The Best Thing About a Bike-Friendly City Isn’t the Bikes — It’s the City

Photos from Amsterdam: Jonathan Maus. Used with permission.

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Zach Vanderkooy manages international programs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes.

It’s not about the bike.

When U.S. city officials visit the cities of Northern Europe with PeopleForBikes, the sheer volume of ordinary people going about their lives on bikes is captivating. But it’s not the quantity of bicycles that makes us look to Northern Europe for inspiration. It’s the quality of the cities.

More people, less space

The places in American cities where people want to be the most are, naturally, crowded. The eternal challenge is how to fit more people — but not necessarily more cars — into tight quarters. Northern Europe’s thriving cities demonstrate simple spatial logic: you can fit a lot more customers, employees, residents and visitors in your city’s most desirable places if they arrive on foot or on a bike than in a car.

Optimizing walking and public transportation

Bike parking at an Amsterdam transit station.

Building the infrastructure like protected bike lanes, slow-speed neighborhood streets, and bike share kiosks is a fast track to getting more people on bikes. But the rewards of those investments aren’t fully realized until bikes are a part of a comprehensive multi-modal system. Biking, walking, and public transport create a powerful combination much greater than the sum of their parts: a mobility triad that optimizes the relative advantages of each for convenience, value and accessibility.

Shopping local and shopping often

People on bikes support small-scale, neighborhood shops; exactly the type of business activity that encourages entrepreneurship and keeps tax revenue and profits in the local economy. Studies show people on bikes shop more frequently and closer to home, rather than making less frequent trips to far-flung big-box stores. Retailers are beginning to embrace another self-evident truth: wallets passing by a storefront at walking or bicycling speed are more likely to notice what’s for sale behind the windows and spontaneously stop than wallets passing by at 35 mph.

Leveling the playing field

Bikes provide low-cost transportation that can increase range and access to jobs and opportunity for all people. It’s no coincidence that countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, with the world’s highest rates of bicycle use, are among the most egalitarian and prosperous in the world.

Returning to the human scale

For most of human history, cities were full of people, not cars, engaging in economic, social and cultural exchanges. Bikes bring something less tangible but equally valuable back to the city: humanity. Every person that passes by on a bike is an opportunity to recognize a neighbor, friend or co-worker; a chance for spontaneous social exchanges that make a big city feel like a home.

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  • cmu

    >For most of human history, cities were full of people, not cars,
    The question is why American towns (not just cities) developed the way they are. Even places built in the 30’s and 40’s, when cars were not as ubiquitous as they are now, have over-wide streets, too many lanes, no public spaces (like the plazas that seem to be everywhere in Europe), etc.

    There needs to be a total rethinking of how places are developed, starting with smaller towns/cities, making it pleasant & safe for people with cars being secondary.

    And hallelujah…do you see any spandex or helmets on those cyclists?

  • Alex Brideau III

    At least in Los Angeles, some of the wide street widths are due to the fact that for many years they hosted both cars and streetcars. In many cases the tracks are still there, lying just beneath some surface asphalt.

  • Velocipedian

    Can we all start learning Dutch so moving there won’t be such a difficult transition?

  • Lego

    I’m curious. Does someone know why early-20th-century streets (or earlier) are so wide in US? Thanks!

  • ahwr

    It goes back earlier than that, many city’s such as Manhattan, Chicago, and Salt Lake City laid out their street grids before the rise of cars. A couple theories I’ve heard as to why are to control the spread of fire and disease. Although in the case of SLC supposedly Brigham Young wanted a wagon train to be able to turn around without necessitating profanity.

    http://www.andrewalexanderprice.com/blog20131128.php

    http://www.andrewalexanderprice.com/blog20131204.php

  • The point of shopping local and often and slower speeds begetting spontaneous shopping (thanks to the ability of seeing the contents of storefront window displays) is an articulation of benefits I hadn’t heard before.

    That’s a great discussion point for neighborhood street redesigns (to a ‘complete street’) where business owners are worried about the evolving travel patterns of their current and potential bike/ped customers.

  • c2check

    They’re not all THAT wide (check out some of the smaller towns in NY, PA, and MD, for example), and there are plenty of old towns/villages in Europe with wide streets as well.

    It is a good question though in many cases!
    I theorize that some wider streets outside of an older town core are such because they were more rural in comparison, houses could be a bit further apart, and the roads were likely unpaved until the 20s or later. By that time they laid asphalt, cars had become more popular, and they paved over the dirt road in addition to some of what was previously front yard space, effectively widening the road.
    My theory for some wider streets in SF (Richmond District, for example) is that they made them wider to prevent spread of fire.This area in particular did start to develop as cars were becoming popular.
    Just theories though.

  • Gezellig

    Ze spreken allemaal engels 🙂 (They all speak English)

    Having lived there myself it was rare to find a Dutchie who didn’t speak great English. But you may want to learn enough to figure out the road signs–thankfully, English and Dutch share many similar words, so it’s often not too hard to figure out 😉

    http://1.static.upcoming.nl/static/images/2eb03496da_1368172609_opstakels-liggen-de-obstakels__list-noup.jpg

    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-kUQ7rN_IxHM/UXlEk6qgmcI/AAAAAAAAD30/FUSfgoniKdk/s1600/dronken-rijders-bord.jpg

    The others are self-explanatory:

    http://www.geisswerks.com/drempels/let_op.jpg

    😀

  • Gezellig

    “And hallelujah…do you see any spandex or helmets on those cyclists?”

    Amen. In mature biking cultures, for most people hopping on a bike is a means to an end. Nothing wrong with racing recreationally if you feel like it but most people in places with pervasive protected infrastructure are out wearing their everyday clothes cuz they’re doing everyday things…like errands:

    or going to/from work:

    http://www.amersfoortbusiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/fietsnaarmijnwerk.png

    Btw, this can happen here in the US, too. It already has to a large degree in Davis, CA (land of ~20% citywide–not just students–bike modeshare), which started early on the bike-specific infrastructure:

    http://bicycles.cityofdavis.org/Media/Default/Photos/Bicycles/bike-lane-1.jpg
    For most US cities this is still a novel, futuristic concept

    It’s no coincidence that the way people bike there also tends to conform to the everyday–with a California twist. Just like in the Netherlands, biking is such a no-brainer many people in Davis will still do it even if it’s raining:

    http://media.sacbee.com/smedia/2014/09/25/16/51/YLv4m.St.4.jpeg
    From the Sac Bee, “Rain and storm clouds didn’t deter these bicyclists from wearing their shorts at (sic) flip flops at the UC Davis campus in Davis, Calif., on Thursday, September 25, 2014.” (http://www.sacbee.com/news/article2563426.html)

    In fact, they even seem to celebrate this:

    http://news.ucdavis.edu/photos_images/dateline_images/2012/081312/calendar201213_W4.jpg

    Scenes of everyday biking in Davis:

    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_5Cf74DKuudQ/R79gfCYxT_I/AAAAAAAAAHc/OwovQn3hq50/s400/visit%2Bwith%2BGrandma%2Band%2BGrandpa%2B079.JPG
    more 8-to-80 infrastructure means more people 8-to-80 bike in Davis

  • User_1

    Man that first pic doesn’t look that safe! I’m betting the lady on the right is saying, “get your f**king hand off my arm you idiot!” I remember seeing something like this one time, but it was two fixie riders and they were playing by holding each other handlebars. They went down in a heap and I just continued on riding. Don’t know if they were hurt or what. Didn’t care for idiots like this!

  • Doi Suthep

    Riding close is second nature in Amsterdam. They’re actually having fun. And comparison with anything cycling related in America is futile.

  • User_1

    Well yeah, I bet the two fixie riders in my example were also having fun. At least before they crashed!

  • Greg Costikyan

    If you speak German, picking up Dutch is pretty easy. (But don’t tell them that, as they’re not keen on the Germans, for obvious historical reasons.)

  • @ahwr – Those were interesting blog entries. Attempts to stop profanity are often thwarted by the automobile, though I’m sure there’s more gosh! and flippin’ going on in SLC than elsewhere.

  • marycycle

    As someone who lives in a semi-bikey European city, Barcelona, I find it amusing that American writers think all this spontaneous social interaction happens on bikes. In London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona, people are rushing or task-oriented on their bikes and as urban dwellers, they’re not all that interested in social and cultural exchanges with other people. I bike and walk on Barcelona’s crowded streets, I find other people are mostly in my way.

    I bet the cyclists pictured with moto-scooter are not getting ready to chat.

  • andrelot

    Very simple: many towns on new cities (America had none before Europeans arrived, and very few up to early 19th Century) were built to accommodate the car precursor, the horse carriage.

  • Gezellig

    “As someone who lives in a semi-bikey European city, Barcelona, I find it amusing that American writers think all this spontaneous social interaction happens on bikes. In London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona, people are rushing or task-oriented on their bikes and as urban dwellers, they’re not all that interested in social and cultural exchanges with other people.”

    I don’t think the writer necessarily meant that people were constantly meeting new people while biking, but rather that it gives you a chance to run into people you already know when you’re out and about.

    Sure, when I lived in Amsterdam I was more often than not racing against time on my bike to get somewhere (especially since working fulltime there I noticed how the stores often close early making some everyday errands difficult), but I would sometimes come across people I knew, too. Even if you’re just doing the basic human social obligation of quickly saying hi and moving along as you pass, it does reinforce a sense of place and happens more often when you’re on bike or foot than when you’re driving everywhere. I think that’s all the writer meant.

  • I don’t have a ton of social interactions with strangers while I’m riding a bike, but it’s sure a hell of a lot more than I have while driving a car.

    Yes, I agree that Zach is mostly referring here to running into people you already know.

  • Gezellig

    And sometimes the social + practical even combine when you’re out and about and come across someone you know. I saw this kind of thing all the time across all ages in the Netherlands:

    http://www.leefbaar-delft.nl/aangifte_vuijk_stolker_dewit.jpg

    Officializing the idea a bit further, a “casual carpool”-like pickup spot for the bike-less to hitch a ride with a willing person on a bike:

    http://popupcity.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Hitchhiking-spot-for-cyclists-1.jpg
    (http://popupcity.net/a-hitchhiking-spot-for-cyclists/)

    And don’t forget the simple pleasure of double-file riding! Which has even started to happen a bit in the US when the infrastructure supports it, too:

    http://nacto.org/wp-content/gallery/2012_coloredbikefacilities/project_leftside_colored_nyc05.jpg

    Can’t do that here:
    http://pricetags.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/burnaby-narrow-bike-lane-august-14-2011-p1260089.jpg

    Or here:

    http://bikinginla.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/6-AASHTO-says-but-dont-2.jpg

  • Freyr Gunnar

    cmu > The question is why American towns (not just cities) developed the way they are.

    Because 1) America was the biggest oil producer for a century and 2) cities in the USA were mostly built at the turn of the century, not centuries ago like in a lot of European cities:

    http://econbrowser.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/US_oil_components_jul_14.png

    Past peak oil, no one knows how much money it’ll cost to move all those people from the suburbs back into the city.

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