“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.”
“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.”
The last in a 3 part series at streets.mn rationalizes and prescribes guidelines for where to paint your street.
“Paint is a critical ally as cities aim to spur more innovative bicycle facilities with less. Here’s to unified and clear guidance for applying this valuable resource.”
The World Society for Transport and Land Use Research (WSTLUR) invites all interested parties to propose hosting the 2017 World Symposium on Transport and Land Use Research. WSLTUR is an international professional organization that promotes the understanding and analysis of the interdisciplinary interactions of transport and land use, offers a forum for debate, and provides a mechanism for the dissemination of information. The main vehicle for this promotion is the triennial symposium, which aims to bring together the leading researchers in the field to present scholarly papers on the broad set of topics falling within this enterprise. The Journal of Transport and Land Use (JTLU) is the official journal of WSTLUR and will publish select papers from the symposium. More information about WSLTUR and past and current symposia can be found at http://wstlur.org.
The second symposium in this triennial series will be held on June 22-27, 2014 in Delft, the Netherlands, hosted by Delft University of Technology and the University of Twente. We are planning for approximately 140 attendees and 100 paper presentations This follows the inaugural conference held in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada in July of 2013, which was a great success – with 80 participants and 60 paper submissions. For the 2017 symposium, we expect the numbers of attendees and presentations to grow at a modest pace from the 2014 conference.
Entities interested in hosting the conference should submit a full application including the following information:
- Name of the city (or town) where the conference will be held. The symposium can be held in remote areas, but a clear transport plan will be needed, regarding how participants will arrive at the conference location.
- A brief description about the suggested venue (stating what makes the venue (and/or its near surroundings) an interesting place to visit, seen from the perspective of transport and land use research).
- The strengths and profile of the host institution(s) in terms of research within land use and transport field.
- A detailed budget, including:
- Total expected budget for the entire conference,
- Expected registration fees, and
- Number of meals included in the registration fees.
- Details of tours that the local host can accommodate in the conference city or nearby venues.
- Special agreements with local hotels in providing group rates for conference attendees.
WSLTUR will be responsible of all printable materials, conference proceedings, and gifts to attendees. All proposals should be received by email to Ahmed El Geneidy before May 1, 2014, and an announcement will be made regarding the host location during the conference in Delft in June. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.
– Kelly Clifton and Ahmed El Geneidy
At streets.mn, I posted the second of a three part series discussing the value of using paint for bicycle facilities and planning.
“City officials make transportation planning decisions under financial duress and scant information. Will rezoning land uses in the neighborhood encourage walking? Will the new bus line decrease car use? Should the city build a protected bike path in the middle of the city? Answers to these questions come slowly as changes in cities take time to mature. People’s travel habits evolve even slower. It is difficult to know what “works” in the transportation business.”
Over at streets.mn, I’ve started a three part series focusing on the use of paint to create/enhance cycling facilities, Problems with making green (bike lanes) the new red (carpet).
My post: Would you spur swimmers to the beaches of Amity Island? is up at streets.mn…
“Jaws, the blockbuster thriller film from the mid 1970’s was the highest grossing film ever until Star Wars was released two years later. The mechanical shark, the beach scenes on Amity Island, and the music score brought it all together. The dynamic between the obdurate mayor (Richard Vaughn) and the police chief (Martin Brody) largely revolved around a tension about how to address an activity that, in the public’s eye, has safety risks. Thirty years later, it’s a tension we wrestle with in bicycle planning.”