Danish Architect Jan Gehl on Good Cities for Bicycling
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in our series this week featuring Danish architect and livable streets luminary Jan Gehl. The pieces are excerpts from his book, “Cities for People” published by Island Press. Donate to Streetsblog SF and you’ll qualify to win a copy of the book, courtesy of Island Press.
Bicyclists represent a different and somewhat rapid form of foot traffic, but in terms of sensory experiences, life and movement, they are part of the rest of city life. Naturally, bicyclists are welcome in support of the goal to promote lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities. The following is about planning good cities for bicyclists, and is handled relatively narrowly and in direct relation to a discussion on the human dimension in city planning.
Around the world there are numerous cities where bicycles and bicycle traffic would be unrealistic. It is too cold and icy for bicycles in some areas, too hot in others. In some places the topography is too mountainous and steep for bicycles. Bicycle traffic is simply not a realistic option in those situations. Then there are surprises like San Francisco, where you might think bicycling would be impractical due to all the hills. However, the city has a strong and dedicated bicycle culture. Bicycling is also popular in many of the coldest and warmest cities, because, all things considered, even they have a great number of good bicycling days throughout the year.
The fact remains that a considerable number of cities worldwide have a structure, terrain and climate well suited for bicycle traffic. Over the years, many of these cities have thrown their lot in with traffic policies that prioritized car traffic and made bicycle traffic dangerous or completely impossible. In some places extensive car traffic has kept bicycle traffic from even getting started.
In many cities, bicycle traffic continues to be not much more than political sweet talk, and bicycle infrastructure typically consists of unconnected stretches of paths here and there rather than the object of a genuine, wholehearted and useful approach. The invitation to bicycle is far from convincing. Typically in these cities only one or two percent of daily trips to the city are by bicycle, and bicycle traffic is dominated by young, athletic men on racing bikes. There is a yawning gap from that situation to a dedicated bicycle city like Copenhagen, where 37 percent of traffic to and from work or school is by bicycle. Here bicycle traffic is more sedate, bicycles are more comfortable, the majority of cyclists are women, and bicycle traffic includes all age groups from school children to senior citizens.
At a time when fossil fuel, pollution and problems with climate and health are increasingly becoming a global challenge, giving higher priority to bicycle traffic would seem like an obvious step to take. We need good cities to bike in and there are a great many cities where it would be simple and cheap to upgrade bicycle traffic.
A Whole Hearted Bicycle Policy
The cities that have successfully promoted bicycle traffic in recent decades can be tapped for good ideas and requirements for becoming a good bicycle city. Copenhagen is a compelling example of a city whose longstanding bicycle tradition came under threat from car traffic in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the oil crises in the 1970s were the catalyst for a targeted approach to inviting people to ride their bicycles more. And the message was received: today bicycles make up a considerable part of city traffic, and have helped keep vehicular traffic at an unusually low level compared to other large cities in Western Europe. The experiences from Copenhagen are used in the following to provide a platform for discussion about the good bicycle city.
In Copenhagen, a cohesive network for bicycles comprising all parts of the city has gradually been established. Traffic is so quiet on small side streets and residential streets in 15 and 30 km per hour/9 and 19 mph zones that a special cycle network is not necessary, but all major streets have one. On most streets, the network consists of bicycle paths along the sidewalks, typically using the curbstones as dividers toward the sidewalk, as well as parking and driving lanes. In some places bike lanes are not delimited by curbstones, but rather marked with painted stripes inside a row of parked cars, so that the cars protect the bicycles from motorized traffic. In fact, this system is known as “Copenhagen-style bicycle lanes.”
Another link in the city’s bicycle system is green bicycle routes, which are dedicated bike routes through city parks and along discontinued railway tracks. These paths are intended for bicycles in transit and are viewed as a supplementary opportunity, a sightseeing possibility and a green option for bicycles. However, the main principle of bicycle policy is for bicycles to have room on ordinary streets, where just like the others in traffic, their owners have errands in shops, residences and offices. The principle is for bicycle traffic to be safe from door to door throughout the city.
Room for this comprehensive bicycle network has been largely gained by downsizing car traffic. Parking space and driving lanes have been gradually reduced, as traffic patterns have moved from car to bicycle traffic, and therefore bicycles needed more room. Most of the city’s major four-lane streets have been converted to two-lane streets with two bicycle paths, two sidewalks and a broad median strip intended to make it safer for pedestrians to cross the street. Roadside trees have been planted and traffic is two-way as before.
Bicycle paths are placed along sidewalks in the same direction as ve- hicular traffic, and are always on the right and thus “slow” side of vehicular traffic. That way all traffic groups know — more or less — where they have the bicycles, which is the safest system for all parties.
Bicycles as Part of Integrated Transport Thinking
The invitation to bike must mean that bicycle traffic is integrated into the overall transport strategy. It has to be possible to bring bikes on trains and the metro lines, and preferably in city buses so that it is possible to travel by combining bike trips with public transport. Taxis too must be able to transport bicycles when needed.
Another important link in an integrated transport policy is the possibility to park bicycles securely at stations and traffic hubs. Good bicycle parking options are also needed along streets in general, at schools, offices and dwellings. New offices and industrial buildings should include bicycle parking, changing rooms and showers for bicyclists as a natural part of their planning.
Traffic safety is a crucial element in overall bicycle strategies. A cohesive bicycle network protected by curbstones and parked cars is an important first step. Another key concern is the experienced and real safety of the city’s intersections. Copenhagen is working on several strategies. Large intersections have special bicycle lanes of blue asphalt and bicycle icons to remind drivers to watch out for bicycles. Intersections also have special light signals for bicycles, which typically give a green light to bicycle traffic six seconds before cars are allowed to move. Trucks and buses are required to have special bicycle mirrors and frequent media campaigns admonish drivers to watch out for bicycles, particularly at intersections.
Good bicycle cities know that good visibility at intersections is vital. In Denmark vehicles are not allowed to park closer than 10 meters/33 feet from an intersection for this very reason. The widespread American practice of allowing cars to “turn right on red” at intersections is unthinkable in cities that want to invite people to walk and bicycle.
The volume of bicycle traffic is one of the most significant safety factors for making bicycle systems safe. The more bicycles there are, the more it forces drivers to watch out for bicyclists and be constantly on guard. There is a considerable positive effect when bicycle traffic reaches a reasonable “critical mass.”
A Comfortable Network
It is also relevant to mention comfort and amenity value in terms of bicycle networks. Bicycle trips can be pleasant, interesting and free of unnecessary irritations, or they can be boring and difficult. Many of the criteria for good places to walk can be transferred to bicycle routes. It is important for bicycles to have enough room so that they won’t be pushed or crowded. Bicycle paths in Copenhagen vary in width from 1.7 to 4 meters/5.5 to 13 feet, with 2.5 meters/8.2 feet as the recommended minimum.
As bicycle traffic is gradually developed into a versatile, popular transport system, many new and wider bicycles appear on the street scene. These include three-wheeled transport bicycles for children and goods, handicap bicycles and bicycle taxis. All of these transport options require room, and senior bikers as well as the many parents who transport their children by bicycle need increased reassurance that they won’t be pushed and crowded. As bicycle traffic successfully develops as an alternative transport system, more room is needed. Despite the new demands for more room, the bicycle continues to be the superior means of wheeled transport, which requires the smallest amount of room per person in the streets of the city.
A study conducted in Copenhagen in 2005 concluded that one of the city’s most pressing problems was heavy congestion on bicycle paths. The city council has since adopted an expansion of the width of bicycle paths in the most popular streets and is currently carrying out this policy.