Category Archives: engineering

Padova’s (Italy) Cycling Potential | streets.mn

IMG_7309-500x375There is reason to believe that Padova—a town with more than 200,000 people in the Veneto region in the north of Italy—is capable of becoming one of the country’s best cycling towns…

Here is the next entry in the EU BICI series including: Seville (Spain), BolognaFerrara (Italy), Berlin , Munich (Germany), Zurich (Switzerland), and Cambridge (U.K.).

Bicycling Bonanza in Berlin (Germany) | streets.mn

IMG_6327The third part of the EU BICI is up at streets.mn focusing on Berlin. Prior posts are available for Seville (Spain) and Ferrara (Italy).

“Wide roads and dispersed development; a tradition rich in fast driving cars and a population cobbled from several cultures—these are not elements one associates with a city that generates 1.5 million cycling trips per day. But for Berlin, these ingredients have helped, in part, to catapult its success in recent years.”

Tracing’s bicycling’s resurgence (in the U.S.) almost a century later

In the bowels of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. there are several photos of John D. Rockefeller. He was, after all, the richest man in America in his time, and one of the first major tycoons. In a full size 1913 portrait you find him gently smiling next to his shaft drive bicycle[1]. Second only to golf, cycling was a primary leisure activity for Rockefeller. Rather than walk the golf course during his later years, he reportedly mounted a bicycle to allow caddies to help push him[2]. Seeing world’s greatest oil tycoon juxtaposed with a bike—the travel mode that, in that in current-day dialogue prides itself as being oil-free—is ironic. Rockefeller’s participation in cycling is emblematic of cycling’s “golden age” during the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century.

 

Starting with its popularization in the mid-1880s, bicycle technology quickly progressed worldwide. In the U.S., Albert Augustus Pope commandeered the bicycle industry by storm via mass production[3]; the original “boneshaker” and “high wheeler” models morphed into the “safety bicycle” and American factories were producing two million of them per annum[4].

 

The improvements and availability of the bicycle timed perfectly with the women’s emancipation movement in the U.S. The safety bike provided women with unprecedented mobility and personal freedom. Cartoons of the day drew depicted women becoming so attached to their bicycles that they neglected their “traditional duties.” The independence that bicycle travel provided spurred one of cycling’s most enthusiastic endorsements, hailing from Susan B. Anthony, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

 

Cyclists still had to push elbows, not with cars, but rather with the antagonism from horsemen, wagon drivers, and pedestrians. Rutted roads of gravel and dirt posed other challenges. Improving riding conditions to enable cyclists to relish in their newly discovered sport became a priority; subsequently, more than 100,000 cyclists from across the United States joined the League of American Wheelmen to leverage their collective strengths. The league claimed Rockefeller as a member and to this day, they celebrate him as one of their most famous. Near the end of the roaring twenties, The Nation ran an article “An Echo of Wheels.” It talked of an era when “the world was awheel, men, women, and children” and “every town had a bicycle club”[5]. Cycling was, at no other time in history, at the top of its game.

 

Relegated to toy status

 

However, Black Tuesday eventually struck and cycling’s climb out lacked staying power. Here’s how the stage was set, at least in the U.S., for cycling’s largely forgotten status over the next century. Here’s why the status of the bicycle was quickly relegated to being little more than a children’s toy.

 

By 1918, Henry Ford was rolling a Model T off the assembly line at an unprecedented rate, every fifteen-minutes[6], allowing the commoner to gather a car with four months worth of paycheck. More than a dozen U.S. Housing Acts spread over the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s made it easier than every before to buy the pristine suburban home[7]. Dwight Eisenhower, while serving as Supreme Commander during WWII witnessed the Autobahn in Germany and recognized its military value; upon assuming Presidency, he helped marshal resources for the U.S. to build a comparable system. Coupled with policies in 1949 to stimulate “urban redevelopment,” later broadened in 1954 to “urban renewal,”[8] monumental changes were taking place in cities. Focus was on anything but bicycling.

 

Transportation planning priorities

 

Priorities for various transportation planning followed suit[9]. The 1950s created the institutions and the financing mechanisms needed to greatly expand transportation infrastructure[10]. Efforts in the 1960s focused on the largest single public works program in the history of the world, the U.S. Interstate Highway System. The 1970s version of the Clean Air Act focused on mobile sources, namely the environmental costs of cars. Efforts to beef up public transport received a large nudge. Not surprisingly, transportation planners in the 1980’s were vexed with suburban congestion. They subsequently spent time chasing relatively less expensive strategies based on travel system management and travel demand management. These notions were broadened to growth management and concurrency, the buzzwords in the 1990’s.

 

The landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act (ISTEA) of 1991, for the first time, gave a nod to intermodal transportation policies and granted new powers to Metropolitan Planning Organizations. Funding became available for bike paths and cities began enrolling the services of the token bike planner. For cycling specifically, the passing of ISTEA was analogous to a terrier circling your ankles yapping for attention, “Look at me, I’m environmental, inexpensive, good for the lower class, and healthy.” What amounted to probably a dozen bicycle plans in the early 1990s blossomed to hundreds within the decade. But efforts continued to be largely steamrolled by engineering departments or other standard practices. Ambitious, goal-heavy non-motorized plans were relegated to the proverbial status, “sitting on the shelf collecting dust.” Pro-cycling arguments were not so much disregarded wholesale; they just were not considered to matter.

 

Acute criticism at the time articulated cycling a fringe mode[11] whose purpose was mainly for social and recreational activities and its use in cities was limited owing to heightened crime rates; subsequently, bicycling’s ability to become a “player” in mainstream transportation circles was limited[12]. There were bigger fish to fry. The turn of the century witnessed a declining federal role and subsequently fewer resources. There was an increased focus on maintenance, managing roads via Intelligent Transportation Systems, and fixed system transit forms of streetcars and transit oriented development.

 

Climate change and a recession

 

A few years following the turn into 21st century, two things collided for transportation, generally speaking, and bicycling, specifically. First, the wears that climate scientists were pedaling were increasingly gaining currency. Both the scientific community and popular culture became fixated on climate change. The famed “hockey stick graph,” showing a spike in temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, gained endorsement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Transportation was targeted as a major contributor to greenhouse gas production; cars were primary culprits. A rally cry was out.

 

Second, the Great Recession yielded fewer resources and diminished transport demands. Focus shifted to cutting back on the transportation building agenda; it became more important to intelligently manage a decline in transport demand. Combined, the increased global attention to greenhouse gas emissions with a need to and manage a decreased demand for transport provided a powerful, and organizing narrative for urban planning in the 21st century. The narrative provided an increased role for bicycling that appears to be much welcomed.

 

In recent years, bicycling has received a stiff wind of support from many walks of life that has catapulted it into the forefront of discussions about transport and cities. Just as the British Crown required a cathedral for a community to achieve “city status” in medieval Britain, any present day city worth their weight in salt seems to want to include bicycling in its portfolio. Mayors in cities of all sizes are actively engaged in a national “arms race” to make their town the “best” bicycling city in the country[13]. And, these cities appear to need a bikesharing system to boot. In five years since 2008, the number of worldwide bikesharing systems increased from 213 to 535[14]. Politicians found that catering to bicycling is synonymous with being “hip;” being “hip” is seen as being friendly to start up businesses; start up businesses stimulate economic development in a post recession period[15]. Companies are increasingly weaving cyclist’s needs into their designs for new developments[16]. Not one, but three powerful national organizations now exist in the U.S. to advance cycling issues and lobby for their efforts[17]. The previously innocent bicycle has even “come of age” in another dimension surrounding security. In Kolkata (India), the assistant traffic commissioner of police reported that the city is banning bicycling on key corridors citing security concerns: “bicycles are often used to plant bombs”[18].

 

Trends in research activity also following suit. The Transportation Research Board (TRB), one of six major divisions of the National Research Council, is the primary worldwide outlet for such. In the early 1990’s, their database spit back around 30 papers per annum on bicycling; by 2012, this number surpassed 200[19]. Over the past two years, researchers from more than 80 papers have applied to present their cycling findings at TRB’s annual meeting; 20 years ago you could count the number of people wanting the same on one hand[20].

 

Even pop singers (I am thinking of David Byrne of the Talking Heads) have passionately published books about cycling in cities. My own New York Times news alerts (keyword: bicycling) now notifies me of several stories week compared to one a month a few years ago. Even its fashion section runs specials on cycling oriented shoes, pants, earings, helmets, and other accessories.

 

The sociologist Quentin Bell is largely credited as being the first to identify cycles in the fashion industry[21]. Some fashions take short time to peak; others longer. Fashion cycles tend not follow measurable time tables. A rise of bicycle activity at two points in time separated by a century hardly comprises a cycle. But its recent rise in popularity begs the question if it is a fashion. The following is more certain: the formerly yapping terrier now resembles a mature dog with hopeful eyes as its owner prepares to throw the frisbee.


[1] Shaft drive bikes were employed as an alternative to using a chain. But owing to decreased mechanical efficiency and higher cost, its widespread use was limited.

[2] Ron Chernow (1998). Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. (Random House)

[3] Albert Augustus Pope, see ‪Bruce D. Epperson (2010). Peddling Bicycles to America: The Rise of an Industry. McFarland and Company.

[4] Two million per year, see: http://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyamohn/2012/06/25/a-comic-look-at-the-1890s-bicycle-boom/2/

[5] For an “Echo of Wheels,” see: http://thenation.s3.amazonaws.com/pdf/anechoofwheels1931.pdf

[6] Model T’s coming off the assembly line, see: Georgano, G. N. (2000). Vintage Cars 1886 to 1930. Sweden: AB Nordbok.

[7] Kenneth T. Jackson’s (1985) book, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, is arguably the best account of this phenomena.

[8] Redevelopment to renewal, John T. Howard, The Role of the Federal Government in Urban Land Use Planning, 29 Fordham L. Rev. 657 (1961).

[9] The following transportation planning priorities were arrived at via useful email exchanges with David Levinson (University of Minnesota) and Brian D. Taylor (University of California Los Angeles) on October 11, 2013.

[10] The Highway Revenue Act was passed and the Interstate Highway Act was out of the starting blocks.

[11] Gordon, P. and H. W. Richardson. Bicycling in the United States: A Fringe Mode. Transportation Quarterly, 52(1), 1998, p. 9–11.

[12] Granted, the author’s perspective was largely based from Los Angeles, not exactly the bastion of supportive cycling environments, but many of the points made sense.

[13] Such claims have been recently documented to come from mayors in Seattle (Washington), Chicago (Illinois), Minneapolis (Minnesota), Long Beach (California), Portland (Oregon), Boulder (Colorado), Chattanooga (Tennessee), just to name a few.

[14] There were reportedly 213 systems operating in 14 countries with 73,500 bicycles in 2008. This climbed to 535 systems in 49 countries with 517,000 bicycles, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bicycle_sharing_systems

[15] Synonymous with startups, see: http://www.triplepundit.com/2013/10/bike-loving-mayors/

[16] Cyclist’s needs being recognized by developers, see: http://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/news/2013/06/21/commercial-real-estate-developers.html?page=all

[17] In February 2012, the three largest bicycle advocacy organizations in the US—consisting of the League of American Bicyclists, the Alliance for Biking & Walking, and Bikes Belong (henceforth labeled PeopleForBikes)—issued a communiquéabout their intention to unify and become one organization with one board of directors[17]. Discussions have since broken down and each exists but with intent to leverage collaborative opportunities.

[18] Bikes used to plant bombs, see: http://www.ibtimes.com/no-ticket-ride-kolkata-india-bans-bicycles-reduce-traffic-congestion-terror-threats-1412820

[19] Email conversation (21 October 2013) with Ralph Buhler, chair of TRB’s committee on bicycle transportation: “A search for the term ‘bicycling’ in the Transportation Research Board’s TRID database yields an annual average of 29 peer-reviewed papers, government reports, and other published ‘gray’ literature between 1990 and 1992. The annual average rose to 64 between 1999 and 2001, and jumped to 212 for the years 2009-2012. Thompson’s Web of Science focuses more narrowly on peer-reviewed academic journal articles and shows an increase from an average of 1 peer-reviewed paper per year including the terms ‘bicycling, transport/transportation, and travel’ in 1990-1992 to 44 in 2009-2012.”

[20] Email conversation (21 October 2013) with Ralph Buhler, chair of TRB’s committee on bicycle transportation: “The number of papers submitted to the bicycle committee of TRB increased from about 3 in the early 1990s to approximately 15 in the early 2000s and roughly 80 papers for each the 2012 and 2013 annual meeting, placing it among the top tier of all TRB committees.”

[21] Quentin Bell noticing a cyclical flow in dress change in Western society since at least the thirteenth century, see: On Human Finery: The Classic Study of Fashion Through the Ages. Allison & Busby (originally 1976)

 

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.  http://bouldercolorado.gov/files/Utilities/Greenways/MasterPlan.pdf. 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeE62AGXQZg

[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.

Heated paths — which first and what of salt?

Snow season is coming (at least in northern places in the northern hemisphere). I have read two accounts in the past week calling for heated bike paths and heated sidewalks.

Heating coils are one option. Retaining summer heat is the other. Both seem pretty expensive. But it does beg two questions, assuming it can be done and paid for,

1. Is it best to start with the sidewalks, bike paths or roads? I am less convinced the roads need it. The cars are relatively stable in moderate snow.

2. Can we really kick the salt habit?

Copenhagen Bike Highways

I am in Toronto at the 13th Meeting of the International Association of Travel Behavior Research. The delegation is almost 250 people strong and extremely international. It is interesting to hear the tenor of planning and research efforts worldwide. It is always fun to hear the European’s impression of the transport-land use culture in North America.

In conversing with Danish colleagues, I relayed how the bicycling culture in the US has really taken off in the past few years. I queried the degree to which there is an analog in Denmark (i.e., while their cycling culture is very strong, have they also noticed more than a general uptick in use and attention). The answer is yes—even the Danes are enjoying considerable increased attention to cycling.

What is the current focus of their planning aims? More bicycle highways, as the type recently publicized in the NYTimes via text and video.

2012 Prez of ITE is a bike planner

ITE HomeRock E. Miller is the 2012 president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers. His experience is recognized in a wide variety of specialty disciplines, but he is best known for his work in traffic signal operation and development of enhanced facilities for pedestrians and bicycles.  Rock holds a B.S. and an M.S. from the University of California, Davis, where he participated in early research on bikeways.