E-bikes, Trains, Bicycle Highways, Bike Share – Synergies of four innovations for the future of cycling mobility

“Een fiets is iets maar bijna niets” (a bicycle is something but almost nothing) said Dutch artist Robert Jasper Grootveld. What does this mean for our streets? Our cities? Our transportation system? 

Better yet, how do we design for something that is almost nothing? What is the best way to leverage this tool that can be had for about the same price as a smartphone? If we design cities right, then what is the future potential of this remarkable and evolving tool – the bicycle? 

E-bike

Bike-train

Bicycle highways

Bike share


Four Trends

  1. Technology. E-bikes. 45 km/h. 30 kg. 50 km range. 2000 Euros. These are the numbers representing the current state of technological possibility, all within the form factor of a standard bicycle. Think of how these numbers can change just ten years into the future. Faster? Lighter? Further? Cheaper? Still room for ten bikes to a parking space. Same amount of physical space, packed with more potential. 
     
  2. Multi-modality. Bike-train. How far is the nearest rapid transit station to your house? I’m not talking about local transit that stops every 200 meters, crawling along at 15 km/h. I mean transit that will actually be faster than riding your (e-)bike and is competitive with driving. We all want rapid transit at our front door, but there is a fundamental tension between speed and stop spacing. For fast transit service that stops every 10 km, you need a way to get there that is faster than walking. Unless you want to transform your train station into a giant parking lot, there are a few options. Cycling could be the answer. 
     
  3. Infrastructure. Bicycle highways. In dense urban settings, steady and easy cycling at 15 km/h will outpace almost any car journey that contends with traffic lights, traffic, and parking garages. With a combination of e-bikes and bicycle highways, cycling becomes attractive for even longer trips, for all ages and abilities. But let’s be careful to design bicycle highways with care, with attention to creating a beautiful, pleasant, and attractive surroundings. Perhaps the Dutch “snelfietsroutes” (fast bicycle routes) is a better name? 
     
  4. Sharing. Bike share. You arrive somewhere and you did not bring your bike with you. Your destination is too far to walk, and you haven’t quite figured out the public transport network yet. Better yet, you just want the freedom to explore the city without hassle. Bike share is more than a transport option. It is a new way of experiencing the city as a visitor. 

Synergies

Let’s say you are a long distance commuter who works in a city that is 40 km away from your house. You have always owned two cars in the household so both you and your partner drive to work. You want to keep the house but get rid of your car. Is there an alternative? 

Perhaps. Your city has just invested in a new bicycle highway that will link your suburban neighbourhood to the central train station that is 6 km away. For you, that is a bit far on a normal bicycle but the distance can now be covered in 15 minutes on a fast e-bike. There is frequent intercity train service to the city where you work. You like the 15 minute walk from your destination train station to your workplace, but sometimes you run late for a meeting because of a delayed train. In that case, it is good to know that you can grab a bike share and get to work in 5 minutes, so you are just on time to start your day. 

The real beauty in something that is almost nothing is its incredible flexibility. If we choose to design our cities to be flexible, then it will at the same time be resilient through change. I don’t plan my life around cycling. Cycling makes my life possible. I hope the future of cycling innovations unlocks the potential of life for more people in cities around the world. 

A Hierarchy of Needs for Cycling? [Part 2 of 2]

In “A Hierarchy of Needs for Cycling? [Part 1 of 2]”, I introduced you to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and how this idea has been adapted for walking and cycling. In this post, I would like to share with you my own adaptation of a cycling hierarchy of needs. 

By placing the needs of cycling in a hierarchy, it is possible to understand cycling at each of these levels using expertise from a wide variety of disciplines and professions. I believe that understanding cycling must be an interdisciplinary endeavour. For example, it is perfectly reasonable to expect a traffic engineer to have some answers to the safety level in this pyramid, but how do you solve problems related to directness and distance? Or, moving up, how do we talk about less tangible ideas such as comfort or pleasurability? How do we understand both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of cycling? Are some aspects of cycling more fundamental than others? 

I think a pyramid is the best way to illustrate these ideas:


Cycling Pyramid of Needs by George Liu

Having a cycling mode share of 10% doesn’t just mean ten times more cyclists than a cycling mode share of 1%. It entails a qualitatively different way of experiencing cycling. This make sense. If you build a city around cars, you don’t get London or Amsterdam with more cars. You get Phoenix, or Dallas, or any of the other post-car cities in North America. 

The author John Brodie Donald put this succinctly: more of the same is different. In other words, quantity has its own quality. Take helmet use, for example. The safest policies may not always be the best solution. Sometimes, the levels of the pyramid conflict with each other. Is a truly delightful or even comfortable cycling experience compatible with everyone on a bike wearing a helmet? Perhaps not. 

Think about what it would take to get 50% of all trips by bike in your city. Imagine the quality of the infrastructure and urban design required to compete with driving around in your own air conditioned box with leather seats. Imagine how the design of your cities have to qualitatively change to enable not just your children to ride to school, but also for your grandparents to bike to the grocery store. 

Below, I’m showing graph that illustrates how I think cycling gets better, one step at a time. Coming from a typical North American suburb to a compact Dutch city, this graph mirrors how my thinking about cycling gradually changed.  .

  1. Distance. I realized that everything is close by. Everything in life is feasible by bike or some combination of bike and public transport. 
  2. Directness. It became clear that everything is actually more direct by bike. My home to the city centre, for example, has one direct route for bicycles and pedestrians. Cars have to go around. 
  3. Safety. It is absolutely safe to go anywhere by bike. This includes social as well as traffic safety. Over time, the trust in the safety level of the city is gained by experience. 
  4. Comfort. Most bike routes are reasonably comfortable. You learn which routes have the least amount of traffic lights, where to find the smoothest asphalt, and which streets has the lowest traffic noise, (hills are not much of a concern here, but other cities this may be a concern)
  5. Pleasurability. Finally, you think about which routes are most pleasurable. This is highly linked with comfort, but I think this is where urban design has the most influence. There are some routes that wind through a park, others that have the smell of fresh coffee, and on others you can catch the laughter of children on their way home from school. 

It is at this final level that I have the pleasure and opportunity of doing cycling research. I know how important the base of the pyramid is. I absolutely agree that traffic safety and mixed land use are key to supporting not just cycling but also livable cities. Since moving to the Netherlands, I have the opportunity to ask, what is next? How do we design a cycling experience so pleasurable that people will voluntarily to leave their car at home in favour of cycling to work?

Book Review: Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Everybody hates traffic. Well, not exactly everybody. 

Tom Vanderbilt, for one, is completely fascinated by traffic. When his book came out in 2008, I remember sitting in an aisle at the book store reading it cover to cover. At the time, I was fresh out of high school starting my career as an economist (or so I thought!). Little did I know, looking back 10 years later, that this would be the book would that started my obsession with traffic, cities, and the world of movement.

The witty style and sheer quirkiness of this book really inspired this blog by really engaging my interest in the world of transportation. I have yet to come across another book that so seamlessly engages all the lenses through which one can understand something as mundane and universally hated as traffic. Vanderbilt breathes life into gridlock, and reveals the intricacies of human behavior by considering traffic as patterns of social interaction. Through this blog, I hope to share my fascination and obsession too! 

“Traffic has become a way of life… In America, a pedestrian is someone who has just parked their car”

– Tom Vanderbilt

Image credit: freehandz / 123RF Stock Photo CC

I learned from Vanderbilt that to think critically about society involves examining the small things that nudge our behaviour everyday. For example, do extra cupholders silently encourage more drive-thru trips? We see the direct influence of gasoline price on driver behaviour, yet what about less tangible things like the design of parking lots or the timing of intersection lights? Can small but incremental changes in the “hidden” aspects of urban design accumulate to influence our transportation choices in significant ways?

My obsession is cycling, but the inquisitive perspective is similar. What makes cycling wonderful in the Netherlands? Sure, the obvious comes to mind. Thousands of kilometers of bike paths. The flat landscape. Dense cities. What takes a bit longer to notice are the little things; the intricate details that make it all work. What about the immaculate quality of the red asphalt? The bike dance of near-misses that confounds hordes tourists in front of Amsterdam Central Station? Wait, why are there no traffic lights?!?

Since I first read up this book, I’ve been in and out of several obscure academic disciplines: behavioural economics, urban planning, sustainable transport, and even traffic psychology. For the moment, my obsession is about cycling and great urban design, but who knows where this will take me? The world is an endlessly fascinating place. 

Ten years later, his book is as relevant as ever. What are you still doing reading my blog?!? His book is endlessly more interesting. Go check it out! “Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)” by Tom Vanderbilt

Mode-oriented Street Design

Originally published: November 2016 edition of the Ontario Planning Journal. In interview with Dick van Veen, senior consultant at Mobycon, a Dutch-Canadian transportation consulting firm headquartered in Delft, NL with a Canadian office in Ottawa.

Streets do not need to be designed for cars in order to accommodate cars.

Mode-oriented street design is the focus of a new report (English/Dutch) released by the Royal Dutch Touring Club ANWB, an association for automobile and bicycle users that serves as an important stakeholder in Dutch transport system. Mobycon is a Dutch-Canadian transportation consulting firm that was retained by ANWB to author this report.

“This report replaces the old view with a new perspective, in which cars are not automatically the dominant user group.”, said Mobycon senior consultant Dick van Veen in an interview. “The main reason why this study is interesting in in the Canadian context is because engineers have become complacent to the idea that infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians must be on the ‘edges’ of the roadway. Even in places where they are the dominant mode and outnumber cars, still they are still visually on the brink.”

In Ontario traffic engineering, cars are assumed to be the main users of road space. Everywhere, this is the implicit statement made by our design of streets, even where speed limits are low. Street design of incorrect scale have the effect of dwarfing pedestrians and cyclists while subconsciously promoting automobiles as the dominant design vehicle.


Sign Clutter!

“If people need a speed limit sign to guide their behaviour, then this is a failure in design”
-Dick van Veen

Image credit: Hamilton-Baillie, B. (2008). Towards shared space. URBAN DESIGN International, 13(2), 130–138. https://doi.org/10.1057/udi.2008.13

“If people need a speed limit sign to guide their behaviour, then this is a failure in design,” said van Veen. The report gives examples of traffic environments that are immediately recognizable to the users of public space. Drivers are more likely to behave appropriately if urban design elements along a roadway clearly signify the speed and type of traffic that is expected within an environment. Just as expressway signs and light masts would be monstrously proportioned if used in city traffic, the signs and design elements in low-speed environments should be tailored to the human scale. 

“The general focus in the Netherlands is to mix traffic, and stay away from separation. Only when speeds are higher than 30 km/h is it mandatory to separate bicycle traffic from automobile traffic,” said van Veen. For example, a 50 km/h street is not considered safe for the mixing of modes, so a 50 km/h street must have a separated bicycle and pedestrian pathways. This way, the safety of vulnerable road users is always prioritized.

Planners must carefully consider the trade-off between the quality of public space versus provisions for the automobile. “There are always two worlds in a street environment. The world of flow, and the world of place. Speed limits alone is not enough. If you don’t redesign the environment, then you don’t change spatial quality and you don’t change people’s behaviour.” Hence, van Veen argues that quality public spaces that are inviting to people who walk and bike should also contain measures to calm automobile traffic by giving drivers an intuitive awareness that they are guests within that environment.


Image Credit: Hamilton-Baillie, B. (2004). Urban design: Why don’t we do it in the road? Modifying traffic behavior through legible urban design. Journal of Urban Technology, 11(1), 43–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/1063073042000341970

A common concern for retailers is the need for goods delivery to their business. A potential solution is to allow larger vehicles as guests in spaces designed for lighter modes of transport, so each traffic environment is not exclusionary to heavier modes of transport. For example, a garbage truck may need to access a street designed for people walking as its primary user, the garbage truck must be driven at walking speed in a manner that respects the safety and comfort of the other users of public space.

Traffic safety is improved by grouping modalities of similar mass into “traffic families”. Mass is a constant, while speed is a design variable. Hence, consideration of both the speed and mass of vehicles in relation to their environment forms the basis of categorization. The figure below illustrates the optional and mandatory physical separation of traffic families in a 30 km/h zone. In this environment, light motor vehicles, such as scooters and mopeds, are the design vehicle. Cars are only allowed as guests.

Separation of traffic families in a 30 km/h environment.
Image Credit: Immers, B., Egeter, B., Diepens, J., Weststrate, P., and Paul. (2016). Verkeer in de stad. Retrieved from https://www.anwb.nl/belangenbehartiging/verkeer/verkeer-in-de-stad

But vehicle categorization is not always clear. For example, motorcycles are capable of tremendous speeds but have low mass and offer no protection for the rider. Cars are at least ten times the mass of motorcycles so even small differences in speed results in disastrous consequences for the motorcycle rider. Should motorcycles share the road fast cars or slow down to match the speed of similarly sized scooters? Should racing cyclists, with high travel speeds share the cycle path with normal cyclists? And what is the place on the road for often forgotten modes like skateboards, e-bikes, or segways?

Often, the structural classification of a street may conflict with the design of the environment. For example, a structural conflict may be the desire to move large amounts of automobile traffic through a pedestrian-oriented main street. This is the case with many rural cities that started as a few storefronts on a highway. As the growth of a city invites more people to walk in its urban centre, the street should change its form, transforming towards a place where pedestrians and cyclists are more dominant.

For cars on a main street, this would mean a downgrade in comfort and an increase in travel time, which has to be accepted in a pedestrian oriented environment. If car flow is still important, a detour route should be considered for through traffic. van Veen argues that, “this rebalance is more than just a traffic engineering question; by enabling pedestrians and cyclists to come back into the street, opportunities for placemaking and good public space become apparent, raising the overall economic vitality and liveability of the street.”

In the case of the dilemma above, the report presents a few possible outcomes:

  • Re-routing the main traffic route (black line) around the urban area (dark brown);
  • Keep the main traffic route through the residential area and accept that the preferred spatial quality and traffic safety will not be realised; or
  • Keep the main traffic route through the residential area, but at a greatly reduced speed, and accepting a lower automobile throughput.

Future transportation options evolves over time in step with technology. In Ontario, bicycles are starting to gain space in our cities, but e-bikes remain a contentious topic. This ANWB report recognizes that emergent technology has the potential to improve transport options within the city. History may prove cars in the city to be a temporary phenomenon, and new modes are constantly emerging. An advantage of mode-oriented street design is the flexible classification of vehicles to include transportation options such as e-bikes, scooters, and even microcars. Mobility options of the future may not fit easily into pedestrian, cycling, and automobile distinctions, so we should design environments that guide the appropriate behaviour that is expected of all road users, regardless of the type of vehicle they are using.

Thinking about Bikeability: From Safety to Delight

Living in the Netherlands has changed the way I think about cycling. While “safety” is the word that dominates the cycling conversation in most places in the world with dangerous conditions for cycling, we need to think about what to do next after we achieve the basic conditions for cycling safety. 

This is the standard for main bike routes in the Netherlands: 4 meter wide red asphalt with bicycle priority at intersections. Some other things you can take for granted on all bike infrastructure here: well lighted, safe, smooth, connected, clean, signed and salted in the winter.

That is just the infrastructure. 

What you will notice is much more. After a while, you take the infrastructure for granted. You will notice the social and urban environment that this infrastructure enables.  You will notice swarms of school children on bikes talking to each other on their way to school. You will notice moms and dads cycling with their children smiling on the back of their bikes. 

Then you notice that you hear voices talking to each other and the clattering of bike chains. You notice that you are able to hear these noises. Where is the traffic, you ask?

This IS the noise of traffic.

You expect to be able to talk about your co-workers on your co-workers to finalize your agenda while cycling to your next meeting. On your way to your meeting, you expect safe and secure bike parking at the train station. You expect to have a fleet of rental bikes waiting for you in your destination city. You expect that wherever you choose to get off the train, there will be more quality bike infrastructure waiting for you to take you where you need to go. 

Quality and delight, not safety, is what I think about now as I ride to work. 

There is no looming pickup truck waiting to crush you and all your human vulnerability from behind. I hear the giggles and voices of children at the stoplight ahead of me. If I hit my brakes slightly, I should be able to just squeeze by them on the next green. 

A Hierarchy of Needs for Cycling? [Part 1 of 2]

So you want to make your city a great place for cycling. Where do you start? 

Which conversations do you want to have? Fun? Safety? Inclusivity? Delight? I think it depends on how far along your city is. There will always be visions of cycling utopia for your city, and I want to better understand how to get there. 

Let’s start with Maslow’s idea of human needs and see where this gets us. 


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Image credit: FireflySixtySeven CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to human needs, we have an intuitive understanding of which needs are more basic than others, and it is based on this understanding that we prioritize our personal resources. For example, if all you earned was ten dollars a day, you will probably choose to spend that money on food, clothing, and basic shelter. You would want to find somewhere safe to sleep. Only with significantly more affluence would you indulge in the arts, spend time with your friends, and even purchase a very nice car to demonstrate your prestige to your friends. Abraham Maslow proposed this pyramid in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. 

In 2005, Alfonzo’s paper “To Walk or Not to Walk? The Hierarchy of Walking Needs” adapted Maslow’s hierarchy to describe environments which support walking. Alfonzo uses a similar five layer pyramid to illustrate how we may consider the feasibility of walking. 


Image credit: Alfonzo, M. A. (2005). To Walk or Not to Walk? The Hierarchy of Walking Needs. Environment and Behavior, 37(6), 808–836. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916504274016

In 2012,  a master’s thesis by Noor Scheltema further adapted this pyramid for cycling, with the division between “satisfiers” and “dissatisfiers”. Again, this pyramid presented with the idea that the top conditions can only be met when fundamental condition (safety) and precondition (directness) have already been established. 


Scheltema, Noor. ‘Recycle City: Strengthening the Bikeability from Home to the Dutch Railway Station’. Delft University of Technology. www.recyclecity.nl.

In my previous article “Thinking about Bikeability: From Safety to Delight”, I wrote about how my experience of cycling in the Netherlands fundamentally changed the way I think about cycling as an activity. What changed? Why do my old ways of thinking no longer seem relevant?

Could it have something to do with this pyramid?

Perhaps I think more about the comfort and attractiveness of cycling because I live in cycling luxury. This luxury is afforded to me by a compact urban environment, free from the dangers of menacing traffic.  Because of this luxury, my research and my daily conversations with other people now focus on the top of the pyramid: “how do we make cycling delightful?” rather than “how can I stay safe and live to bike another day?” 

In part 2, I will share with you my own adaptation of the cycling hierarchy of needs.