Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Bicycle Architecture Biennale in Amsterdam: Cool, but it's not just about the architecture, or "building" infrastructure, people need programming to transition to the bike

Even in the core of Washington, DC, seeing lots of "schools" of cyclists seems pretty rare.  Photo: bicyclists commuting on U Street, by Jared Soares for the Washington Post, 9/28/2017.

A few stories...

At a transportation public meeting this week in my neighborhood, I was talking to one of the bike planners there about our recognition that it's not that we don't know what to do or what to build, but that elected officials aren't very committed to sustainable mobility, transit, etc., and without their commitment it's hard to do what needs to be done.

We both shared stories about being lectured by citizens about the value of sustainable mobility and I told him that when that happened to me, I stopped the person and I hope gently told him that I knew that already, and that he needed to be lecturing his elected officials.

It wasn't til I worked briefly in county government that I truly understood how constrained government staffers are.  They work within the confines of policy and practice set by elected officials--both legislative and executive.

So then I told him the story of a caravan going to a talk in Baltimore, and how one of the people said "you know, we just have to ask the Dutch transportation engineers how they are able to do what they do."

I said to the guy "they aren't any different, pretty much, from transportation planners here.  The difference is that they have been instructed, in no uncertain terms and without exception, to prioritize biking, walking, and transit overall."
Cycle Super Highways to generate more cyclists in Greater Copenhagen Area
New cycle superhighway in Greater Copenhagen, 2012.  Cycle Embassy Denmark.

That's what's missing.  People think that yep, adding bike, pedestrian, and maybe transit infrastructure is a good thing.  But it's not a priority.   And it's almost always subservient to focusing on facilitating automobile movement and expanding automobile infrastructure.  And if "it costs too much" -- even though rebuilding some busy highway intersections starts costing upwards of $750 million -- it's not a problem to eliminate the bike, pedestrian, and transit improvements "to save money" and focus on the parts of the project for the automobile.

And at a graduation party yesterday (for fifth graders no less, we only had such parties after graduating high school) I was talking to a DC resident who asked if I thought that it is the millennials who are driving the take up of biking.

I said I didn't think so in one respect--the planning and infrastructure development has been going on for awhile.  But yes in terms of being more focused on their smartphones and less on driving, and being more willing in their life stage/life cycle to bike, car share, use taxis/ride hailing, or scooters, than was the case for previous cohorts.

Or I when I was doing work in the bike sharing space, this one guy kept trying to "sell" his bike sharing bike design, which won awards, and I kept making the point that the bike isn't the most important element, it's the design of a complete system, in which the bike is only one component, along with the marketing and promotion of it both to governments and to the end user.

So while I think the second edition of the Bicycle Architecture Biennale in Amsterdam is a cool idea. From the Arch Daily article "Bicycle Architecture Biennale explores how cycling will shape future cities":
Next Architects has curated the second annual Bicycle Architecture Biennale as a showcase of buildings that transform cities through cycling. Opening in Amsterdam, the BAB shows the work of international designers from around the world and explores urban design through social, economic and environmental projects. It was conceived by BYCS as a way to inspire people to imagine new possibilities for human-centric cities.
Bike parking hub with a coffee shop in Delft, The Netherlands.

I don't think that the most important issue in cycling for transportation is "architecting" new types of infrastructure.

Instead I believe the key issues are:

1. Getting elected officials and stakeholders to accept that in certain types of places, biking, walking, and transit and what I call the "Sustainable Mobility Platform" needs to be prioritized over the car.

E.g., to solve congestion Mayor De Blasio thinks that trips by delivery and service vehicles should be reduced. Yes, they should be managed, but such trips support hundreds and thousands of households, whereas a car operated by a single person is for one trip.

2. Resetting funding and work priorities accordingly.

3. Letting these places be prominent outliers in a mobility system otherwise dominated by the car.

This is important.  Most elected officials, especially Republicans in Congress, work very hard to crush and eliminate transportation outliers.

Just think if we had a handful of cities around the US (1) comparable to Copenhagen and Netherlands cities for biking; (2) like Zurich and Melbourne and Brussels for streetcars as an element of the mobility system, Toronto too; (3) a midsized city with a great subway system that people could understand could be relevant to their own communities; (4) great regional railroad systems that operate like the German S-bahn system of suburban railroad services--New York and Chicago are premier, and Boston and Philadelphia are quite good; (5) at least a couple true high speed rail corridors; (6) a state where the passenger railroad network is so good that you could get around the state pretty easily by train; etc.

Yes, there are cities like New York and Boston, San Francisco, and somewhat, DC, where transit is used by a preponderance of users, but still the car is prioritized.

4. Almost more important than infrastructure--because we are building plenty of great cycletracks across DC and other cities that are only minimally used--we need to start focusing on actively and energetically providing support to people to make the transition from driving to biking.

To be fair, in some respects this might be true of the Bicycle Architecture Biennale

Most of the projects they highlight aren't extraordinary.  If you look at the gallery of images for the projects, mostly they are best practice, but not outlandish  It's just most places aren't doing interesting stuff, like a coffee shop as part of a bike parking hub.

Or the Heathrow bicycle hub for employees--they aren't listed--is an outlier not just because it is busy and useful, but because most airports aren't focusing on bicycle transportation as one element of a complete transportation program.

I suppose this bicycle skyway in Xiamen, China is a big deal.  But we already know that you can make a bridge a bit wider to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists.  For example, how there is a bikeway on the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River.

If it were a car parking garage with a café in the ground floor, would that be considered an extraordinary example of architecture and design?

Same with lots of car parking at train stations.  That's not extraordinary, but providing bike parking is?

Cities aren't doing interesting stuff because they don't know how, it's because the political interest and support is lacking.  And because in the great scheme of things, not enough people are biking for transportation, which would require a shift in the paradigm.

For a paradigm shift, we need lots of bicyclists.

Along Denmark's first formal cycle superhighway, they have installed air pumps every 1.7 kilometers.

Note that we must concede there are differences in the thoroughness of developing cycling infrastructure in places like Denmark compared to the US.

Imagine building a highway in the US and there not being any gas stations.

Planning for automobility is very thorough in the US.  For other modes, not so much.

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At 4:31 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Going back to Levy's point about planning, the "state" and transit, I'd say this is a related point.

You don't have to do much planning for automobiles. A few traffic studies, the EIS, and that is it. the "system" is self-generating.

Obviously far more true in smaller cities than in huge metropolis.

Your model (the city that has the bike lanes of portland, the commuter rail of Philly, the streetcars of Toronto, maybe even the DC metro) requires far far more of a commitment.

Off topic but going back a few days:

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

one example I didn't include was Davis, California and biking. When UCD was created the chancellor made the campus car free. And it was simultaneous with a rise in bike sales, the car-centric paradigm was just getting into bloom, etc., so they could be an outlier.

But they let it be self-generating instead of constantly purposeful in terms of planning, and as bike ownership penetration dropped off, especially among the young, bike use in Davis fell off. They didn't keep up with new developments in infrastructure. … another thing is that when you deal with students, you have a new cohort every year that you have to proselytize. You have to keep at it. Especially when automobility is, as you point out, self-generating.

wrt Boston and the waterfront, I have been thinking about that. HafenCity is built to deal with water. So are some of the cities in the Midwest.

From the article:

Roger Crandall, MassMutual’s chief executive officer, says other countries have been able to protect themselves from the ocean. Why not Boston? “Our species has been engineering against the seas for a long time,” says Crandall, noting that he’d recently visited the Netherlands. “There’s a cost to it—make no mistake—but there’s also a cost of picking up and moving development further inland.”

But the floods in the Midwest now, and what happened with Superstorm Sandy, are beyond what was planned for. I am starting to think that with climate change, more water-adjacent lands are going to have to be abandoned.

Given the value of London, you can build something like the Thames Water Barrier. But you can't do that along much of the banks of the Mississippi River. You can for Southern Manhattan.

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

"But you can't do that along much of the banks of the Mississippi River. "

TBH, we already did that along much of Mississippi -- 50 years ago. What we didn't take into account when you channelize a big river it raises the water level and those levees need to be higher.

RE: planning; obviously bike infrastructure should be a order of magnitude cheaper than transit. But without a dedicated pit of money a mayor isn't going to care about that in the long run. As I said before "affordable housing" is a big issue for American's mayor because it is one of the few federal monies they get to see directly. The TIGER grants were another good idea in that regard although it was also more about planting a few seeds to self-generate a system than getting planning departments to bulk up.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

hmm, Tiger. I thought of it as more like the equivalent of earmarks but from the executive branch.

But yes, not big enough to make quantum change. Too episodic, when you need a consistent and large enough pool of $.

… although this gets back to my point that we need to focus on building the base of the number of cyclists, and then there will be more demand for infrastructure, use wise and politically.

2. Good point about the channeling effect as another element. With the Thames Water Barrier, they built in height for projected rises in sea level. But I think the new projections will exceed it. And it still took decades to get the money and commitment.

back to the federal $ thing. For these things: homelessness; transit; other forms of sustainable mobility; environmentally correct water systems; other infrastructure; etc. the demands are great, the amount of federal dollars pretty minimal when it comes down to it.

And now with the Trump Administration, they are so vindictive. Sure, I am sure that the Obama Administration gave a bit more money to Democratic Party communities, but they didn't outright try to screw Republican areas. It's different with Trump.

At 1:09 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: $

Yes, big gaps.

But then again I think that is a blame shifting game. If states really wanted it they can raise debt. a lot of debt. Likewise cities.

The ground reality is nobody wants to do that, push it off, and wait for "free" federal money.

As I keep harping on, DC could have built a separated blue line for what it wasted on various projects over the past 10 years. But that is politics, and other things come first.

On Tiger, basically that is what it turned into (earmarks); I'd rather see a a program saying "Well write a check for your infrastructure if you can show a strong commitment to a planning culture over a 10 year period of time to maximize that investment". But I'll be honest not sure even the World Bank has that built in.

At 5:43 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I'm publishing a piece tomorrow on the opportunity to bring back the Separated Silver Line as part of the new WMATA "BOS" study. I am using your quote...


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