London and Stockholm Boldly Reimagine Bicycle Commuting

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[quote_right][feature_box title=”TDM TAKEAWAY” title_color=”fff” header_color=”369″]As the viability of biking in cities increases, issues of congestion and safety will prompt larger thinking about how best to accommodate this mode of travel.[/feature_box][/quote_right]

I recently compared two approaches to accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians in cities: separation (through protected bike lanes) and integration (through the modern woonerf).

How are some of these approaches working in London, England and Stockholm, Sweden?

London’s Possibilities

I came across three different schemes either being considered or built to accommodate the growing number of cyclists in London (where bicyclists are said to account for 25 percent of all rush-hour traffic in the central city) and address bike safety concerns (particularly collisions with trucks). Interestingly, all proposals would remove the cyclist from the street.

The first concept is a floating bikeway along the Thames known as the “Thames Deckway” (pictured above), which would hug the southern bank of the river for nearly eight miles and reduce cross-city commuting time by 30 minutes.

At first I thought this was quite inventive and envisioned it becoming a tourist attraction. But as I thought more about it, I wondered how this bikeway would connect with the larger citywide street network. Then thinking of riding along a bikeway that rises and falls with the tide, I questioned whether I would actually enjoy the experience or feel a little seasick.

The next concept I came across, called the “London Underline,” would convert abandoned subway (“tube”) tunnels into bike and pedestrian paths lined with cafes, creating a subterranean street life. Further, each path would be surfaced with kinetic paving, which would use the impact of walking and the friction from bike tires to generate electricity.

Very out-of-the-box. I was definitely intrigued by this idea, even enthusiastic about it at first, but then questions came to mind. First, how would I get my bike underground? What would it be like to ride down there? I don’t like indoor malls, as they lack natural lighting and fresh air. Would I really want to ride in an underground bikeway? Then, how would I get above ground again and would the effort to submerge and re-emerge be worth it? From the conversation trail in one of my transportation groups on LinkedIn, I saw that my sentiments were shared by fellow bicyclists. They too enjoy being outdoors, noting that feeling the elements is definitely part of the cycling experience.

The third scheme is for an elevated bike path called “SkyCycle,” a 136-mile, three-story-high network of bike paths with 200 access points following existing rail lines. According to British architect Norman Foster, it is “a lateral approach to finding space in a congested city.”

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Before casting this idea off as something too futuristic, take a look at the Hovenring in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. This is a cyclist roundabout which hovers over a major highway intersection. It’s been likened to a flying saucer and is credited as a new landmark for the city.

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Pros and Cons of Separating Cyclists

Now, what do all these schemes have in common? They all propose completely separating the cyclist from other modes and from the street altogether. There are benefits to this approach. Surely, total segregation of cyclists removes the possibility of crashes with cars and trucks, not to mention crashes between cyclists and pedestrians, thus improving safety considerably.

Further, there is good reason to provide facilities for exclusive bike use, namely to push the limits of the bicycle trip. Let’s face it, a lot of bike trips are short not because people don’t want to ride farther but because a safe infrastructure isn’t in place to accommodate a longer trip. There’s some barrier like a large intersection or highway which defines the limits of the bicycle trip. Remove those barriers and longer trips are possible.

However, there are downsides. One for the cyclist is ease of accessibility. I think how convenient it is for me now to run errands on my bike whether dropping off books at the library (I can ride right up to the return slot) or stopping at a local convenience store. No hassles with parking. No guilt over gas wasted over stop-and-go trips.

Another disadvantage for the cyclist is being separated from the street life, no longer having spontaneous interactions with people or being able to notice changes in the community like new displays in store windows. The community loses as well, as cyclists add to the mix, which creates a vibrant street life.

The Latest in London

The latest bicycle-related news I read out of London was a plan to create four “Cycle Superhighways.” These will be continuous, wide, protected bikeways crossing nine boroughs, according to Transport for London, will “help cycling become an integral part of London’s transport network.” When completed, it will be the longest “urban cycle lane” in Europe, carrying cyclists through the heart of the city and to some of its most famous landmarks. In this plan, bicyclists are actually on the street but safely separated from cars by a curb.

Yes, London actually traded car space for bike space. This seems to offer both the mobility to make longer trips and the accessibility to reach desired destinations. The route is expected to open in 2016.

Going Car-Free in Stockholm

Contrast London’s separatist approach with Stockholm’s integrative one. As described in a recent CityLab article, Stockholm is moving to become a car-free city, motivated by the idea that removing cars will enhance the city’s livability. This takes the concept of Vision Zero, which originated in Sweden with a focus on reducing traffic deaths to zero, further, broadening its objective from safety to livability.

Stockholm is well suited for walking because of its large medieval downtown scaled to the pedestrian. These streets are free of cars. In 2004, the city wanted to make a street outside this core area car-free. It was reportedly very controversial with pushback from businesses, but city officials did it anyway. They simply closed the street to cars and found that more people came and shopped.

The Swedes feel that going car-free creates economic benefit, namely that the property market is driven by walkability. Even more importantly, they feel it creates an enhanced quality of life that is quieter, cleaner, and safer for people of all ages. In the below short from Streetfilms, a mother interviewed enjoys the fact that she feels comfortable allowing her kids to play in the car-free streets. A young woman comfortably bikes all around the city with her lap dog in her basket. A New Yorker notes that walking in Stockholm is “fun, social, and safe.” Another person comments that safety comes from an environment in which negotiation with others is the norm. He goes on to explain that such negotation can only occur at speeds under 18.6 miles per hour – “when people start to see each other as humans and have the time necessary to react to things.”

In 2010, Stockholm adopted a plan called The Walkable City (PDF), which “promotes sustainability, livability, and, above all, a more people-friendly place.” Consistent with that plan is the Slussen Project, set to be completed in 2021. Like London’s schemes, it is a big infrastructure project. The key difference is that instead of removing bikes from the street, the Slussen Project will remove cars and create more direct connections for bicyclists and pedestrians.

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Two growing European capital cities, two very different approaches. Sure, there are cultural differences. But no doubt London’s greater population density (5,206 people per square kilometer versus Stockholm’s 4,600 people) and 1.25 percent faster population growth explain a lot.

What is most exciting, however, is the heightened attention to cyclists, and the willingness to tradeoff auto access, lanes, or parking to safely accommodate them at project scales otherwise unknown, at least in the United States.

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daniel VP ASIA

fantastic overview Monique! I really hope more and more planning and transportation departments globally consider these systems now…

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