I gave this TEDx talk in Zurich back in October. It was released online today. Bicycle Culture by Design - the abridged version.
If anyone is interested, here's my script. Some deviations, but mostly the same as the talk. Hopefully, watching the TEDx talk is better than reading the words, but hey.
I'm an optimist.
But I want to put the next 15 minutes into perspective and I need your help.
I'd like everyone to clap at the same tempo as me. Not loud, just softly. Like this.
Thank you. For every time we clapped our hands someone, somewhere in the world was injured in a car accident. 96 beats per minute.
50 million people a year are injured in car accidents. 1.2 million are killed by cars. In both the EU and the US 35.000 people are killed every year by cars. Do you know what that is? That's a 9/11 – collapsing World Trade Center towers every single month. And every month for the last 60 years - at least.
I can't possibly be alone in thinking that this is insane. There is no war on this terror. We have accepted a status quo in our socities that is quite unacceptable.
I wanted to find out why we had reached this point and, more importantly, what we could do to make things better and to think differetly.
Let's look at the streets themselves. What are streets? For 7000 years since cities first were formed streets had a very singular definition. People gathered in them, transported themselves, sold their goods, children played in them. Streets were an extension of our homes and our living rooms. They were public domain. Probably the most democratic spaces in the history of homo sapiens.
Now many people seem have a perception that streets are the sole and exclusive domain of automobiles. I discovered that two things happened to cause this massive paradigm shift in our perception of streets.
Firstly, in the rapid urbanisation of the late 1800s and early 1900s engineers were the urban heroes of the day, tackling all the urban challenges thrown at them and doing it well.
However, when the automobile appeared, people started dying and nobody had a solution to the accelerating traffic safety problem. Almost in desperation, engineers were handed the job, in collaboration with the automobile industry who saw an opportunity. Almost overnight, streets become regarded as public utilities, like water supply, electricity or sewers. Puzzles to be solved with mathematical equations.
Secondly, the automobile industry had a problem. They had products to sell but people hated them. They employed effective tactics like marketing and ridicule to change peoples perception. The automobile industry started campaigns against what they called jaywalking. In the American slang back then, a jay was a mocking term for a country bumpkin, who didn't know the ways of the big city.
People were ridiculed for trying to cross the street in the middle of the block – a 7000 year old habit. Boy scouts were enlisted to hand out flyers chastising these people. People who were against cars were labelled as old-fashioned and standing in the way of progress. This was all effective. Nobody likes to be called old fashioned or ridiculed.
Pedestrians were herded into these crosswalk things. Children were shephereded into newly invented things called playgrounds and finally, these irritating obstacles were removed. The stage was set for a paradigm shift. Probably the greatest paradigm shift in the history of our cities.
And here we are. Welcome to the tail-end of 100 years of traffic engineering where science was applied to social planning and human streets – for the first time in 7000 years. No one has figured out how to make traffic flow better or ease congestion. Not to mention stop alot of people from getting killed and injured.
Streets now carve up cities like angry rivers slicing through sand. What's more is that traffic engineering is largely unchanged since about 1935. Sure, there is more technology for gathering data and analysing it, but the mindset hasn't evolved.
Imagine if education, health care, parenting, architecture, design... you name it... was stuck in 1935? What a world. And yet we continue to fund it in its current form.
We're living in cities controlled by bizarre, often outdated mathematical models and equations, impact assessments, cost-benefit analyses. Even lovely cities like Copenhagen or Zurich.
It sometimes feels like we're all characters in The Matrix.
Cities around the world can't even put in a separated cycle track, widen a sidewalk, implement traffic calming measures or lower speed limits – because it doesn't fit into some computer-generated mathematical model down in the engineering department.
Is there a way out of The Matrix? Urbanization is on the rise again, now more than ever. We need new solutions in a hurry.
Should we really be engineering something as organic and human as urban streets? It's the people in a city who define it. Shouldn't we be studying their behaviour, their patterns and movements, desires and needs, in order to understand how to develop our cities? It worked for 7000 years. There's a pretty good chance it'll work again. There are two things we need.
One is something we all share. Basic human observation. In 1958, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard described the idea of Desire Lines. For example, this is a street corner in Copenhagen. On the busiest bicycle street in the world. The city discovered that several hundred cyclists were riding over the sidewalk to get to a parallel street. Instead of handing out tickets all day long, they observed. Accepting that there was probably a very good reason for this.
A temporary cycle track was put in and, later, it was made permanent. The sub-conscious desire lines of the citizen cyclists were respected.
This is the view from my hotel room in Halifax, Canada earlier this year. Fresh snow on the Commons, the public park in the heart of the city. The green lines are the original pathways, perfect for 19th century promenading. But the red lines are where the people actually walked and biked in the morning rush hour. Perfectly carved desire lines through the snow. A modern city watches... and redesigns accordingly.
We love desire lines at my company. We filmed an intersection in Copenhagen for 12 hours one random day in April. Mapping the desire lines of every single one of the 16,558 cyclists who passed by. And that's not even a busy intersection for bicycles in Copenhagen. I can tell you that no mathematical model can replace 12 hours of intense human observation when you're searching for new, modern, urban solutions.
In my work developing bicycle infrastructure and culture in cities around the world I am constantly amazed at how few planners and engineers have actually tried to ride a bicycle in their city – or even spent any serious time as a pedestrian. It's all maps, data, traffic flow. Come on... Designing bicycle infrastructure without having tried to ride a bike is simply not possible.
Here's the second key to modernising our cities. Something we all know well.
We all have a relationship with design. We're all designers. And a designer thinks differently. They place themselves in the mind of the user of the product. That human being at the other end of the design process. They think about functionality, useability and user-friendliness. They work with concepts like the Four Types of Pleasure. Physio, Socio, Pyscho and Ideo-pleasure. Designing a city for pedestrians or cyclists – or any aspect of a liveable city – should be like designing for any other product on the market.
It should be like designing a chair. When you all came in here you sat down. It was esay and intuitive. Imagine if riding a bicycle or walking in a city was that easy and intuitive.
Design is also a powerful tool if applied correctly.
It can be seductive, too. Making us forget price and perfomance. 80% of us don't actually need that smartphone in our pockets. But my goodness we saved up and hurried down to buy it. Seduced by design.
Safe, well-designed bicycle infrastructure seduces people to use it. Make the bicycle the quickest and easiest way from A to B and people will ride. They did for decades – every city in the world was a bicycle city back in the day.
Good design also improves human behaviour. I hear the same thing all over the world. Those damn cyclists. Breaking the law, running red lights, riding on sidewalks. Shaking the very foundations of our society with their behaviour. Well, I have one, simple response to that. Those cyclists haven't been given adequate infrastructure – or worse... none at all. Not to mention the fact that they are forced to abide by car-centric laws.
But in the morning rush hour in Copenhagen when a few hundred thousand people ride a bicycle to work, it's different. A hundred or so cyclists at each traffic light cycle.... wait for the light to change. Because they're on well-designed infrastructure. Citizens don't want to break laws but they will react positively or negatively to urban design.
They will also micro-design for us, if given the chance. With their desire lines and other ways of expressing their needs.
The foundations of the good cities of the future must be built on human observation – anthropology and sociology – and design.
As well as listening carefully to the thoughts and observations of the leading minds in the field.
Like Lulu.Sophia. She's five but I've been recording her urban observations for a year and a half. It started when we were riding to the hardware store. We stopped at a red light. (improv the bit about Lulu-Sophia)
Lulu-Sophia has a brother. Felix. He's ten. I thought it would be interesting to get his third grade class to redesign the roundabout outside their school. A badly engineered roundabout. Without too much input from me, they went to work. Apart from wanting glass roofs over the cycle tracks so they wouldn't get wet... most of their ideas were great. And rational. Based on experience and human needs.
When you think like rational, logical children, you free your mind.
The idea of glass roofs was funny. But in cities in the Netherlands they are installing rain sensors on the bicycle traffic lights. When it rains, cyclists get priority at intersections.
In Copenhagen on the main arteries leading to the city a Green Wave is in place. Ride 20 km/h and you hit green lights all the way to work. On bicycles.
What would the streets of a city be like if a team of five year olds, third graders and young design students be like? They would be beautiful. They would be safe.. And you know what... they would work.
I'll tell you what's old fashioned and standing in the way of progress. Engineering cities instead of designing them.
But you know what? This is not all about bicycle infrastructure, pedestrian facilities, traffic calming, urban design.
This is about erecting monuments. Monuments that we the people design and erect. To liveable cities. Monuments to the past, present and the all important future. Monuments that make cities better. Saving lives instead of destryong them or wiping them out.
We are the architects. We are the designers. These are our cities.
I'll leave you with this quote.
Cities are erected on spiritual columns. Like giant mirrors they reflect the hearts of their residents. If those hearts darken and lose faith, cities will lose their glamour.
A 900 year old quote. More true today than ever before. Let's make our cities and hearts shine. Let's take this paradigm and shift it. Back where it belongs. Back to the future. Let's allow these monuments to rise all over the world.