23 March 2013

Busting Urban Sprawl Myths

Urban Sprawl Comparison - Calgary
With my work I travel a lot and that means I meet loads of interesting people and learn a whole bunch of new things all the time. Sometimes you hear the same things over and over when you're dealing with the same subject matter. Often it's no problem. All part of the game. Sometimes, however, you hear certain things in loop. Things that you wonder about.

One of them is that North American cities are just bigger. On a recent visit to Calgary a couple of weeks ago I must have heard it a dozen times. It's often a (not so) secret code for "we're not really committed to taking the bicycle seriously as transport." As though trying to brush off comparisons with urban cycling in Copenhagen and other Euro-filth concepts. No matter how often I highlight the fact that Copenhagen has the third largest urban sprawl in Europe and most of Copenhagen outside the medieval city centre is a 20th century invention. Nope. "Ain't gonna work here, bubba. Now git off ma lawn."

So I opened up Google Earth. Zoomed out to about 60 km. Highlighted Calgary, above, in yellow. The rough line of the city limits. Very rough... it was late and I was drinking wine.

Then I did the same for Copenhagen.
Urban Sprawl Comparison - Calgary and Copenhagen
The rough line of Greater Copenhagen is in blue. I slapped Calgary onto Copenhagen, tilting it to make it fit nicer, and there you have it.

I didn't include the cities in the region that are bedroom cities for Copenhagen or Calgary. Just drew up the rough line around the urban sprawl. Calgary has about 1 million people and Greater Copenhagen about 1.9 million.

Urban Sprawl Comparison - Calgary and Copenhagen and Melbourne
Here's both cities slapped onto Melbourne. Their metro area has about 4 million people. So they're bigger. Duh.

Urban Sprawl Comparison - Calgary and Copenhagen and Amsterdam
And here's Amsterdam, with Calgary and Copenhagen laid on top. It was tougher to see what was sprawl and what was farmland on the Amsterdam map, but it's still not far off.

So with that aside, I am well and truly tired of hearing about many cities and their perception of size. Time to move on.


Dave Riley said...

I don't know where you got your Melbourne sprawl pattern from but it is way too small.

The sprawl is actually like this image -- at least 3 times your image

To the south east by 50* kms and elsewhere as sprawling fingers extending 50 kms here, 30 kms there...depending on terrain.

Ryan Zamaria said...

If people are defeated on the sprawl argument, they usually turn to weather (or at least winter).

When you tell them that the majority of Europe's best 'cycling cities' are in similar climates, they just open the book of excuses...
"How do I bring things home?" is usually the next excuse. They try to make it seem they are bringing a new refrigerator home weekly...which doesn't fit in/on most cars either.

Sprawl is just one of the many excuses people turn to over here.

Oops said...

I think the argument is less about how large the land area is, and more about how spread out North American cities are -- people think the distances between destinations are too great for biking because we're not as dense as European cities. Though size does come up too when large American cities point to smaller American cities like Portland as examples. In Chicago, I've found a comparison to Berlin to be helpful to show the potential of biking. Berlin is bigger than Chicago in population and land area, and is actually slightly less dense than Chicago, yet still 10x more people bike there.

Bike mode share: 14%
Area: 344.35 sq mi (891.85 km2)
Population: 3,520,061
Density: 10,000/sq mi (3,900/km2)

Bike mode share: 1.3%
Area: 234.0 sq mi (606.1 km2)
Population: 2,707,120
Density: 11,864.4/sq mi (4,447.4/km2)

It can also be helpful to point out that half of all trips in the US are under three miles, despite our sprawl issues. People often focus on commute trips, which tend to be longer -- but in the US commute trips make up only 20 percent of all trips. Many of our trips are shorter neighborhood trips, distances well suited for biking -- if only our streets were designed to make that a viable option.

Mikael Colville-Andersen said...

Dave... I just hovered above the earth like a hummingbird - at 60 km out for all the cities.

tstreet said...

At the end of the day, it depends on where you live in the city. I lived in the South East part of Denver, which while in the city, was essentially like a filled in suburb. And yet 90% of what I needed was within a mile of my house.

However, because of the infrastructure, I could easily bike to downtown Denver without any exposure to cars except for a few places where one needed to cross a road to continue on the bike lane.

The trouble began of course the further one ventured from the city in any direction. That is where things become stretched out, more inconvenient, and more dangerous.

The basic problem, though, is that people find it so easy to just jump in their cars without any thought of the consequences.

Nate said...

Hi, Mikael, this is the first time I've commented on your blog but I've been following you and linking to you for a year or so now. As Oops mentioned, the U.S. Census shows that roughly half of all trips in the U.S. are less than 5 miles. That is an extremely bikeable distance with good infrastructure.

I'm living in Curitiba, Brazil right now, which despite its reputation for being a green city because of its bus system, actually has 1.6 cars per person, the most in Brazil, and is the most dangerous city I've ever biked in. It has only 3 million in the greater metro area, but I've lived or spent extensive time cycling in Madrid, Barcelona (before the improvements), Paris, Buenos Aires, New York City, Oklahoma City, Houston, Dallas and Washington D.C. and I have never felt so insecure or downright disrespected in my life.

Anyway, there is something in American (North and South) cities that just breathes hostility towards cyclists and in many cases pedestrians. It permeates every aspect of life--culture, government, lifestyle, consumerism--and I think the best way to fight it is to simply get out there and be a citizen cyclist as you say. Lead by example, though a blog to expound your ideas and a few likeminded people also come in handy :-).

On a side note, I love the work you do but I wouldn't be surprised if some people were (rightfully so) off-put when you say expletives during your presentations. I'm referring to one you gave in Australia to be precise. If you're interested in any pictures of Curitiba (lack of/poorly designed and implemented) cycling infrastructure, let me know and I'll send you some pictures.

Take care,


Clark in Vancouver said...

My answer to people who come up with excuses to justify opposing the inclusion of new cycling infrastructure is "if something isn't working for you, then don't do it. It works for some others and that's why we need many choices."

It's a good approach and relates to reality. I suspect that some people think that the inclusion of anything new, will continue to an extent that in the future they will be forced to take only the new thing. I don't know where they get that idea but it's how some people react to new things. It's good to settle their fears. To show that the new thing will not threaten them.
Do any people who drive cars feel oppressed in the Netherlands and Copenhagen?

Richard said...

Part of the difference is public transport (transit). The outer reaches of European cities generally developed on the back of railway networks. Whereas a lot of the American sprawl is car-based. Maybe concentrate on making the inner suburbs cycle-friendly first?

Minneapolize said...

The key ingredient you mentioned but ignored at the same time was the relative density of Copenhagen and Calgary. Copenhagen is twice as dense allowing for much greater flexibility in providing well designed transit and bike/ped options. Beyond that I see the point and it's a good one.

Gina said...

The problem in Calgary is transit integration (or the complete lack thereof) People who live in the suburbs and have 20 to 30 kms to their workplaces don't have the option to ride to and park at the C-train. No safe routes and worse not bike parking. Train stations here have secure parking for only a handful of bikes and it needs to be reserved 6 months at a time (http://tinyurl.com/buxxm97)so there is no opportunity for people to give it a try, or cycle a couple of days a week, which is, as we know, how you get hooked. I agree it is a total lack of commitment.