Urban Bicycle Culture – From Bicycles vs Cars to LEVs

by Glenn Reeves on December 10, 2012

Many cyclists would like to see the end to the rule of the car in the modern city. They wish to see a transportation culture built around bicycles instead.

Mikael Colville-Andersen is one who argues forcefully for this, the key theme being that cities need to be built around people and social needs. He spoke on the subject in the context of TED talk at the end of November.

To summarize the main points.

  • Cars are bad news. 96 people are injured somewhere in the world every minute and 35,000 people are killed in Europe and the USA in car accidents ie. a 911 event every month.
  • In the 7000 years of urban development prior to the appearance of cars, streets were an extension of our houses, a place to socialize. Now they are considered the exclusive domain for cars. When cars showed up on streets “people started dying”. And this has not stopped.
Mikael Colville-Andersen desire lines

The red lines are the routes used by people to naturally interact with this space. The green lines are the pathways laid down by urban planners.

  • The solution to the problem begins with careful observation of how people use urban space. Mikael contrasts the approaches to the issue through contrasting engineers and designers. The difference between a designer and an engineer? The designer starts from the perspective of the end user.
  • You don’t begin with mathematics, equations and the abstract models of engineers, but the actual, real ways that people use public spaces. Values of functionality and usability guides your investigation and ultimately your formulation of a plan.
  • “Desire lines” are a manifestation of the ways that people actually use urban spaces. Enlightened urban design begins with observation, personal experience and human needs.
  • “Designing the city for bicycles or pedestrians or any aspect of a truly livable city should be like designing any other product on the market.”
  • Just as the people in the audience have been “seduced” by the designs of the smart phones that most do not really need, so will people be seduced into using bicycle infrastructure. ie. Build it and they will use it.

Overall we are offered an attractive vision of the modern city’s potential. Still, there are issues:

  • The carnage on the roads is as much about inter-urban transport as intra-urban lifestyle issues. Death by car is not exclusively concentrated in, or confined to, built-up areas.
  • The future would seem to involve removing the driver from the motorized vehicle equation eg. Google’s Smart Car. Removing the “independent variable” from the scene helps a lot.
  • We are, basically, given a choice between good and bad, bikes or cars. But  there is an excluded middle here: Light Electric Vehicles or LEVs.
  • Bicycle usage in the urban environment drops off sharply when trips exceeding 5km are involved. LEVs and or pedelecs to replace cars? Pedelecs for trips less than, say, 20km (batteries have around 40km per charge). LEVs for longer journeys and/or bad weather and inter-urban journeys?
Whatever the details, the main point here is the nature of the modern city. It is no longer the city of the last 7000 years. But the future is unlikely to really involve a simple return to the past no matter how attractive that may be.
For a comprehensive vision of the future city have a look at this: Al Noor City Concept. You can take or leave the plan, but the overall breadth of vision is a lot more compelling.

Check out Mikael’s presentation. What do you think? Are our choices truly limited to either the bicycle or the car?



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