How to Plan Good Cities for Bicycling

Bicyclists on their way through the city are part of city life. They can, with ease, switch between being bicyclists and pedestrians. Photos by Jan Gehl.

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 are from his book, “Cities for People,” published by Island Press. Donate to Streetsblog and Streetfilms and you’ll qualify to win a copy of the book, courtesy of Island Press. Here are part one and part two.

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.

Bicycle traffic should be automatically integrated into an overall transport strategy. (Copenhagen).
If it is possible to take bicycles on the train, subway and by taxi, then travel can be combined over great distances. (Copenhagen)

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 vehicular 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.

Recently, key bicycle lanes in Copenhagen have been widened to overcome the increasing congestion on bicycle lanes (Copenhagen)

Frequent interruptions are irritating and destroy the rhythm of the bicycle trip. Over the years Copenhagen has introduced several solutions to reduce the problem. Bicycle paths are often carried across minor side streets without interruption, which results in bicycle trips with fewer interruptions and lets drivers know they must wait. Introducing green waves for bicycles on selected street helps correspondingly to reduce irritating stops. In order to create these green bicycle waves, stoplights are set so that when bicycles bike at about 20 km/h (12.4 mph) they need not stop when they bike to and from the city during rush hour. That service used to be provided for cars. Another form of comfort and safety for bicyclists in Copenhagen is the city practice of snow removal. The bicycle lanes are always cleared before driving lanes to emphasize bicycle priority and the invitation to bike — despite the season.

Bicycle Cities and City Bicycles

In recent years, many cities have introduced various types of city bicycles that can be borrowed or rented from stands or depots. The idea is to reinforce bicycle traffic by making it easier for people to use bicycles for short trips in the city, while providing a collective bicycle system so that individuals do not need to buy, store and repair their own bicycles. Amsterdam’s white bicycle bike-share system came and disappeared quickly from the street scene in the 1970s. More stable and well organized systems were established in the 1990s, in Copenhagen, for example. Today Copenhagen has 2,000 city bicycles available at 110 bicycle stations in the city center. The bicycles are free, financed by advertisements. Users pay a coin deposit, which is returned when the borrowed bicycle is returned to one of the official bicycle racks. Copenhagen’s city bikes are used primarily by tourists, who can bicycle around town easily and safely, thanks to the well developed bicycle network. Copenhageners rarely borrow city bicycles, because they prefer their own bikes. In brief, the principle underlying city bikes in Copenhagen is to enable inexperienced city bicyclists to ride around in a relatively safe bicycling environment.

City bike programs have by now been introduced in numerous European cities. In Paris, the pattern of use is different from that in Copenhagen. Under the Vélib program, city bicycles are used primarily by Parisians themselves. By renting a Vélib by the hour, week or year, they are able to ride a bike without the trouble of storing and maintaining it. The bicycle rental companies handle the bother in return for the rental fees they charge the bicyclists.

The idea of offering bicycles to borrow or rent has spread rapidly (Lyon, France).

During 2008 the Vélib system in Paris was expanded to comprise 20,000 rental bikes parked in about 1,500 bicycle racks. In a very short time the Vélib bicycles have become a well-used service, primarily for short trips: 18 minutes on average. Here the idea is to enable many more or less experienced bicyclists acquainted with the locality to bicycle in a network that is neither very safe nor well developed. Although there have been a number of accidents, the program has had the valuable result that more people now bicycle in Paris — on rental bikes and personal bikes. In only one year the number of trips on personal bicycles has doubled, an increase that has doubtless been inspired and reinforced by the bicycle traffic on the new Vélib bicycles. The Vélib bicycles accounted for one-third of all bicycle trips in Paris in 2008, and bicycles in total accounted for between 2 percent and 3 percent of all traffic in Paris.

Inspired by the development in Paris, among other cities, many new city bicycle systems are underway at this time, also in cities that have essentially no bicycle infrastructure or bicycle culture. The idea seems to be that easily accessible city bikes can kick-start development of more bicycle cities on the principle that first you send people out on city bicycles and then you gradually develop comfortable, safe bicycle networks. There are good reasons to be cautious about sending inexperienced bicyclists out on two wheels in cities where bicycle traffic and networks do not have the critical mass to allow city bikes to reinforce ongoing development. Bicycle traffic and traffic safety must be taken seriously, and experiences from good bicycle cities incorporated, before experimenting with cheap bicycle campaigns. City bikes must be a link in efforts to build and reinforce bicycle culture — not the spearhead.

On the Way to a New Bicycle Culture

A number of cities, particularly in Scandinavia, Germany and Holland have witnessed a considerable development in bicycle use in recent years. The number of bicyclists and bicycle trips grows gradually as it becomes more practical and safe to bicycle. Biking simply becomes the way to get around town. Bicycle traffic changes gradually from being a small group of death-defying bicycle enthusiasts to being a wide popular movement comprising all age groups and layers of society from members of Parliament and mayors to pensioners and school children.

Bicycle traffic changes character dramatically in the process. When there are many bicycles and many children and seniors among them, the tempo is more stately and safe for all parties. Racing bicycles and Tour de France gear is replaced by more comfortable family bicycles and ordinary clothing. Cycling moves from being a sport and test of survival to being a practical way to get around town — for everyone.

This shift in culture from fast slalom bicycle trips between cars and many infringements of traffic regulations to a law-abiding stream of children, young people and seniors bicycling in a well-defined bicycle network has a big impact on society’s perception of bicycle traffic as a genuine alternative and reasonable supplement to other forms of transport. The shift in culture also brings bicycles more in line with pedestrians and city life in general, and is one more reason that bicycles have a natural place in this book about city life.

In New York City 300 km/180 miles of new bicycle paths were built from 2007 to 2009. A comprehensive program to introduce the idea of bicycling to New Yorkers was instituted at the same time. Car free “summer streets” are arranged in the summer months, so that residents of the city can experience the delights of walking and bicycling in comfort (Park Avenue, Manhattan, summer 2009).

Cities are wonderfully innovative in their efforts to strengthen a broader bicycle culture and demonstrate that bicycles are an obvious choice for almost everyone. Schools offer intensive bicycle training, companies and institutions compete to have the highest percentage of bicyclists among their employees, and information campaigns, bicycle weeks and car-free days are held. Many cities now open bicycle streets on Sunday in campaigns to develop bicycle culture. Sunday is a particularly good day for two reasons: car traffic is usually limited and people usually have more time for exercise and experiences. The idea of closing city streets to car traffic, turning them into temporary bicycle streets instead, has been popular in Central and South America for years. The extensive “Ciclovia” program in Bogotà, Columbia is one of the best known and best developed initiatives of this kind. In the post-millennium years, the idea of reinforcing bicycle traffic has spread to more and more of those cities where cars have dominated planning for decades.

Ambitious strategies have been developed to establish extensive bicycle networks in the large Australian cities Melbourne and Sydney. Planners in both cities are hard at work laying out new bicycle lanes and moving existing lanes away from traffic and into safer “Copenhagen-style bicycle lanes” where bicycles move inside the rows of parked cars. New York City planners are working on a new traffic plan that will make NYC one of the world’s most sustainable metropolises.

New York City’s building density, flat terrain and wide streets provide good opportunities for converting car traffic to bicycle traffic, and a new bicycle network of 3,000 km/1,800 miles of bike lanes is planned for the city’s five boroughs: Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Work on the new bicycle lanes started in 2007 and already in the course of 2007 – 2008 about one-quarter of the planned bicycle lanes have been established and significant growth in bicycle traffic is evident. In New York the idea of closing streets to car traffic on Sundays, which NYC calls “summer streets,” was introduced in 2008 as a popular link to the efforts to develop a new bicycle culture.

In the future, concern about sustainability, climate change and health will most certainly mean that increasingly more cities, like New York City, will double their efforts to develop a new culture for city life and movement. Increased bicycle traffic is an obvious answer to many of the problems cities struggle with worldwide.

Bicycles play an important role for transport and mobility in many developing countries.

Bicycling in Economically Developing Countries

Bicycle traffic already plays a key role in the overall traffic picture in many cities in economically developing countries. However, bicycle traffic is typically given poor and dangerous conditions. People bicycle by necessity, and individual mobility is often a prerequisite for being able to get to work and earn a living. In many cities bicycles or bicycle rickshaws handle the lion’s share of goods and people transport. Dhaka in Bangladesh has 12 million inhabitants, and the city’s 400,000 bicycle rickshaws ensure cheap sustainable transport as well as providing a modest but vital income to upwards of one million people.

Many of the cities that actually have extensive bicycle traffic today unfortunately also have forces at work to reduce bicycle traffic in favor of more room for vehicular traffic. In Dhaka, for example, bicycle taxis are considered a problem for the ongoing development of the city. Small motorcycles have replaced bicycles in many cities in Indonesia and Vietnam. Only a few decades ago, large Chinese cities were world famous for their volume of bicyclists, today bicycle traffic has in many cities almost disappeared from the street scene due to traffic reprioritization or even direct bans on bicycles.

In this category of cities, giving bicycle traffic a higher priority needs to be a key ingredient in a policy aimed to effectively utilize street space, reduce energy consumption and pollution, and provide mobility for the great majority of people who cannot afford cars. In addition, investing in bicycle infrastructure is affordable in comparison with other types of traffic investment.

New direction and reprioritizing of city policy is underway throughout the world. Fortunately, this includes prioritizing bicycle traffic in many cities in economically developing countries such as Mexico City and Bogota, Columbia.

  • Anonymous

    Great article! Fascinating read.  I only wish it addressed the fact that all ideas from outside New York are, by definition, crap, and should never be tried.  It seems we’re doing a great job of emulating the worst transportation policy decisions of the least liveable third-world cities, while dismissing things that have worked well in the most liveable first-world cities.  Congratultions us.

  • Joe R.

    I agree, station44025.  For example, Jan writes “Frequent interruptions are irritating and destroy the rhythm of the bicycle trip. Over the years Copenhagen has introduced several solutions to reduce the problem. Bicycle paths are often carried across minor side streets without interruption, which results in bicycle trips with fewer interruptions and lets drivers know they must wait.”

    This simple common sense observation seems lost on NYC and practically every cycling advocacy organization.  Instead, NYC’s “enlightened” solution is to stick cycling tracks on streets with lights on every corner, then ticket cyclists when they fail to stop at every light (which in practice means about every other block).  And then of course you have all the confusing cycling routes where it’s not even really clear exactly what path the cyclist is supposed to take.  Top it off with many cycle paths having ridiculously sharp turns which require slowing to 5 mph for no good reason (these aren’t shared paths where that might make sense).  Almost forget also about those lovely paths where cyclists must dismount for part of the trip.  NYC is fast becoming a great example of what not to do.

  • Just thinking out loud: bicycles and buses ex-stops can maintain about the same speed, say about 20-25 km/h. In light of that, perhaps cities should experiment with reworking the green wave on a one-way pair to be more cyclist-friendly.

    Alternatively, the city could paint cycle paths on a two-way street, where a green wave means all light turn green or red simultaneously and vehicles need to wait once every few blocks.

  • Ajl1239

    Colombia*

  • Kim

    Just looking at the graph and wondering why the number seriously injured increased 2006-08?

  • And let’s  not forget that the same city that tickets these cyclists rarely tickets tour bus operators who park in bike lanes. CPW ‘s bike lane is a mess.

  • Unlike the author’s claims, “turning right on red” in fact increases pedestrian/bicycle safety, as the cars make the turn when the peds/cyclists have a red light. Ideally, the cars are gone when the peds/cyclists get the green light and try to cross the street.

    The European practice of having the right-turning cars wait for the green light means they turn at the same time as the peds/cyclists try to go straight.

    This intersection conflict also points out one major flaw with attemps to “Copenhagenize” American cities. Putting bicycles on the sidewalk, as is done in Copenhagen, is feasible only if bicycle speeds are closer to those of pedestrians than the speeds of cars. In Copenhagen, the average bike trip is less than 0.6 miles long, so “on-the-road” speed has no impact on travel times. (As much time is spent locking up the bike at the destination.) This means that cyclists can treat every intersection as a yield, ready to stop if a car turns right without giving them the right-of-way.

    In North American cities, 0.6 miles does not get you very far. Cycling becomes feasible only if it can compete in travel time with cars. This means that cycling facilities need to be designed for higher bike speeds.

    Having lived and cycled extensively in Europe and North America, I prefer the North American system of integrating bikes with cars through on-road bike lanes and “sharrows,” even though I understand that mingling with traffic can be uncomfortable for inexperienced cyclists.

    Perhaps the solution is to design two sets of facilities – one for short-distance, slow cyclists, and another for faster cyclists traveling longer distances. Unfortunately, trying to adopt solutions that work in high-density places with short travel distances will not be successful in the totally different urban environment of North America.

    Jan Heine
    Editor
    Bicycles Quarterly
    http://www.bikequarterly.com

    Follow our blog at http://janheine.wordpress.com/

  • Joe R.

    Agreed 100% about the need to make cycling faster if we want to grow it beyond anything but a niche mode.  Here is a great post showing what facilities which allo rapid, non-stop cycling can do for you ( http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2009/11/commuting-speeds.html ).  The author talks of making an 18.6 mile commute in around 50 minutes.  A network of totally grade-separated cyclke paths which allow these kinds of speeds are exactly what is needed in Amercan cities.  The Copenhagen model can be used for the last few blocks of the journey, where you go from the cycling “superhighway” to your final destination, but the system should be designed so you can do most of your journey on separate, dedicated paths with no stopping.  In crowded cities it may present a problem putting these paths on street level.  Therefore, we need to go either above, or even below, grade.  The primary downside would be cost, but a network of these facilities would move cycling into a mainstream way to travel, even in large cities like New York where you might need to go 8 or 10 or even 15 miles each way.  In conjunction with a network of such paths, you can encourage mass production of velomobiles in order to bring the purchase price down.  Velomobiles allow an average cyclist to cruise at 20 mph, and a strong one to go 25-30 mph.  These kinds of speeds on dedicated paths would rival rail mass transit.

  • Tom

    Is it me, or, is there a lot of “Didn’t I tell you that” claims on this blog?  For instance, the claim that we can ‘Copenhagenize’ this city real easy but ‘Didn’t I tell you that in NYC an average trip is up to two miles and in Copenhagen it’s only up to 0.6 miles; and, while they go real slow over there, we got to build facilities for speed here.  That’s not going to present a problem?
    Of course if you wait long enough you get the WHOLE truth.

  • Lilja

    First of all, in Copenhagen the bicycles are NOT put on the sidewalks! – there is a 3, sometimes 4 lane system with one for pedestrians, one for bicycles, one for cars, and sometimes one for public transport.
    I ride my bike to my university in Copenhagen everyday (4,5 km) and manage to do so, faster than by public transport – and WAY faster than by car!
    As mentioned in the article, the bicycle system is connected with the public transportation system such as trains and metros, which makes the bike work for not only people living in the city but also for people from the suburbs.
    I think the main reason for the success of the bicycle in Copenhagen (and denmark in general) is that when making the cities bicycle friendly, you at the same time make the life really hard for people in cars! – some places the bicycle lanes are twice the size of car lanes which means that getting through the city in a car will take you at least 10 times longer than on a bike!
    In copenhagen, the bike is nothing but a tool – the by far most effective tool to get you from A to B. For the time i have spent in New York and Chicago i would guess that the main problem for promotion of bikes is the amount of cars and that the car infrastructure is way too effective.

  • Tallycyclist

    @openid-89207:disqus :  I don’t see how “turning right on red” is ever safer for cyclist or pedestrians.  If there’s only one lane at the intersection, you can argue that the behind the right turning car, perhaps it’ll be one intending to go straight.  But in all other situations, like if there is a right-turning lane, it’s usually there because a lot of people want to make a turn at that intersection.  I often encounter such intersections and it’s unpleasant to have cars squeezing past me to turn right-since they’re so focused on looking left for cars moving perpendicularly, they aren’t likely going to even watch out for me, should the light green and I try to go straight.
    A bigger issue with right turn on reds is that pedestrians and cyclists in the direction with green have an additional area to watch out for-the direction that has red and should be stopped still allows a right turn, in most cases in the US at least.  And if you’re a pedestrian trying to cross against traffic, then you have the same issue of the cyclist I just described in the first paragraph.  This also tends to fuel impatience in drivers, who after having this privilege for decades have been conditioned to think they are entitled to just get anywhere fast and everyone else should be out of the way.  It’s questionable whether or not you even save considerable time over the course of the trip being allowed to turn right on red, and if you do, by how much?  1 minute?  30 seconds?  

    Lastly, when just about every intersection in the city allows these turns on reds, it almost completely defeats the purpose to ban it from select intersections that have had high accident/collision rates.  I see more people turning at these intersections than ones who actually follow the rules.  For the pedestrian or cyclist, it’s even more dangerous and stressful because you never know if someone will just suddenly make a turn or not.  

  • Most of the people use bicycle for traveling because it’s easy for them and not much expensive. But the main thing is it makes really traffic in road and creates lots of problems. I think everyone need a solution for this problem.

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