Bicycle Culture by Design

I’d like to take a look back at an exciting event that I haven’t yet blogged about. With the global Velo-city conference, the Velopalooza bike festival, an awesome Critical Mass, the City’s announcement to install a public bikeshare system and two interesting SFU talks on “Actively Learning from Copenhagen’s Transport Successes” within a month, June was definitely the month of the bicycle in Vancouver.

While the first Copenhagen lecture by Copenhagen’s Bicycle Program Manager Andreas Rohl focused on the development, the economics and the promotion of cycling in Copenhagen, Denmark’s bicycle ambassador Mikael Colville-Andersen talked about “Bicycle Culture by Design”. In this regard, the founder of and the Copenhagen cycle chic blog examined how to design cities for bicycles.

According to Mikael Colville-Andersen, there are four goals for promoting urban cycling: (1) To make the bicycle the quickest mode of transportation from A to B (infrastructure!), (2) to simply sell cycling like any other product (no over-complication!), (3) to stop ignoring the bull (traffic calming!) and (4) to re-democratize transportation (advocacy!). But, in the face of 80 years of failure in urban traffic design, we have to ask ourselves why our cities aren’t designed for humans, especially cycling humans?

“The problem with planning is that it has been overtaken by mathematical models – traffic, density, impact assessment, public costs, etc. – discarding common sense and empirical observation.” (Andreas Duany)

By looking back in history, Mikael explained how streets that were for 7,000 years places where people gathered, transported themselves, and played were completely transformed by the automobile industry from extensions of our front yards and homes to public utilities centered around the car. In fact, traffic engineers made this possible in less than 20 years. A short textbook comparison from 1925 and 1941 makes this clear (see box on the right).

“Engineers are advised to favor efficient modes and restrict inefficient modes and to consider expensive transportation facilities only as a last resort.” (leading textbook in professional traffic control in 1925) vs. “If people prefer to drive downtown and can afford it, the facilities must be built for them… The choice of mode of travel is their own, they cannot be forced to change on the strength or arguments of efficiency or economy.” (leading traffic engineering textbook in 1941)

Luckily, today the bicycle is back in many cities around the world, mainly because it is an efficient and affordable mode of transport that provides four types of pleasure: Physio-pleasure (body, senses), socio-pleasure (social pleasures derived from interaction with others), psycho-pleasure (people’s reactions and psychological state during using the product), and ideo-pleasure (appreciation of aesthetics, quality and whether the product enhances life).

Moreover, more and more city planners themselves ride a bicycle and listen, watch and act in designing their cities for bicycles. By focusing on cyclists’ needs, separated bike lanes in Copenhagen simply work and became a perfect example for the seductive power of well-designed bicycle infrastructure. Good design also improves cyclists’ behavior as citizens react to infrastructure design with their behavior (both positively or negatively).

But good design is not only about separated bike lanes, it’s also about micro-design like railings, ramps, handles or bins for cyclists and about maintaining this cycling infrastructure every day throughout the year (especially when it’s snowing). By putting people first and focusing on people’s needs, good design not only has functional benefits but also fosters communication and relationships.

So, we can definitely design good cycling infrastructure but can we also design a cycling lifestyle? According to the Danish experience, promoting a cycling lifestyle is about promoting simplicity, functionality, informal elegance, and respect for materials and resources. Moreover, by providing a uniform bicycle infrastructure in many cities in Denmark, they fostered easy wayfinding, ease of use, positive user experiences, and increased safety.

Cities that are adopting these ideas are those that are buzzing, becoming modern and progressive. It once became clear that Copenhagen at the forefront of these cities offers so many innovative ideas and a best-practice infrastructure that cities like Vancouver or Vienna can learn from.

Posted on August 15, 2012 in Urbanism

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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