October 18, 2013 at 08:00  •  Posted in Featured Posts, Ideas, Inspiration Abroad, People by  •  2 Comments

One of the leading lights of the global movement towards giving greater priority to the use of bicycles as a form of transportation, Mikael Colville-Andersen, presented his vision of a new kind of city leveraging the huge benefits of the bicycle at a half-day conference held recently in Luxembourg that illustrated three very different concepts for a future of reduced car-dependence in the Greater Region.

The Mobility and Progress Conference (known in Luxembourgish as the Fortbewegung Fortschritt), was held at the European Conference and Congress Centre in Luxembourg’s Kirchberg quarter, presented by Verkéiersverbond, an organisation set up by the Ministry of Transport to coordinate the efforts of transportation service providers in order to improve public transport’s share of the “modal split” or relative share as the mode of transport chosen by the travelling public.

For those interested in promoting cycling in this car-besotted country, the appearance of cycling “rock star” Colville-Andersen, the founder of the Copenhagenize.com and CopenhagenCycleChic.com websites, and more recently, the Copenhagenize Design Company, was the main attraction. As expected, he delivered a blunt critique of the blinkered attitudes of politicians and bureaucrats who cater to those trying to live in the past, missing out on the health, air quality, road congestion, business, and money-saving benefits of using bicycles for transportation (not to mention even trying to reach this country’s emission reduction targets) by continuing to pursue “car-first” urban planning and transportation policies.

An overview of mobility in Luxembourg

The conference got underway at 8:30 a.m., with Minister Wiseler’s 10-minute speech about how much progress this country has been making in creating alternatives to the automobile in recent years. Apparently, much has changed since the early 1990s, when everyone drove, and urban cycling was nearly unheard of.

For the first session, Andrzej Sielicki, an engineer with German transportation consulting firm VGS Verkehrsmanagement-Gesellschaft Saar GmbH, outlined his PhD work on providing improved public transportation to low density rural areas. One of the projects he described would use electric bicycles to link rural users to a high frequency bus line, another involved the reintroduction of the “post-bus” (a public bus service that is operated as part of local mail delivery, as a means to provide public transport in rural areas with lower levels of patronage where a normal bus service is uneconomic). He emphasised the need for high quality, coordinated service to attract a population that is heavily car-dependent. Despite this car-dependence, he said, there are people in rural areas who are mobility challenged, which is an injustice that he said must be addressed by better public transport.

Next up was Dr. Wolfgang Kieslich, of Munich-based MRK Management Consultants GmbH. His talk examined Luxembourg’s current plans to increase the public transport modal share, especially for cross-border workers coming into Luxembourg. Public transport is getting most of the government’s attention when it comes to reducing the private car-driving share to 75% by 2020. This effort will turn largely on increasing computerised and networked transportation information and tracking systems. This will give users access, through a range of personal devices, to real time information about their transportation options. This IT based approach will be combined with optimised bus and train schedules and investments in infrastructure. Such technology, he explained, could also be used to make car-sharing and ride-sharing services more usable and attractive.

The keynote: Mikael Colville-Andersen on urban cycling

Then it was time to hear about the promise of bicycles in solving current urban transportation problems. For readers of the Copenhagenize.com or CopenhagenCycleChic.com websites, none of it was particularly new, but Colville-Andersen’s blunt, outspoken approach contrasted sharply with the less radical (in Luxembourg) views of the earlier speakers. For those who actually cycle for transport, his words seemed eminently reasonable. However, the contrast with the actual amount of priority given to the bicycle in transportation and planning decisions here in Luxembourg’s capital (such as the decisions to rule out cycle paths on the rebuilt Adolphe Bridge and eliminate cycle paths in Kirchberg) couldn’t be starker.

Colville-Andersen started out his presentation by observing how “bicycles are being invited to cooler parties”, admiring the Danish styling on evidence at the European Conference Centre in Kirchberg. The concept of bicycles as transport, he said, is “deserving of spaces like this … this is where bikes belong today”. Cities around the world are investing in cycling infrastructure, he said, evidence of a “change in perception of the bicycle from sport and recreation, to seeing that it can be used for transportation, as it has been used for 125 years.”

But it didn’t take Colville-Andersen long to get down to what he sees as the enemies of urban cycling. Pointing to the high rate of people dying in car accidents that has become accepted as the status quo. “The main reason why all these people are dying is that traffic engineering has failed us,” he said. However, it has become clear that engineers can no longer find ways to create more space to accommodate more cars and that thus, traffic conditions and traffic safety are getting worse and worse. “Traffic engineering has had its day,” he declared.

From streets for all to the trap of car culture

Colville-Andersen then recounted how car culture has persuaded us that our streets and roads were made for cars, when in fact widespread adoption of cars has overturned 7000 years of streets being a place for democratic exchange, commerce and play. Colville-Andersen pointed out how the car industry had worked with traffic engineers to carry out a paradigm shift, so that roads were to be seen as a public utility for the movement of private automobiles “nearly overnight”. Crosswalks were invented to control pedestrians from crossing. Even playgrounds were invented in North America to “keep the mothers happy”. A name was coined to shame people for doing what they’d done for thousands of years — crossing the street: “jaywalking”. This was part of a strategy of using social shame to achieve car culture’s ends.

Today, Colville-Andersen said, we’re living in cities “controlled by mathematical models, many bizarre and outdated; many of the models that control our traffic and our cities date from the 1960s.” As a result, he said, “cities around the world can’t put in a simple cycle track based on best practices, widen a sidewalk, traffic calm a neighbourhood or lower a speed limit, because it doesn’t fit with the computer models down in the engineering department.” For example, in the City of Luxembourg, traffic calming approaches have been rejected by the traffic department and mayor as a way of controlling high-speed automobile traffic on a city centre residential street: speed bumps make too much noise, choke points hinder the flow of vital traffic.

Desire lines: how people actually use space

Colville-Andersen promotes direct human observation as a way of learning about how people actually travel, and providing the infrastructure needed to support that. He gave an example in Copenhagen where cyclists were cutting across a sidewalk at a bottleneck. Instead of handing out fines, he explained, the City of Copenhagen decided to observe. “They accepted the fact that there must be a very good reason for the behaviour of these few citizens.” As a result a temporary bike lane was put in place on the sidewalk, which led to a permanent bike path.

This example led Colville-Andersen to discuss his concept of “desire lines” — “the most beautiful expression in urban planning”. He explained that all cities pre-dating the car era were constructed on desire lines, such as when shepherds decided to wander into town with sheep. He showed how the desire lines of how people actually crossed a public park in Halifax, Canada varied radically with the actual pathways set out for promenading on sunny days.

Islands Brygge Desire lines

Islands Brygge Desire lines, Copenhagenize Consulting

To follow up on this notion, the Copenhagenize Design Company decided to study desire lines at a central Copenhagen intersection. They hired anthropologists, set up cameras and filmed for 12 hours: during that time, some 16,631 people riding bicycles passed through, and their chosen directions were traced to produce a highly detailed map of where people’s desire lines track at that intersection. This information can be used to plan infrastructure that facilitates people’s desires, rather than forcing people to adapt to a system designed without reference to them.

Moving towards urban design focused on the end user

Letting non-cyclists plan cycling infrastructure without regard for how people actually travel on bicycles has, in Colville-Andersen’s view, “led to disastrous provision of cycling facilities”. He pointed to examples from North America, including running bicycle paths outside a row of parked cars (readers in the City of Luxembourg won’t have far to go to see this in their own city). “They’re great for protecting the parked cars, they keep the parked cars nice and clean and away from the moving traffic.” He also poured scorn on the North American concept of “sharrows”, which consists of painted markings showing a stylised bicycle and two arrows. The idea is to remind drivers that bicycle-riders can be expected and to share the road while giving them no priority or protection. “It’s kind of embarrassing for them.”

The other conceptual framework Colville-Andersen endorses as an approach to modernising our cities is design. “It’s something that we all have a relationship to”, he noted. “A designer puts himself in the mind of the user, the end user of a product. That human being on the end of the design process is everything to the designer”, he explained, pointing out how design brings us much that we find useful or beautiful (like an iPad or a chair). “It’s a human designing for a human, and that’s a lot more than you can say for modern traffic engineering.” Colville-Andersen’s view is that designing infrastructure for bicycles and pedestrians, or any aspect of a liveable city, ought to be designed like any other product in the world: toothbrushes, toasters, smartphones or chairs. “Imagine if walking in a city or riding a bicycle in a city was as easy and intuitive as how we approach a chair in a lecture hall”.

Colville-Andersen took a moment to note the propensity of Copenhagen residents to keep cycling through the winter in rather greater numbers than they do in Luxembourg. Some 80% of Copenhageners ride their bicycle all winter, he recounted. “These people have been seduced to do so”, he said, “because the design of the infrastructure is very, very good.” This tendency is also helped by the City of Copenhagen’s decision to prioritise snow removal for cycling before the roads are touched. This idea has not yet been imitated in this city, which allows key cycle routes to freeze over, and waits for the snow and ice to melt instead of clearing it from cycle paths.

Well-designed bike infrastructure key to good behaviour

Good design, he argued, could also deal with a source of controversy involving bicycle-riders: “Oh, those damned cyclists! Breaking the law, going through the red lights, just doing whatever the hell they want,” he exclaimed, mockingly, explaining that it’s a refrain he often hears. He went on: “I always say no: these people have not been given adequate bicycle infrastructure, even worse none at all. Never mind the fact that cyclists and pedestrians are forced to abide by a traffic culture that was engineered to serve the automobile a hundred years ago; bicycles are a completely different form of transport.”

As evidence, Colville-Andersen pointed to the comparatively low percentage of Copenhagen cyclists who commit offences — of the 16,000 cyclists his company mapped, only about 6% did so. “Regular citizens don’t want to break the law,” he explained. What should a city do if it wants to encourage bicycle riders to improve their behaviour? “Build good, well-designed infrastructure and your problem is solved,” he declared. Bicycle riders have very different habits and needs than do car drivers – “There’s a whole bunch of anthropology behind the bicycle that is not considered in traffic planning,” he said.

Making cycling the convenient and attractive option

Presenting a graphic illustrating a short history of traffic engineering, he showed how various modes of transport have been prioritised at different times. Today we have “straight mobility in many cities — the car is prioritised, fast A to B for the car. Everybody else is at the mercy of traffic engineering and it’s an incredibly difficult task just to walk or ride a bike or even take a bus in a city.” How can we change this situation and improve conditions for pedestrians, for cyclists, encourage people to ride a bike, walking more, taking public transport?, he asked, rhetorically. “You make driving a car a pain in the ass. One-way streets. High parking prices.” This will get drivers to look for other options, he stated, leading those options to become more viable. People are always looking for the quickest route, he said. “If you make that the bicycle, if you make that walking or public transport, homo sapiens will say okay, I’ll do that.”

Cycle infrastructure in Copenhagen

Photo courtesy of Gosia Lawer

While design is important for large-scale planning issues, Colville-Andersen discussed his interest in what can be done on the smaller scale to make riding a bicycle more pleasant and convenient, whether it be people who put up a ramp where they see a need for one, or the City of Copenhagen, which put in railings and footrests for cyclists at 18 different intersections. (Unlike in Luxembourg, where the crossing button nearly always faces away from the bicycle crossing.) The Copenhagenize Design Company put up garbage cans angled for cyclists as well as “love handles” that make it easier for cyclists to hold onto the posts at the stop line, or even use them to push off.

Colville-Andersen often speaks about the urban planning and design wisdom of his two children. He said, recounting stories about his daughter’s and son’s urban planning observations, that he’s amazed that children can figure out better solutions than can professional planners, when it comes to de-prioritising cars and prioritising people.

Colville-Andersen spared a few minutes to make the case for cycling, mentioning statistics from his home country. One study showed that the 36% of people who ride bicycles in Copenhagen contributed 233 million euros to the public coffers. Every kilometre cycled puts 23 cents into the coffers, but for every kilometre driven, 16 cents is dropped into a bottomless hole. “Driving cars is simply not cost-efficient,” he said. “Without being an eco-freak, if you’re looking at cities and at the way you’re planning them, cost efficiency should be a major factor.” Putting money into a mode of transport that only loses money makes no sense when putting it into public transport and cycling has much better returns, he said.

The international race to create bike-friendly cities

Just before wrapping up, Colville-Andersen turned to his Copenhagenize Index, which ranks the world’s most bicycle friendly cities. He pointed out that it’s no longer just Amsterdam and Copenhagen, “the benchmark cities, the Romulus and Remus of bicycle culture.” Cities like Paris, Seville, Dublin, Barcelona, Budapest – Colville-Andersen explained — have been aggressively improving cycling conditions, through investment in infrastructure and legislative changes. “There were no bicycles left in those cities five or six years ago. Now these are incredibly bicycle-friendly cities — the things that they are doing are absolutely brilliant,” he said. He pointed to Seville as a city which started with almost zero bicycle riders but after five years was able to get to 7%, largely by putting in protected bicycle infrastructure. Buenos Aires has put in 140 km of traffic-separated cycle tracks, with one stretch seeing 5,000 cyclists a day. “It’s a race now to modernise our cities and the bicycle is at the forefront of the charge.”

At this point, Colville-Andersen suggested that Luxembourg should be embarrassed at its 3% goal for the modal share of cycling “in a few years”. However, starting at less than 1% in 2007, Luxembourg reached 3.5% in 2011 and has a goal of 10% by 2020. Still not very ambitious, but not as bad as Colville-Andersen had been given to understand.

Colville-Andersen approvingly quoted Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë saying: “The fact is that automobiles no longer have a place in the big cities of our time,” and mentioned the mayor of New York City making significant steps to encourage bicycle use and make that city more liveable  “We have a reason to be optimistic about the future of our cities when we have people like that looking at our cities and trying to change the paradigm.” (Though Luxembourg’s civic leaders clearly have a way to go: witness Luxembourg City’s objections to traffic calming, its project to make it even easier to park in Luxembourg — reserved free 30 minute parking spots for shoppers and its notion that automobile parking fees should be at par with bus fares.)

A call to Luxembourg to emulate Copenhagen

The presentation ended with Colville-Andersen issuing a call to those in the room: to emulate Copenhagen, whose best monument, he said, was “the bicycle infrastructure network and other Danish cities. This is a human monument, a human-powered monument, something that everybody who uses it every single day contributes to, they’re all the designers and the architects of this monument,” Colville-Andersen said. “And everybody in this room can also contribute to erecting monuments where you live as well. This is the future, this is how we should look at it. It’s not just putting in a cycle track and getting some data, it’s really letting these monuments rise all over the world. And they’re rising in Paris, and Barcelona and Buenos Aires. There is a new paradigm and it’s time to really consider the future of our cities, the next one hundred years. Because the last 100 years didn’t go so well.”

Anyone who uses a bicycle to get around in a city that makes nowhere near as much accommodation for bicycle-riding as places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, or even Seville, do, cannot help but feeling simultaneously exhilarated by the potential for change that Colville-Andersen describes, and saddened by the seemingly glacial pace with which authorities in this city are seeking to modernise the streets to take advantage of the clear benefits of bicycle riding. It was clear, walking out of the Congress Centre, towards the roaring traffic on the multiple car lanes and the sparse traffic on the reduced, narrow, two-way, substandard bicycle lane along John F. Kennedy Blvd., that car culture is still alive and well in Luxembourg, and that while bicycle riding has official support, the consensus in this city and country is still stuck in the car-happy 1960s.

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