Category Archives: cycling culture

Americana (school buses), stigma, and scooters

In honor of July 4th, here is something that highlights a piece of Americana:

Last week I delivered a talk to Kadinsky College, a middle / high school in Nijmegen (the Netherlands) on the perspectives between Dutch and American school travel. There were the standard and expected differences to highlight (e.g., availability of ubiquitous safe routes for cycling to schools, teaching cycling as part of 2nd grade education, being brought up in a culture where cycling is an integral part of the culture).

But the opportunity to reflect on these matters reminded me of a huge difference that affects how kids get to school; it revolves around something distinctly American: the yellow school bus. In contrast to public school districts in the US  (who spend, on average, 5% of their budget on transport ), schools in other global settings devote little to nothing on transport. Americans often forget how “American” the yellow school bus is. Since its induction in the early 1940′s, it has played a critical role in framing transport options for U.S. school trips more than a few kilometers. While other forms of public transport are more widely available in European settings, their use for school travel tend to be context dependent and limited.

However, the biggest revelations and differences came in the discussion and answer following my talk.

  • Several boys–as young as 12 years old–reported cycling more than 15 km to school, one way, in all seasons. Clearly, there’s something in the water (or the culture).
  • But even here (in the Netherlands), competitive schools have issues with students being chauffeured longer distances to school in cars by parents (i.e., thereby causing congested drop-off zones and the sort) and from nearby auto traffic. See below vid from the entry to school.
  • When the students were asked if they would welcome an electric bike (or a pedal assist), the reaction was luke-warm. The pride of standard, human-propelled cycle holds strong among these kids who were polled.
  • When the students were asked if they would welcome a motor-scooter or moped, the reaction turned even more interesting. The responses from the few vocal students were not interested whatsoever. The reason was attributed to image and stigma.

This notion echoes what I have detected from other sources. In Holland, riding a scooter (or moped) carries a stigma similar to smoking: it is seen somewhat as a behavior reserved for the last strata of the Dutch education system, often referred to in colloquial language as being (VMBO).⁠1

Cultural implications are apparently important. Motorized two wheelers are the most rapidly growing form of urban mobility in many sectors, especially in rapidly developing cities of Asia and increasingly Latin America and Africa. In these developing cities, it appears as if they are stepping stones to eventual full-blown automobility—possibly even seen as tokens of pride. But here in Holland, the land of traditional cycling, the opposite holds true. At least for now. Admittedly, pedaled 2-wheelers (pedelecs) are a different breed.

1 In the current Dutch educational system, following an educational assessment prior to 7th grade, students are roughly routed to one of three schooling options: (1) VWO (the highest level, pre-academic schooling, who usually advance onto the highest form of schooling: ‘university’, (2) HAVO (second highest level, who go on to a ‘ high school’ followed by a Bachelors degree (closest to a usual American college), (3) Vmbo (lowest level of education) which has 4 levels within it. VMBO-T is the highest level within the VMBO, and is often included in secondary schools that offer the highest levels. But, they are apparently all referred as being VMBO.


Cycling Tradition Dominates in Cambridge (UK) |

IMG_7095The EU BICI moves to Cambridge (UK). Other posts available for  Seville (Spain), Ferrara (Italy), Berlin , Munich (Germany), and Zurich (Switzerland).

“There is one place in the United Kingdom that reports more than two times as much cycling relative to its closest competitor: Cambridge (~31% of all trips). Many consider this high-tech and bioscience oriented town of 123K people—also home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world—to be the haven for cycling in the U.K. It’s easy to rationalize such based on the cycling culture. The overall cycling infrastructure, however, is a different story.”


The trademarking of “Copenhagen” cycling nomenclature

Utilitarian cycling is exceptional in Copenhagen for a variety of reasons. The global cycling community has rightfully adopted their many of their innovations. But I am mostly intrigued in how the cycling community has accepted the Copenhagen “trademarking” in common nomenclature. We have:

Copenhagen bike lanes. [Has this term slight fallen out of favor, being replaced with "cycle tracks?"]

The Copenhagen left.

The Copenhagen Greenwave. 

Are each of these indeed invented in Copenhagen? Is there a “machine” behind their naming? At what point in having other communities adopt such practices should they no longer have the “Copenhagen” label?


Eyeing two unintended outcomes of the bicycle facilities arms race |

At, I have the following post: Eyeing two unintended outcomes of the bicycle facilities arms race. 

“In less than a decade, the Minneapolis Midtown Greenway (Minnesota) has quickly risen to one of America’s most beloved darlings of a bike path[1]. Similarly, the short stretch of the Cedar Lake Trail to the Twins Stadium provides much needed closure over an important stretch for cyclists in downtown Minneapolis. Both are critical assets for […]“



1896 California bike map

Following yesterday’s post which showcased bicycling’s heyday around 1900, here is a 1896 bicycle map from California with aggressive cycling related advertising around the borders. And, it is interesting to see that more than 100 years ago, the same system of good, fair, poor was employed to rate the roads.

Kolkata, India Bans Bicycles on Key Corridors

Here is the latest example of a city from a developing country that is banning bikes along key corridors. Two questions come to mind:

(1) The article says the ban applies to “most thoroughfares.” What percentage of usually available cycling roadway space is “most”

(2) The “authorities” cite “security concerns as bicycles are often used to plant bombs.” This is a new one for me.

Documentary of bikes vs cars from Swedish film directors

Based on the trailer alone, I am not rushing out to see the new documentary Bikes vs. Cars. It seems to me we have already been through most of these arguments, especially from advocates. I guess it might be new for a Swedish director. The “international flair” might be new. But otherwise, I hope documentaries like this dig a bit deeper. Maybe it does.

The eternal nature of transportation corridors, but reconfiguring them

This past weekend I visited the “the Eternal City,” Roma, Italy. The Romans thought that no matter what happened to the world, no matter how many other empires might rise and fall, their city would be everlasting.  Most cities have ups and downs; their transportation corridors, usually, are another story; most have eternal lives. Once a transportation corridor is cemented (pun partially intended), it has a staying power rivaled by few inventions or fabrications in the world. Some of original paths worn by the Etruscans outside my apartment in Bologna today continue to serve as main conduits of economic activity for the region. Gravity has determined the outcome of most original Roman structures, but their roads are also still widespread throughout parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. Even the canals in northern Europe, built by the Roman empire for irrigation, later helped the British pioneer the industrial revolution; these canals y are still carrying barges, albeit leisure ones. The transportation function along any corridors rarely exists in its original form. Technologies change. Types of economic activities change. Fashions change. This largely explains why you don’t see many donkeys filling the streets in Israel anymore. Outside of the nostalgic horse and carriage for tourists and weddings in Paris, there are not many of them on the streets either. The streetcars employed in hundreds of cities across the US have been torn up for car only use.

The transportation future of cities will continue to be surface-based, with cars and existing roads playing prominent roles. But over time, the nature and character of select corridors change to better serve the needs and demands for other modes. More overall space will be made available for bikes—a contentious topic but one whose writing is largely on the wall. A sticking point is where to find the space for this change, a proposition that will require altering the nature of many transportation corridors in cities.

With urban areas built up, cities largely have four options before them to find more space. They can: (a) extend in another dimension, aerially or subterranean, (b) find new right-of-way space, (c) widen existing right-of-way space.  These first three options are either technologically difficult, involve displacing people (rarely a good idea) or are prohibitively expensive.

A fourth option requires cities to reconfigure existing space by altering the use patterns along it. Changing the nature of the transportation services along a corridor. In most cases, this option involves scaling back car use in one way or another. This is analogous to taking candy away from a child (taking space away from cars). And, its trouble points are primarily political (not financial or logistical as identified in the prior solutions).

Many corridors in urban areas already have initiatives that are rethinking the role that the car has played in the past half-century. These initiatives range from charging for or banning car use during certain times, reducing capacity by removing a travel lane, reducing capacity by reducing speed (via narrower travel lanes), removing on-street parking or all together, turning a street over to other modes. These are all steps in the same direction. Cycling’s ability to realize these gains rests in its ability to better leverage these types of initiatives by downsizing existing facilities and gently expanding alternative networks. But not all roads. Just select ones.

Where is the low hanging fruit and what criteria can help cities reinvent corridors for cycling?

  1. Communities first need to identify stretches of road that have “proven” themselves from a cycling perspective. These places might connect key origin-destination pairs. They might be currently serving cyclists who are experiencing hardship conditions. Then there are two synergistic interventions.
  2. The second step is scaling back car use. Addressing the fact that high vehicular speeds are the largest culprit to unfriendly bike environments is key. Harnessing cars to speeds below 40 km/h is necessary. If a community accompany such speed limits with reductions in the widths of vehicular travel lanes–or even the removal of some of them—all the better. (Pushing such a proposal through the political process likely involves a gentle nod to address how alternative corridors might be able to better absorb some mild enhancements to vehicular capacity via intersection design, signal timing, or on-street parking modifications.)
  3. Building up cycling facilities. Designated cycling corridors, at a minimum, deserve on-street delineation of cycling routes. This might start with a marked lane, a buffered lane (with paint), a raised path, or even physical barriers from adjacent traffic. Furthermore, intersection treatments go a long way.

Transportation corridors have amazing staying power. Cities can and should work with their existing bones to further cycling; they don’t necessarily need to search endlessly for new corridors. But there is nothing to suggest that the existing roads cannot be downsized for car use or more generally, have their purpose altered along select routes.

The perfect is the enemy of the good; making lemonade is sufficient

Some bike paths serve as semi-icons for their city. The Creek Path in Boulder, Colorado (US) ranks up there with the Seattle’s Burke Gilman Trail and the Chain of Lakes network in Minneapolis (both US). But the origin of the path’s construction had some rough beginnings.

A bit of history: The area around the path was originally called for in Boulder’s Creek Corridor plan (1984), which stipulated the use of the creek corridor as a linear, topographically sensitive park. This park would incorporate riparian zones and wetland sensitive elements[1]. The creek comprised one of the primary watersheds for the city and a few years later, the city purchased adjoining land to the creek for a wetland and greenway program. This led to further integration of habitat restoration and water quality augmentation elements into the use of once forlorn features of Boulder’s ecological fabric. But over time, community-wide momentum was building for how the area could also enhance flood mitigation efforts together with more “mainstream modes” of transportation such as walking and cycling (in addition to kayaking)[2].

Rather than scour for the pennies that were available at the time to build bicycle facilities, the city tapped into federal grants for flood control and environmental remediation; these coffers were three to four times larger. The city creatively parlayed bike trails into this process. The flood mitigation efforts were considered to have largely passed the extreme test that the city experienced owing to biblical floods in September of 2013.

But the specific planning of the bike portion of the Boulder Creek Path was somewhat of a separate issue. And, Gary Lacy, a recreation planner for the city at the time, approached it with vengeance. He focused on ensuring it got built—not planned for—but built. Lacy considered formal permits a nuisance; conscientious and collaborative plan-making was too time consuming. He relied on a “Robert Moses-esque” philosophy and sometimes took a page out of Chicago Mayor Daley’s planning playbook[3]. Rather than abide by city protocol, he went solo and blazed sections of the trail by moonlight. He took to the backhoe to move obstinate boulders along the way. Where the earth would not move, he built the path around it.

Lacy’s semi-barbarian approach to make the path is etched into local folklore. And the path itself would have made the hair stand up on the neck of the authors who penned the 4th edition Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities by the American Association for State and Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO)[4],[5]. Sight lines are jeopardized, travel lanes were inconsistently wide, and some right-angled turns (frowned on in bike path planning) continue to be sprinkled throughout. Friends in town claim the trail is hazardous and a downright safety hazard. But the path got built—the city has since smoothed out some of the path’s rough edges—and it now serves as a beacon for the city and a seminal spine for the rest of the its cycling network.

The development of Boulder’s Creek Path represents a planning story where the perfect was not the enemy of the good. Things got done, despite not being perfect. There were some issues along the way—some of them safety oriented, others process oriented. But its evolution begs the question in the world of bicycle planning, when is a facility “good enough.”

Similarly, the “so-called” bicycle facility outside my home in Bologna (Italy) is a meandering stripe that bobs and weaves, literally at right angles between newsstands and trees. It sometimes pinches the rider down to mere inches. I presume it was laid by an Italian public works employee after too much grappa. But do these sketchy attributes warrant it as a non-useful facility? Is providing substandard bicycle facilities worse than none at all?

The dilemma reminds me of a scene in Cher’s 1987 Academy award winning film, Moonstruck (the movie, likewise shares Italian origins). The father, Cosmo Castorini, is a plumber who is explaining to a client in his deep Italian accent his philosophy of preferred plumbing materials.

“There are three kinds of pipe. There’s what you have [aluminum], which is garbage – and you can see where that’s gotten you. There’s bronze, which is pretty good, unless something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. Then, there’s copper, which is the only pipe I use. It costs money. It costs money because it saves money.

Did Cosmo have it right? Are there problems in the bike planning world that stem from constructing the equivalent of ‘aluminum’ or ‘bronze’ facilities?

The biggest risk of substandard facilities are the unmet expectations that they create. Cyclists, seeing signs, markings or other might are comforted into letting down their safety guard, for example. There is subsequent confusion about the role, rights, and responsibilities in the transportation hierarchy. Cyclists are all too familiar with the bike lane painted within mere inches of the impending car door opening. Or the bike facility that, in a pinch, mixes you with pedestrians and then switches the side on which bikes are supposed to ride. Then there is the blissful cycling corridor that abruptly dumps you into four lanes of auto traffic. In my own research, I found that users particularly struggle with these later situations when facilities end at bigger intersections, locations with on-street parking, and locations with relatively narrow travel lanes[6].

With most transportation networks being surface oriented, mainly along streets and primarily occupied by cars, it is useful to have prescriptions, guidelines, and even sometimes standards to guard against these situations. In an ideal world, a planner would take stock of the context, consult the guidelines, prepare the design, and execute. If only it were that easy. History gets in the way. Cultural peculiarities get way. Nature gets in the way.

There are many cities—almost all of them in industrialized countries—who are moving toward this consistent model. If you ask Dutch cycle planners, they immediately pull off the shelf their tattered Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic[7]. They leaf to dog-eared section 4.4.2 where they point to a figure with two axes—how many cars are along a particular route (e.g., traffic volume) and the speed of those cars. Five different types of suggested facilities are depicted based on these two factors alone. Adhering to some core principles put forth by the prototype model is gaining steam in the US[8] and cycling treatments are approached with increasing method and consistency.

At the other end of the spectrum lie cases where bicycling treatments are less than satisfactorily completed. That might be an overstatement. They are downright dangerous. These might consist of the cavalier bike path that was laid through a stretch of road—lacking attention to its connecting points—to enable a politician could deliver on a promise to a constituency. It might be the case where road engineers are blindly following a city’s guidelines; they might measure three feet from a street curb’s edge, lay a stripe, and call it a day regardless of the context. It might be the proverbial case where a bike facility passes over a storm sewer with drainage slots that miraculously measure the same width as a bicycle tire. No self-respecting transportation professional would endorse these outcomes. They present unexpected conditions, safety hazards, and problematic signals to both cyclists and car drivers.

In the broad spectrum of bicycle facility planning contexts, there are environments that are shy of falling into the above category. But, they don’t lend themselves to rigid standards (or expectations) offered in guidebooks. Try finding room for a bike path in the historic center of any city that was inhabited by the Romans. The typical right-of-way might be three meters wide and shared between five or more different modes each traveling in two different directions. While most situations are not this stark, the bulk of planning contexts—especially in historic cities across the globe—are in situations where the bike planner is dolled a bunch lemons. Cosmo might have had it wrong. Realizing that not everywhere in a city can be built with ‘copper pipe’ cycling conditions, bike planners must make due and prescribe treatments that are far from perfect. They must make lemonade, even thought it carries some risks.

Otherwise, what are their options? They could sharpen their pencils designing the perfect intersection which might come to fruition once the political will arrives. Alternatively, they could do nothing.

Making lemonade means that formal standards might be abandoned. Cyclists need to adjust their expectations. Car drivers need to acclimate. Life goes on. Bike facilities need to start somewhere. They need to be granted freedom to experiment without backlash. What might be considered a substandard intersection treatment today will eventually graduate to something more mature. For example, a painted stripe that winds through a parking lot, might be upgraded to a perimeter route next year, which would then eventually be dovetailed into a larger separated network. A green swath at an intersection now would convert to a bike box next year which would then be complemented with a prioritized cycling traffic signal in the following year. Doing “something” provides a much-needed nod to the cyclists. It is usually better than doing nothing at all and helps set in motion a process whereby facilities can mature. Cities are constantly evolving. This includes their transportation infrastructure. That is, over time, the lemonade gets sweeter and sweeter. Cycling treatments usually pale in comparison to the costs of auto or transit infrastructure. As long as lives are not gravely put at risk and accidents largely avoided—a big caveat, I admit—cycling treatments are inexpensive experiments. If they succeed, they are built on and further developed. If they clearly fail, they can be erased.

[1] A portion of the creek was reconfigured as a white water recreation park, thereby incorporating another level of complexity to the flood mitigation strategy. Gary Lacy, a recreation planner for Boulder and an avid kayaker, would reportedly boat to his downtown work location along the creek.

[2] Greenways Master Plan.   City of Boulder2001 update. Accessed January, 2012

[3] Daley’s playbook: Meig’s field was a fully functioning private airport runway strip on Chicago’s pristine lakefrong. Citing security concerns in 2003, Mayor Daley ordered the bulldozers tear up the runway and they did so in the middle of the night to avoid obstruction and protesting efforts.

[4] American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (2012). Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, 4th Edition. ISBN: 1-56051-527-2.

[5] This is a document that ASHTO was so proud about that they produced a video for its release, see:

[6] Krizek, Kevin J. and Rio Roland (2005). What is at the End of the Road? Understanding Discontinuities of On-Street Bicycle Lanes in Urban Settings. Transportation Research, Part D. 10(1): p.55-68

[7] This report is the world’s most authoritative manual on bikeway design and is published by CROW—a Dutch acronym of the Information and Technology Platform for Transport, Infrastructure and Public space, a Dutch non-profit collaboration between government and businesses.

[8] As is evidenced by AASHTO publishing their 4th edition, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (2012). Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, 4th Edition. ISBN: 1-56051-527-2.