anyway, your short answer is no, it doesnt yet exist, but if we could do a pilot and gather research that showed that this was more preferable, that there are group of people that currenly dont cycle that now cycle because of this, or that people change routes to get under that cover, then you could quickly do a cost benefit analysis of covering all of Hollands bike tracks.
Kieran: This relates to something i explored during my study, i came up with a manifesto of ten key principles for raising levels of urban cycling, and one of them was that you could make cycling more ceremonial, to like reverse the potential status anxiety might pootentially feel if they get o a bike, if they feel they are perceived as poor, if infrastructure could somehow celebrate them, as it celebrates a car.
That’s an interesting point. One person you might enjoy talking to is Ann Lusk, one of the Bike safety researchers at Harvard, she is very approachable and has made this point in her own way.
In that first book of mine ‘cycle space’ I was interested in examples of architecture raising the prestige of cycling, lending cycling some of its prestige. So you know, we are competing against the Lexus.The mum who really loves her kids has got a Lexus with leather seats and airbags everywhere. So what experience would reward her? But also look at her pain points, shes got traffic to put up with, obesity peoblems etc.
In this latest book I go the full hog and think about spiralling apartment buildings and shops you can ride into and covered bike cities so whole city becomes a Lexus for woman on a bike, and delivers more to her, cuz shes time poor, (I keep saying she but it is typically soccer mums who lose out).If the cycling city in its full brilliance could save her time in the day then that’s something you could sell to her as a proposition.
That dovetails onto a point about children cycling, do you think there is a tipping point where levels of urban cycling become so high that it might be safe for chilren to cycle alone?
Mikael Colvile-Andersen, he reckons that, from doing alot of trend-watching in cities, that once bike share hits 5% then there is a political presence, which is enough to cause all of this other stuff to start to flow. Obviously areas with alot of cycling have alot of passive surveillance and so feel safe which is good for kids, but we are talking from developed nations whre crime rates have been lowering steadily over the past few decades, so we would think that anywhere with alot of people is likely to be safe. I’m going to bogota soon. Like most of us I read that book happy city that starts off with Bogota, but now I read it’s kidnapping capital of the world and all of this sort of stuff!
So when is it safe for kids to go out on their own? It comes down to parental attitudes.
In the book Happy City, Montgomery uses the example of Houten as a town where this is possible?
In all those Dutch new towns you see kids out and about quite alot. Cycling provides even better passive surveillance than walking because it is kind of ominscient. A bike can appear any moment, and it’s not a person in a capsule thats going to keep going, it’s a person who is engaged in their world. Also, flipping it around, if you’re on a bike you dont feel that a mugger is going to come after you as a moving target.
Unless they are also on bikes?
No, I think the target of choice is generally people walking, criminals target pedestrians before cyclists.
Okay, I should probably wrap it up there. Can you tell me where to get the new book?
All my books are on Amazon, or any online bookstore is probably easiest. Cycle Space is the first one, which is more from an asesthetic point of view, writing to people like yourself – the creators, architects, landscape architects etc. The idea was not to be too prescriptive, not to say what you should do, but to say these are the ways you can think, and these are the ways that cycling responds to the things you might remember from university.
So not like wheelchairs that can restrict what you do, but more of a magic vitrivuian figure that you can get hold of and really have fun with.
The new one velotopia is out next month
Thank you very much!
This is part of a series of interviews I am conducting, If you enjoyed it, then follow us on Twitter to be updated when the next one is published.