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Where to Position Cycling in the Future Transportation Context for Cities

In order to properly position cycling amidst the larger transportation context in cities, we need to know more about what that future context of cities looks like. Just as every city or community has carved their unique path leading to its current situation, pushing that vision 50 years out is likely going to yield wildly disparate futures. Each path is shaped by a unique history, set of current conditions, culture, resources (which may or may not be available), and some unforeseen advents in technology. The future of Houston (United States) will be a stark contrast to Madrid (Spain), which will in turn not resemble Shanghai (China). And, the role of cycling in each will vary considerably.

There are several phenomena to consider in these discussions. A first has to do with the nature of growth in megacities (those with more than 10 million people) versus the growth that will be absorbed by other, smaller to medium sized cities. The second has to do with the predominant morphology of future growth. Will future development be comprised of high-rises or will it likely hover around a more manageable six stories? What will be the role of infill development? Third, what type of spatial interaction patterns will likely result? Are residents going to continue to geographically expand their circles for social activities and work or will there be a return to more localized interactions? No single projection seems to be winning out.

It is helpful to consider some prevailing global conditions to inform these discussions. There are more than a few trajectories to suggest that cities are destined for outward expansion; this suggests a decreased role for the benefits of immediate geography. The ubiquitous use of information and communication technology is the largest driver in this trajectory. As people rely increasingly rely on virtual social networks, they will rely less on their local and geographically based social networks, again, spurring, long-distance travel, if they chose to travel at all. In the transportation community, we have been talking for two decades about how telecommuting and delivery services will substitute for trips to get goods (e.g., clothing, food) and to go to work. While e-commerce comprises an approximate 5% of total retail sales (in the US), it is a phenomenon that has been increasing steadily[1]—and will inevitably to do so, thereby contributing to a trend people have less concern about living closer to services.

These forces combine with a seemingly insatiable appetite—at least for Americans—in variety seeking and comparison shopping. Prices and variety of goods will continue to play a strong role in purchasing decisions. This pushes large variety stores (e.g., big boxes) to get bigger and the trips to them less often but of greater consumption. The desire for variety is not limited to work or consuming goods. It extends to services such as schools and enrichment programs. Parents are increasingly maximizing their utility for the best overall school and fit; school districts increasingly offer this option via open enrollment. This trend diminishes the role of neighborhood schools and corresponding localized travel patterns. It, in turn, increases the burden on parents or school transportation districts to shuttle children across town.

While there are some convincing signs that the car—in its current form of a relatively lumbering machine, powered by a combustible engine, and driven by a human—might not be long for this world, the car will still be here to stay. The freedom, convenience, and privacy it provides is unparalleled with too many residents wedded to the services it provides. Furthermore, transportation networks, in most cities, are surface oriented, very mature, and predominantly structured around car travel. But cars will be increasingly smaller, propelled electrically, and driven autonomously. This will in turn increase mobility patterns for children, the elderly, and the disabled. It will ease the overall process of traveling by car, therefore leading to patterns of more and long distance travel which will facilitate exurbanization. These compelling forces paint a consistent picture of outward expansion that is less concerned about localized services. It generally weakens the central pull of cities—or neighborhoods—as activity centers.

But I believe there are other and more compelling factors to suggest that cities—and more specifically the geographic pull of neighborhoods—will ultimately win out in this tension. The ills of the traditional suburban model are now well exposed. There will always be individuals seeking both access to the big city but also pastoral living conditions; but these proportions will dwindle. On the other hand, I remain unconvinced that high-rise living is the ticket to the future. Skyscapers are less environmentally benign than is often considered[2]. This is has to do with aspects of their physical construction (e.g., being resource intensive and costly, lacking natural ventilation systems) and their effects on adjoining properties. Notwithstanding their density gains and other pleas[3], skyscrapers tend to be architecturally sterile and bereft of magic to feed human’s hunger for enchantment.

Future communities will necessarily be cognizant of their energy demands and their psychological effects; medium sized cities and towns are intrinsically better scaled for future energy realities but also humans’ intrinsic desire for belonging to a unique and localized sense of place. These places will be urban in the traditional sense of the word: compact, dense, mixed-use, and composed of neighborhood centers distributed throughout. A central transportation advantage lies in the scalability of this model. A neighborhood provides a sense of identity; several neighborhoods and a commercial district make a town; many towns comprise an average-sized city; many cities will form large metro regions. There is little new to this model. Its not a nostalgic call to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape, just one that I think has staying power.

Traffic congestion will persist—and cyclists will still need to wrestle with it and its safety elements—but its overall burden to individuals will be less. It will be a different flavor of congestion given the increased use of smaller vehicles and sensors to better facilitate traffic management. Owing to automatic cars, people will multi-task in their cars even moreso than the average Italian does while driving and talking on their cell phone. Smartphones provide real-time information to endless services, easing the process by which different transportation services might be availed to the average traveler.

Then, if we believe in the diminishing role of gas to propel cars, this erodes the gas tax—a central source of funding for roads at all levels (at least in the United States). Local municipalities, realizing the demise of federal funding, will assume heightened responsibility for surface transportation, resulting in decisions that are better informed by capital, operating and maintenance costs and more equitably distributed across a variety of travel modes. Europe already does this well. The rest of the world will catch up in such thinking.

Putting the above factors to work as a visionary, I believe the land use-transportation future for most cities—big and small—is best captured in the following depiction. They will be oriented around central tenets of walkability, still allow car travel, and connected by rail lines. These urban places will exist on a much smaller scale than what is familiar to most people in big cities today, built on a much finer grain. Specifically, cycling will provide a much needed and valued connective tissue to bond both land uses and the other three predominant modes (walking, transit, car). Residents who live in urbanized areas—which would comprise more than 60% of the world’s population—would have a wide array of travel options available to them; many of these travel modes would rival one another in attractiveness or convenience. This means that common origins and destinations would be served by one or more of the following services: private auto, light rail, heavy rail, local bus, bus rapid transit, car-sharing, bike-sharing, walking, and of course, private cycling. Certainly not all services will be ubiquitous; however, most places would have two or more attractive travel options arranged in a seamless labyrinth of sorts where redundancy between modes is encouraged to the extent that resources allow.

These conditions culminate in environments not only accepting of bicycling but also help articulate a central role for it. I’m not going so far as to suggest that cycling will be the catalyst for a 21st Century urban renaissance[4], nor will it be the predominant form of transport (outside of select communities in Northern Europe). But, its status as a fringe mode will eventually be forgotten and cycling’s future will rest in its ability to “get along” and mesh with these other modes.


[1] See report and table at: http://www.census.gov/retail/mrts/www/data/pdf/ec_current.pdf

[2] http://bettercities.net/news-opinion/blogs/michael-mehaffy/14138/more-low-down-tall-buildings

[3] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/03/how-skyscrapers-can-save-the-city/308387/

[4] http://www.archdaily.com/409556/why-cycle-cities-are-the-future/

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