14 February 2011

The Return of the Bicycle for Citizen Cyclists

I wish it had a soundtrack but this is a brilliant archive film from the 1960's and 70's in Amsterdam, showing the lowest point in the city's proud cycling history. Copenhagen was on a parallel journey at the time so it even offers a Copenhagener insight into what this city was like after over a decade of urban planning revolving around the car. Images of the modern cycling cities of Amsterdam and Copenhagen are now freely available on the internet, so this film is an excellent way to see how bad it was when the car was given free reign as well as seeing the transformation from then to now. Narrow streets choked with cars now calmed with bicycle infrastructure and car-unfriendly intiatives that not only served to bring back the bicycles but also re-transformed the city into a liveable place. A place for people. Look at all those cars. I wonder where they went?

"Yeah, but where do all the cars go?" is the latest desperate grasping at straws by the cycling Pamplonan boys who enjoy a brisk 'running with the bulls' and the accompanying rush of blood to their lycra shorts. Hating on bicycle infrastructure, fighting tooth and nail the promotion of cycling for regular citizens and now using 'where do we put the cars?!?!' as an excuse.

I realised something the other day...

Cities for People
I'm just about finished reading Jan Gehl's new book - Cities for People. Like his previous books, it's an important volume. Every page has a number of 'Aha!' moments. Such simple ideas that it boggles the mind that more cities are doing them.

What I realised was that this is not a book for those who despise bicycle infrastructure. To them, automobile traffic is a necessity. It defines the way they like to ride bicycles. Removing the cars would take away their roller coaster. Shame for the few but fantastic for the other 99.9% of the population, as well for making our cities nicer places to live. Cities for People is a book for that 99.9%.

Throughout the book, Gehl focuses on pedestrians but when bicycles are mentioned, they are placed alongside pedestrians. Which is, of course, how most people ride bicycles in cities - if given the chance.

If we return to the film at the top... there were still people cycling in Amsterdam during the low period, just like in Copenhagen, as you can see in 'rush hour' clip, but the number of cyclists was dwindling.

It took the massive grassroots protests of the 1970's and 1980's to force urban planners and politicians to return to planning for pedestrians and cyclists.

Cyclist Demonstration on City Hall Square 1970s - Copenhagen
This is what it looked like in Copenhagen at a protest rally in the 1970's. Regular citizens in their thousands demonstrating for safer streets and the re-implementation of bicycle infrastructure.

Vintage Protest
In order to draw attention to the need - and desire - for infrastructure white crosses were painted on the asphalt where cyclists had been killed. In the late 1960's there were roughly 300 hundred cyclists killed every year in Denmark. Last year, in 2010, there were 19.

The power of the people triumphed. Cycle tracks are the Tahrir Square where Citizen Cyclists continue to gather to show that fighting for The Common Good can suceed and from where the dictators who only wish to serve the interests of the few are banished.

Jan Gehl's book Cities for People is published by Island Press. Reading it restores hope. It is rich with images and examples from around the world.

On the shift to bicycle culture, Gehl writes that when bicycle use rises:

"Biking simply becomes the way to get around town. Bicycle traffic changes gradually from being a small group of death-defying bicycle enthusiasts to being a wide popular movement comprising all age groups and layers of society from members of Parliament and mayors to pensioners and school children.

"Bicycle traffic changes character dramatically in the process. When there are many bicycles and many children and seniors among them, the tempo is more stately and safe for all parties. Racing bicycles and Tour de France gear is replaced by more comfortable family bicycles and ordinary clothing. Cycling moves from being a sport and test of survival to being a practical way to get around town - for everyone.

"This shift in culture from fast slalom bicycle trips between cars and many infringements of traffic regulations to a law-abiding stream of children, young people and seniors bicycling in a well-defined bicycle network has a big impact on society's perception of bicycle traffic as a genuine alternative and reasonable supplement to other forms of transport. The shift in culture also brings bicycles more in line with pedestrians and city life in general, and is one more reason that bicycles have a natural place in this book about city life."

Isn't this the goal? Isn't this where we are headed. In many places, yes. Thanks to clever urban planners and visionary politicians.
In far too many places, no. No thanks to the white noise of certain sub-cultures.


ibikelondon said...

I'm half way through reading Cities for People too and can't recommend it enough. Not only should every cycle campaigner in the country be reading it, they ought to be buying copies to give to their local politicians, too.

I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Gehl here in London and he left an incredible impact. He was speaking at the same event as our local communities secretary, Eric Pickles, who left a less positive impact about us cyclists, sadly;

Erik Sandblom said...

"What I realised was that this is not a book for those who despise bicycle infrastructure. To them, automobile traffic is a necessity."

It can also be the other way around. I feel bike path networks are often used as an excuse to give motorists free rein on the rest of the road network.

Dave Horton writes "an unintended consequence of their popularity (bike paths) may be that the dominant public perception of cycling is becoming of an activity which best occurs in ‘safe’ and pleasant places".

I feel this is happening in Sweden. Not only are bike paths a way of giving the rest of the road network to motorists, but they are also used, together with helmets, to portray cycling as inherently dangerous.

For example, here's how the city and road authority talk about building new cycle paths: "Utgångspunkten är att göra det möjligt att kunna cykla trafiksäkert till arbetet, skolan, fritidsaktivteterna och andra viktiga målpunkter. / The point of departure is to make it possible to cycle safely to work, school, recreational activities and other important destinations." Nacka och Värmdö tar krafttag för cykling

Doesn't their language come across as ignoring the bull? Cycling isn't dangerous, cars are. Their attitude in facilitating safe cycling is almost similar to promoters of high-speed rail. It's as if cyclists are as dependent on cycle paths as trains are dependent on rails.

I like bike paths, but I also feel they are often co-opted to legitimise fast, heavy car traffic. Half of all car journeys in Europe are shorter than 5 km, so that legitimacy should be questioned! Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities (PDF)

Nate Briggs said...

The "Pamplonan boys" to which you refer are, indeed, boys.
Which makes it clear that we are talking about Display Behavior here: different demonstrations of male potency. In America, many men use the method of purchasing a very large vehicle - or enhancing the noise a small car makes with an aftermarket exhaust.
But, of course, you can also acquire a racing bicycle, color coordinated suit, and helmet, and shoes. And wear advertising logos for people who are not paying you to advertise for them.
Either way, it's just a big pissing contest, and not really related to transportation at all.

Nate (SLC)

sexify said...

"In order to draw attention to the need - and desire - for infrastructure white crosses were painted on the asphalt where cyclists had been killed."

Can't help thinking that's far more constructive (and less fatalistic) than ghost bikes. Another idea that Denmark ought to export.

@Erik, You do have a point, but surely each person who is attracted to use those safe and pleasant bicycle routes rather than a motor vehicle is reducing the number of the latter. And as the number of people using cars declines, it becomes easier to reclaim parking spaces and road space for non-motoring uses.


Jim Moore said...

It's sad that the "bad" Amsterdam of the 70s is still better for cycling than my city of Adelaide (South Australia) today.

The cars in the films look like they're travelling too fast, say 60km/hr, when they're probably only maxing out at 50. This might be because I'm used to watching films of cities in Holland and Denmark today where the maximum car speeds must be down at around 40 as they don't look dangerous like they do in this old film.

Most of Australia's urban/city streets have a 50km/hr speed limit, which after watching these films it becomes clear that this is too high, and means we need to tame the automobile as well as build up our cycling infrastructure (and of course get rid of our stupid mandatory bike helmet laws).

Justin Lim said...

I met Gehl in Vancouver after one of his excellent presentations.

Pricey book, but it's such a good read, and it's autographed too!

kfg said...

Nate - "many men use the method of purchasing a very large vehicle"

My personal (and thus purely anecdotal) observation is that the largest personal vehicles are actually driven by the smallest women.

I'll give you the loud exhaust though. There was a time when I had a great deal of trouble convincing the significant other that the motorcycle club riders who occasionally disturbed the peace of our neighborhood actually paid hundreds of dollars extra to replace mufflers that muffle with those that don't.

Sexify - Thus, over the long run, actually increasing the misallocation of resources devoted to the car. Oh, the irony.

guss said...

Undeniably, the intelligent citizenry that has required of politicians who build according to the people, not cars hell.
Is enviable from Madrid, a city full of cars to hell, and against life, and people.

Casey Gifford said...

I'm interested in learning more about how Copenhagen and Amsterdam became bicycling meccas. Specifically, I want to look at the planning process used to advance bicycling infrastructure (rational planning, communicative planning, etc). Do you have any recommendations on good sources to pursue? Thanks!