Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Urban cycling: how to unlock untapped potential

Cycling is something many urbanists focus upon very much as a way to achieve more sustainable cities, for it has a lot of potential. Bicycles are a mode of transport between walking and cars, in terms of speed, cycling is 3-4 times faster than walking and only 30-50% slower than cars (on urban streets). It requires no fuel, using the strength of the rider to move. It can carry some cargo, like cars, but also necessitates parking spots, just much smaller ones. Finally, unlike transit, bikes are an individual mode of travel, able to do point-to-point travel.

Going just by their speed and travel times compared to cars, bikes ought to be able to take 25 to 50% of current car trips away from cars, at least for local trips (for instance, to the grocery). All that without increasing density or introducing mixed uses, just with cities and suburbs the way they are built now. A shopping mall built in the middle of a suburb with a standard density in residential neighborhoods of 3 000 people per square kilometer (7 500 people per square mile) could have up to 25 000 people living within 10-minute biking distance from it.

Considering all this, why is this great potential almost completely untapped in North America? I would go out on a limb and identify four main factors. Again, if people haven't read the headline, I don't claim to be an expert, I'm just basically thinking aloud here.

Lack of appropriate biking infrastructure

Sorry to the vehicular cycling fans, but vehicular cycling, as in making bikes share roads with cars, is just not for the masses. It may work individually, but not only are most people understandably not keen on it, but I don't think it could support a massive amount of cycling. Vehicular cycling work best when it's rare. Also, to be able to keep up with cars, it is important to be able to go at high speed, which doesn't work well with urban and utilitarian cycling.

Bikes can share the street with cars as long as traffic is low and vehicle speeds are slow, however, if vehicle speeds are high or traffic is heavy, in order to protect cyclists and to incite more people to bike, we need to protect cyclists from traffic so that people may feel safe biking at their own speed.

So all in all, it's important to build a strong biking network with bike lanes and bike paths. But just building them is not sufficient, we must build a smart network that works well for cycling as a valid transport choice, not just as a sport or as a recreational activity.

Here are some examples of bike paths that I think are inappropriate to support mass cycling.

The scenic route
One of Québec's Route Verte cycling ways, this one a 9-km biking path that goes from nowhere to nowhere in the middle of fields
The scenic route is not completely useless, it is just irrelevant to make cycling actually useful. Though offering nice views and a possible tourist attraction, it goes nowhere in particular. The journey, not the destination, is what matters. For transport, reaching the destination is what matters most.

The back route
Portland's bike boulevards are cycling streets where bikes are supposed to be king, however, they are located on almost exclusively residential streets with no destinations directly on the route, making them not that useful, meanwhile, many main arterial streets have no bike facilities

The back route is a cycling path or lane built on a back road or residential street, it sometimes parallels major arterial streets without ever meeting it. Often built as it is the path of least resistance, there is little traffic on the street and it is already a relatively safe place to bike. So building a bike lane there meets little opposition from motorists or residents. In fact, many times the route will have been proposed as an alternative to a more serious proposal of a bike path on a major arterial street, based on the argument that the bike path would have less "impact" there. Well, credit where credit is due, they're right, those paths have few impacts... either on traffic or on bike use. They can be useful for longer distance trips, but at the end of the trip, you have a "last mile" problem, just like transit: how will you travel the last mile if there is no bike facility near to your destination, which is located on a main arterial street with heavy traffic?

The grotesquely inappropriate biking facility
Riverside Drive in Ottawa, 3 lanes of traffic, speed limit of 60 km/h (37 mph)... painted bike lanes on the shoulders
This is a case where they at least had the decency to build a bike facility on a major arterial street, but they should almost not have bothered at all, with just a painted bike lane in a place where traffic and vehicle speed scream for a physically separated bike path, or at least a bike path on the level of the sidewalk, protected with a curb (not much protection but better than nothing). The speed and quantity of vehicles will scare most cyclists away from the lane.

Basic principles of proper bike paths

Here is my understanding of what makes for a proper cycling network. First, it is important to understand how trips are made. Trips have an origin and a destination, the origin is mostly residential, people live in their homes, then have to leave to do certain activities (work, shopping, etc...). Meanwhile, destinations are commerces, offices, factories, restaurants, etc... Most trips are thus residential to commercial or offices, with rarer trips being commercial to commercial or residential to residential. So to be really useful, you need to have bike paths that can take people to "destinations", with varied uses along the way. In most cities, these destinations tend to be grouped around main arterial streets that tend to have a lot of lanes and to favor through traffic.

So bike networks absolutely need to be built on these major commercial thoroughfares, because that is where most trips end up (ignore return trips). Avoiding these major arterials because it's considered too "hard" to find space for bike paths without affecting car traffic is the most common mistake made in building biking networks.

What type of bike facility to build is dependent on what kind of traffic you expect on the street. On narrow local streets with little traffic, no bike facility is actually required. People can easily bike safely at their own pace as they will cross few cars along the way, and the few they do cross will tend to be slow.

Bike lanes are useful on larger streets with little traffic, the bike lanes here serve to narrow the travel lanes and keep the speed of vehicles down. In other words, their main purpose is just traffic-calming, and not actually to protect cyclists. Lane markings tend to be very respected by car drivers, used as they are to follow them on highways and other roads with heavy traffic.

But when you have a lot of traffic, physically separated bike paths are almost required. Having bikes travel between lines of cars and parked cars is extremely stressful and not comfortable at all. Bike paths should ideally (just like sidewalks) have a physical barrier between the curb and themselves. This is not only about protecting people from cars but about creating the impression of an hallway with walls on either side rather than giving the impression to bikes and pedestrians that they are on a ledge on the side of a cliff. Oh, and a green "buffer" in the form of a strip of lawn is almost completely useless for this purpose.
Sidewalk in Sapporo with trees serving as barrier (remember that Japanese sidewalks also double as multi-purpose paths)
Poles, trees and railings to delineate the pedestrian/biking space and the car space, the railing isn't that great because it makes it harder for pedestrians to cross the street midblock, so if used, they should not be linked together like a fence, but isolated with gaps between each

So, if I may sum up:
  • The biking network MUST include biking facilities on major commercial arterial streets
  • It must be easy to understand and ideally be in a grid
  • Bike facilities on wide streets with heavy traffic must be protected bike paths with barriers between cars and bikes
  • Bike lanes must be built on wide streets with little traffic mainly as traffic-calming
  • There is no point in building bike facilities on residential streets with little traffic
From what I can see of the Netherlands, that's the basis of their network, with segregated bike paths on arterials...
Amsterdam arterial road, with segregated bike paths
A commercial street in a smaller Dutch city, again bike paths located on the outer side of parked cars and trees
But merely bike lanes on collector streets with low traffic...
...and no particular marking on traffic-calmed local residential streets

Unsafe/insufficient bike parking

As I pointed out in the beginning, bikes do share a downside with cars, namely the need for parking. They're nowhere near as bad as cars, you can fit maybe 8-10 bikes in one parking stall for a car, but bikes still require parking at destination.
Bike parking garage near Chigasaki station
In the previous parking garage, I estimate the capacity at around 1 000 bikes, yet the station it serves has nearly 56 000 passengers each day, if we assume everyone does 2 trips (1 to the train and 1 trip back), that's nearly 28 000 individuals, so if everyone of them came on bikes, they would need 28 such 4-story bike garages to leave all bikes at the station.

Still, you need to have enough space for bikes, it's not like the space for them is lacking with all the parking lots we have, but we need to provide for more space for them and indicate to people they can  use it.

One of the big problems we have in order to get people to use bikes is the insecurity issue. Every day, bikes are stolen, for thieves, it's a low-risk, low-reward job as quite frankly, cops mostly don't give a damn about it and even if they're caught, the sentences are likely to be light as bikes are not very expensive goods. However, it's still enraging to come back to see a broken lock on the ground and your bike gone, and this discourages the use of bikes for many, especially in urban areas that otherwise would be perfect for biking.

If biking is to become really popular, I think some steps need to be taken to reduce bike thefts, whether it is through offering more secure bike racks or bike garages/parking lots...
Self-locking bike racks in Gotanda, Tokyo
...or by implementing a mandatory bike registration program and cracking down on the sale of secondhand bikes without registration.

Again, in Japan, every bike is registered at the point of sale and every bike comes with a wheel lock that, if it doesn't prevent people from picking up and carrying locked bikes, can identify stolen bikes by the absence of wheel lock or the presence of a broken one.
Wheel lock on Japanese bike
This system allows for particularly easy parking, as the Japanese often do away with bike racks and just park their bikes, locked to themselves on sidewalks or parking lots set aside for them (or places where they're not supposed to leave them).

Small bike parking lot, note that none of them are locked to racks with U-locks or chains

Lack of affordable city bikes

The North American bike market sucks. There, I said it. There is a distinct lack of the kind of city bike that is all the rage in the Netherlands, Denmark, China and Japan (amongst other places). Affordable bikes tend to be mountain bikes with plenty of speeds but devoid of almost any equipment necessary for utilitarian bikes, requiring much time and money to equip a bike for utilitarian use.

What does a city bike require?
Typical Japanese city bike (Dutch and Danish city bikes are similar)
  • Mudguards, to be able to bike in the rain while limiting stains
  • Chainguard, to protect the chain from the weather and to be able to use the bike in whatever clothing you want without the risk of chain grease on legs
  • Comfortable seating position, not hunched over forward (an uncomfortable position nonetheless useful for high speeds)
  • Basket in front to be able to carry small bags and the like
  • Baggage rack at the rear, when the basket doesn't suffice
  • Bike stand
  • Step-through frames
  • Wheel lock
Here is what city bikes do not require:
  • Transmissions with plenty of speeds, 1 to 3 is quite sufficient as bikes shouldn't be used to go very quickly and simpler transmissions are tougher and need less maintenance
  • Sophisticated alloy frames
  • A high price tag (so that if it gets damaged or stolen, it is no big loss and is easily replaced)
BIXIs (same model as CitiBikes) are city bikes in terms of design
The bike choices we have in North America tend to show our popular conception of bikes as mainly sporting recreational tools, not as utilitarian vehicles. Even cheap bikes frequently have 21-speeds, but often lack any equipment, even bike stands are frequently left out.

Some of it may be tied to the lack of biking infrastructure. City bikes are very utilitarian but have poor dynamic characteristics, meaning, they're not fast, aren't comfortable for high speed maneuvers and often have lousy brakes. This makes them very poor for vehicular cycling and to be used alongside cars on fast roads.


The last element is simply people's mentality for bikes. We need to accept bikes as utilitarian vehicles rather than as recreational sports exclusively. People need to start considering taking bikes for trips which they instinctively make by car today, which will be longer to change. But we cannot wait for mentalities to change before setting up the infrastructure that will draw people to bike in North American cities. There is no greater marketing campaign for bikes as a mode of transport than for people stuck in traffic to see people of all walks of life travel pleasantly along on protected bike lanes right besides them.


  1. Great post. Even though I'm generally a vehicular cyclist myself (there's not much of an alternative after all) who rides a carbon fiber racing bike, it just doesn't work for most folks. I want to see more people on bikes, and saying "just ride with traffic" is a non-starter, otherwise they'd be doing it already.

    There is something about the city bike that I think needs addressing though. There's been some discussion and consternation about Cincinnati's proposed bike share system, because those bikes tend to be of the "city bike" type, though a bit heavier and goofier looking. The trouble with heavy bikes that have few gears and lousy brakes is that they only work well in cities that are nearly dead flat. Cincinnati is not one of those cities, even in the flatter areas around downtown. Having a lighter bike with some more gears is critical for comfort and safety in that situation. It also helps for the few times a bike needs to be carried, like if you live in an apartment that has a basement bike room or if you work in a non-accessible building. It's actually not that hard to make a pretty light bike, it's just that it's a little easier and cheaper to make a heavy one, and they can get monstrously heavy for no good reason.

    1. Thanks.

      Indeed, slopes are a problem for casual cyclists, especially on single-speed bikes. However, for having tried the BIXI (I live in Montréal, but in a place without BIXI stations so I'm not a frequent user), the first speed is really, really low and good to climb slopes. On the BIXI, when I use it, I tend to stay in 3rd speed all the time (the highest), and lower to 2nd or 1st only on slopes, which I guess is what it was designed for. I just push myself with my foot on the ground when starting from a stop and it gives me enough momentum to start pedaling in 3rd already.

      As to weight, true, most cheap bikes are made in heavy steel, my current cheap bike (a 29-inch mountain bike) weighs something like 44 pounds. When I don't have a bike rack at hand, I just lock the wheel to the frame and leave it locked to itself, on the basis that "if a thief wants to pick it up and run away with it, I will not begrudge him, for he will have earned it".

      That being said, I found the bike I rented in Japan to be pretty light, or at least it sure felt light. I don't know if they used aluminum for the frame or simply thinner steel, but it felt light.

  2. I find that bike boulevards can make side streets much more useful as bike routes. The main reason I tend to avoid side streets is that they tend to have lots of stop signs and other general impediments. A well-designed bike boulevard will have minimal impediments for bikes while discouraging car traffic as much as possible. As an example, the one in Palo Alto does a pretty good job of this and provides a good route through the city. I would probably prefer such a bike route to riding on a parallel arterial, even if it had American-style bike lanes, because then I wouldn't have to deal with double-parked cars, or cars pulling out of driveways, or cars making random U-turns, or pedestrians wandering into the bike lane. But, if there's no bike priority on the boulevard, then the speed advantage of the arterial wins.

    1. Yes, the bike routes on side streets or bike boulevards can be useful for long-distance trips as they tend to reduce things that slow down bikes. But as they tend not to connect to destinations directly, without appropriate bike lanes on arterials, they have a "last mile" problem. On a 4-mile trip, you can maybe do 3 miles of it on a bike boulevard and it's fine, fast and pleasant... then you have to dare streets with high traffic and no bike facility to get to where you want to go, which is their main problem. I may not have been as clear as I wanted to be.

      I do agree that the typical American bike lane on arterial streets with high traffic, stuck between moving cars and parked cars, is really what I would generally consider an inappropriate bike facility. Some can work decently well if they are large enough and if they have buffers in paint that car drivers respect, but just painting a bike symbol on a narrow shoulder or in a tiny corridor between travel lane and parked vehicle is what I consider "grotesquely inappropriate".