The 2014 EU BICI series includes: Seville (Spain), Ferrara (Italy), Berlin , Munich (Germany), Zurich (Switzerland), and Cambridge (U.K.). And, now—my adopted home town for the past year: Bologna (Italy).
The 2014 EU BICI series recruits insights from Thomas Götschi (Zurich resident and past research collaborator) as a co-author for the post highlighting Switzerland’s largest city. Other cities available for Seville (Spain), Ferrara (Italy), Berlin and Munich (Germany).
“The transport scene is Switzerland’s largest metropolitan area is admirable—almost two-thirds of trips are by non-auto. A mere ~4% of these trips, however, are by bike. A logical deduction is that the cycling environment here suffers. However, it’s not this simple. The low cycling rates are best attributed to four factors: (1) almost 300km of public transport routes, including more than 100km of tram lines can whisk you most places in the city on 7.5 min headways, (2) walking is attractive as densities are suitable (average density is more than 4k per km2), (3) things are not flat, for the most part; Zurich is situated along the Limmat and Glatt valleys on the north tip of Lake Zurich, covering several hills, and (4) the current state of cycling affairs favors a limited market of the enthused and committed…”
“It’s hard to figure out how Ferrara (Italy) achieved legendary status among Europe’s top cycling towns. The answer might not be in the water; but it could be because of it. The ferraresi embrace the bike as much as any place I have seen. But in way lacking self-consciousness, most residents fail to consider themselves exceptional in this respect among neighboring cities.”
“When one thinks about cycling in cities and Europe, all eyes turn north. But Seville has made valiant cycling strides in just six years. Their strategy clearly borrows from the Dutch for inspiration (i.e., separate cycle paths appear to be the divine wisdom); and, their relative ‘overnight’ stardom deserves attention.”
I will be speaking all next week as part of the “Going Green” school/education outreach project in Germany organized by the U.S. Embassy in Berlin (locations for the talks include Berlin, Chemnitz, Nuernberg, and Munich). A central purpose is for participants to better understand the U.S. and its efforts to combat climate change via local and state level efforts, urban planning, and city development. I will be using transportation planning—with a focus on cycling—as a window through to understand American philosophies, changing currents, and future challenges. The below is an overview of some key points. Given the cross-cultural nature of this event, I recruited brilliant thinking from my colleague and German-native, Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech. Ralph willingly agreed to be a partner-in-crime to co-author this post.
The path of US land use-transport to present day makes sustainable transport difficult
Understanding history and context are critical in order to properly position sustainable transport in the US, and in particular, heightened levels of bicycling. Globally speaking, cycling’s historic “heyday” was arguably most prominent in the U.S. in the early 1900’s. However, its trajectory in the U.S. has been largely downhill over the past 100 years. Only recently (the past ~15 years or so) is there a a resurgence; some cities in the U.S. are starting to take cycling seriously.
The cumulative result of almost 70 years of land-use transport policies, plans, programs in the U.S. places cycling at an extreme disadvantage. The list of transport-specific phenomena is well-documented, and includes the usual suspects such as: (1) early mass motorization (Henry Ford and his assembly line), (2) road standards that discourage cycling, (3) vehicle taxes (gas taxes in the U.S. care comparatively low and the revenue is often earmarked for roadway construction), (4) interstate system (severing neighborhoods, penetrating cities with auto-only infrastructure, and also trumping more local planning efforts/ideals), (5) government subsidies for driving, including the mandated supply of ample free parking at most trip destinations, (6) technological attempts to make transport more sustainable (i.e., cleaner fuels will make driving ok) .
One more point needs to be underscored: the importance of the American single family home. Low energy prices and huge subsidies for home mortgages have combined with a culture of “go west young man” (to wide open spaces) to form a residential landscape like no other, globally speaking. And, all over the U.S., residential, single family zoning is aggressively employed to support the primary investment of Americans. Tony Downs has elaborated a bit more, suggesting five key tenets that most Americans hold dear to their heart: (1) owning a detached single-family home on a spacious lot; (2) relying on private automobiles for movement; (3) working in attractively landscaped low-rise places; (4) residing in small communities with responsive and localized government; and (5) living free from the signs of poverty. Local governments in the U.S. are keen to protect these interests and they do it well (i.e., the Tiebout hypothesis).
The above factors have produced some critical “context-defining conditions” for sustainable transport:
- travel distances are relatively longer than in Europe (space consumed by single family homes makes origins and destinations further apart),
- abundant and free car parking makes driving really easy,
- an aversion to behavior oriented pricing (perceived ‘free’ energy and ‘free’ roads are ingrained in American mindsets),
- relatively high car traffic volumes with high speeds (cyclists are afraid of fast moving cars), and
- funding that cannot be easily flexed for more sustainable purposes.
But that’s not all. The land use-transport system in the U.S. represents an extremely mature system. Changing mature systems is difficult because innovations have limited effect. The type of sustainable transport infrastructure that many talk about—new rail line, a bike path, a major new development—are relatively modest interventions. They represent marginal changes within extensive, mature, and complex transportation systems in which travelers have multiple options with respect to mode and route choice. Moreover, auto dependence for most Americans makes policies that increase the cost and time of driving or reduce its convenience very unpopular.
Things are changing
The good news is that in the U.S. there is emerging evidence to suggest things are changing in these respects, ever so slightly.
- The demand for driving is leveling off. Results from recent travel surveys suggest that American’s appetite for driving might be full and factors are behind this; at least two trends stand out: (1) young adults and retiring baby boomers are moving ‘back to the city’ to enjoy a less car dependent lifestyle (after decades of shrinkage many urban areas are growing), (2) young adults between 20 and 30 seem to be less car oriented than previous generations (lower car ownership rates, a lower share of licensed drivers, and less driving overall).
- Multimodality. Using more than one mode of transportation during a trip, day or week, is receiving lots of attention. Even though 85 percent of trips are still by car, the share of Americans who also use other modes of transport is increasing. This means that Americans still drive a lot, but they also walk, cycle or ride public transport for some trips.
- Pricing schemes are trickling into U.S. culture. Inner cities are increasing the cost of car parking and decreasing its supply. New highway capacity is built using toll roads. Congestion pricing is being employed in many cities.
- Sustainable modes have higher profile. In many cities, it is now standard practice to appropriate funds for sustainable transport in city budgets. Bicycle paths receive snowplowing treatments, zoning codes require office buildings to have bike parking or even showers for cyclists). Many cities are pursuing ‘complete street’ projects.
It is conceivable that even Americans are wondering what a future looks like with end of fossil fuels (notwithstanding new hype about gas and fracking). Outstanding questions and challenges now revolve around how to change transport and land-use systems in the U.S. to become more cycling friendly.
Future steps toward cycling’s redemption
With all of this as a backdrop, paving cycling’s path is difficult (the same applies to most other forms of sustainable transport such as walking or public transport). Here is a five point plan to help redeem cycling’s path with regard to the land use-transport system in American cities.
- Get the land uses right. American cities need to make standard travel distances for everyday travel (origins and destinations) shorter. Yes, roughly one-third of all U.S. trips are less than two kilometers, but more can be made of this.
- Change the nature of roads. Roads—more specifically, the space in the right of way–will be need to adapted to better support cycling. The “green lane project is a good testament to this, but taking space from cars takes political fortitude.
- Build more bicycle facilities. All types of bicycle facilities would be welcome and needed, particularly physically separated paths (e.g., see greenlane project).
- Share space better. Making central cities similar to one-grand shared space is concept that is largely unheard of in the U.S. Space is not shared and drivers are immune to wanting to share unmarked space.
- Keep speeds down. Not only are traffic volumes high—speeds are too—making it more difficult to attract cyclists. Traffic calming neighborhoods, city centers, and other areas (together with stricter attention to speed limits) makes these areas safer and more livable.
 History of cycling in the U.S., see: http://vehicleforasmallplanet.com/tracings-bicyclings-resurgence-in-the-u-s-almost-a-century-later/
 For a succinct description of 9 factors for why the U.S. is so auto-dependent, see: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2014/02/9-reasons-us-ended-so-much-more-car-dependent-europe/8226/
 Germany less than half of the all Germans live in single-family homes, and less than a third live in detached single-family dwellings, while this percentage is double in the U.S.
 A key cultural difference stems from the general attitude toward building anything. In the US, the principle is that you are allowed to build something. Zoning can influence what can be built, but if it reduces the value of the land, the land owner is entitled to compensation. This is generally the opposite in Europe. One is not allowed to build anything, unless it is explicitly allowed. This tilts the European playing field in favor of less sprawl and less greenfield development, as most of the land is zoned as agricultural or natural uses only. Any change takes a long and unpredictable process with coordination with higher levels of government. Lack of planning and coordination still exists in most European countries—producing sprawl and greenfield development—but to a lesser extent.
 Hirt, Sonia. “Home, Sweet Home American Residential Zoning in Comparative Perspective.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 33, no. 3 (2013): 292-309.
 Downs, Anthony (1994). New Visions for Metropolitan America. Brookings.
 Another big difference stems from the general attitude toward building anything. In the US, the principle is that you are allowed to build something. Zoning can influence what can be built, but if it reduces the value of the land, the land owner is entitled to compensation. In Europe, the principle is generally the opposite. You are not allowed to build anything, unless it is explicitly allowed. This tilts the European playing field in favor of less sprawl and less greenfield development, as most of the land is zoned as agricultural or natural uses only. Any change in that takes a long and unpredictable process with coordination with higher levels of government. Of course, there is still a lack of planning and coordination in most European countries and sprawl and greenfield development do happen in Europe as well; however, the scale is different.
 Tobias Kuhnimhof, Ralph Buehler, Matthias Wirtz, and Dominika Kalinowska (2012). Travel trends among young adults in Germany: increasing multimodality and declining car use for men. Journal of Transport Geography 24 (2012) 443–450.
 Slotterback, C.S., and C. Zerger. 2013. Complete Streets from Policy to Project: The Planning and Implementation of Complete Streets at Multiple Scales. Minneapolis, MN: Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.
 Greenlane project, see: http://www.peopleforbikes.org/green-lane-project
 Concept of space, See John Grisham’s, The Broker (2005) where Luigi explains to Marco some of the peculiarities of Italian culture: “…the concept of space in Europe…differs significantly from that in the States. Space is shared in Europe, not protected. Tables are shared, the air evidently is shared because smoking bothers no one. Cars, houses, buses, apartments, cafes—so many important aspects of life are smaller, thus more cramped, thus more willingly shared. It’s not offensive to go nose to nose with an acquaintance during routine conversation because no space is being violated. Talk with your hand, hug, embrace, even kiss at times. Even for a friendly people, such familiarity was difficult for Americans to understand.”
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?"]
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?
At streets.mn, I have the following post: Learning from Bologna’s Off-street Bicycle Network: Tolerance, Safety, Thanks, complete with a vivid three minute video from the user perspective of the cyclist.
“The characteristics of a city’s off-street cycling network vary widely by culture. Expectations are adjusted accordingly. The most progressive cycling communities in the U.S. have set high standards for what they consider to be suitable bicycle facilities…”
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?
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
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. 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).
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. 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),. 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.
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. 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 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.
 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.
 Greenways Master Plan. City of Boulder – 2001 update. http://bouldercolorado.gov/files/Utilities/Greenways/MasterPlan.pdf. Accessed January, 2012
 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.
 American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (2012). Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, 4th Edition. ISBN: 1-56051-527-2.
 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
 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
 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.
 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.