Biking in most European cities involves many things that can make you fly off the handle(bars): fuming lorries, peevish drivers, traffic jams, roadways intersecting cycle paths in an unfortunate way, tricky rails, cobblestones, rough kerbs, infinite rows of traffic lights, lack of space to park your bike, poor infrastructure… It makes you wonder: “Does it have to be like this?”
It doesn’t, of course. The world is developing, and so are the cities. Just take a look at them a few hundred years ago. In the middle ages, settlements were built to surround market places, the houses were small and crammed together. Any waste was poured into the streets, which were rarely paved. A brief rain shower was enough to turn the streets into muddy sewers with a mixture of sludge and faeces. In short, cities were not nice places to live in. It took us a while to figure out what a city should look like, but the result is cities as we know them today. Or as we knew them yesterday. That’s because the way of living and transportation is changing by the minute. In a modern city that conveniently combines various modes of transport, what should you do if you don’t want to be afraid to go out into the streets?
Back in the 1970s, Danish urbanist Jan Gehl asked himself the same question: What can we do to make cities more liveable? An architect and professor of urban planning at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, he started promoting the idea that if more people begin to use bike as a means of transport, things will start changing for the better, as the sense of peace and security will draw more city dwellers out into the streets. Compared to cars, cyclists and pedestrians move slowly (at least this used to be true before e-bikes hit the scene), which leads to face-to face encounters of people living in the city. Gehl encapsulated his theory in the slogan “People first”. It says that urban planning in modern cities should derive from the needs of people. The fewer cars and heavy vehicles, the better for the inhabitants. Gehl’s influence is still present today as the Danish capital is rightly considered a pioneer in cycling urban planning and one of the most cycling-friendly cities in the world.
Of course, the Danish did not achieve this by waving a magic wand. It took several decades and even some strikes in the ‘70s to get more space for bikes and less for cars. But the Danish succeeded, and because they feel safe in the streets of their capital, more than a half of the city dwellers use bike as their means of transport. But as Jan Gehl points out, the desire to cycle in the city does not come of its own accord – it has to be encouraged by suitable conditions.
Apart from limiting traffic and separating cycle paths from roadways, urbanist Jan Gehl also promotes cycling-friendly surfaces. Cobblestones in old European cities create obstacles that pose a problem for cyclists, wheelchair users, mothers with prams, and pedestrians walking on crutches. The city of Copenhagen has solved this seemingly difficult problem with elegance – by putting strips of granite panels into cobblestone pavements.
Copenhagenize hits the scene
Denmark also owes its urbanistic progress to Copenhagenize, an organisation founded in 2009 by Danish-Canadian urbanist Mikael Colville-Andersen. His movement has become the most-known advocate of urban cycling in the world. Copenhagenize strives to make the way from A to B shorter for the cyclist than for the motorist, which would result in the bike always being the more advantageous mode of transport. According to Mikael Colville-Andersen, people don’t cycle in Copenhagen because it’s environmentally friendly or because they try to save the planet, but simply because cycling is the most affordable and fastest mode of transport in the city. Colville-Andersen has also successfully exported his know-how on cycling-friendly urban planning abroad. It is thanks to Copenhagenize that people cycle to work in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Paris, and Montreal.
Where to put them?
Promoting bikes as the favoured means of transport is not just about ensuring smooth rides in the city, but also about creating places where you can comfortably store your machine once you’ve reached your destination. Copenhagenize mention the Belgian city of Ghent where local authorities cancelled hundreds of parking spots, replacing them with bicycle stands. Cyclists can use special garages to park their bikes safely and for free. But the concept is much more wide-ranging. The city was divided into four sections; if car drivers want to go from one section to another, they have to use the inner ring road. The inner streets connection of the sections is only accessible to pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport vehicles. As a result of this measure, 25% of Ghent inhabitants bought a bike or started using the public transport or shared cars. Car traffic decreased by 29% on arterial roads and 58% in residential areas.
The future of cars
Does it mean that people want travelling to become completely car-free? Not in the least. However, there is a tendency to use mixed-mode commuting more and more often. People drive by car to cover greater distances and subsequently travel across the city using public transport or bike – they either bring their own bike in the car or ride a bike from a bike-sharing system. As a result, cars remain parked on P+R parking lots in the suburbs, which reduces the number of traffic problems in city centres.
Optimal combination of different modes of transport is the aim of various smartphone planning applications, such as Rome2rio, which plan your journey to save both your time and your money. Mixed-mode commuting is in fact beneficial also for the drivers as they don’t have to burn fuel in traffic jams and can run their errands in the city centre quickly and in an eco-friendly way using bike or public transport. All in all, bike seems to be the most convenient option, because if you travel by car, you must park it somewhere and go the remainder of the journey on foot. Evidence suggests that in city streets, cyclists only need a quarter of time to travel the distance they would cover by a 40-minute walk.
Another important trend is engaging cars in shared economy. In some cases, it’s better to just use cars instead of owning them. Not long ago, this may have been a problem. If you didn’t have your own car, you had to rent it, which was rather difficult and quite expensive. But things have changed. In every bigger city, car-sharing services have emerged. Thanks to them, you can get in a car any time you need it. An example of such a service is Uniqway, a student project of several universities from the Czech capital of Prague and ŠKODA AUTO DigiLab. It enables the students to use Škoda cars under favourable conditions. After signing up in the system, all they have to do is find an available car in the mobile app, and off they go.
No matter how much local authorities support the building of cycling infrastructure, they will always end up facing one of the fundamental problems: Even in countries and cities with a dense network of cycle paths, the tracks always end where cyclists need them most – at intersections.
Copenhagenize offers a solution by designing and building junctions of new shapes, which reduce mixing cyclists with other means of transport. Such designs use concrete traffic islands to divide car lanes from bike lanes. When you get to a junction, the easiest task is straight crossing. But turning left is usually no mean feat as your path intersects with vehicles going in the opposite direction. New junctions are designed to make cyclists turning left cross them in two steps: First, they go straight to the other side and only then can they turn left, which eliminates the most dangerous moment of exposure to surrounding traffic. When turning right, cyclists don’t encounter other road users at all because their lane just turns right, and they simply continue following their separated track.
All hail roundabouts
Roundabouts are the safest type of intersection. In the Netherlands, they are surrounded by separate cycling lanes, and cyclists always have right of way over cars. Such roundabouts are not only built in the countryside where there is enough space for them; they already found their way to the capital, Amsterdam.
An even better solution is designating two separate levels for motor vehicles and bikes, completely avoiding their encounters. An actual example of such an approach can be found in the Dutch city of Houten, which has been awarded the title of Cycling City of the Netherlands 2018. The concept of grade-separated roundabouts has spread into other cities as well. In the best-case scenario, cyclists go straight while cars drive over them. Sometimes cyclists use a bridge to cross the intersection, and in other cases cars go under the crossroads. But at the end of the day, it’s always a much safer kind of junction than what you probably know from your surroundings.
Quite a stir was caused by a floating roundabout exclusively for cyclists that was built on the road connecting the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Veldhoven. The construction reminding of a big flying saucer was soon nicknamed Hovenring by the locals. Its circular deck is suspended from a 70-metre-tall central pylon by 24 steel cables. The whole structure swallowed up a thousand tons of steel. As Eindhoven is the seat of Philips, the bridge was richly equipped with lights, which improve its safety and make the design more attractive. Photos of Hovenring flew around the world, and municipal authorities in many countries now consider implementing similar solutions.
The bike motorway
As usual, Germany has adopted a spectacular approach and decided to improve the safety of cycling infrastructure by connecting 10 big cities with a 100-kilometre-long cycling motorway from Duisburg to Hamm. The idea to build a cycling motorway that would cross the Ruhr was inspired by a happening from eight years ago when the motorway from Duisburg to Dortmund was closed for cars and opened to three million people who stormed it on bikes. The first five kilometres of the motorway were opened to public three years ago, and the rest is under construction. Slowly but surely, the ideas of modern city planners are becoming part of our reality. Despite the grumbling of motorists, city streets come back to life. Hopefully, the endless tailbacks will dissolve soon and city dwellers will be able to take a deep breath again.