The 2014 EU BICI series at streets.mn featured reports, photos, and video accounts via personal observation of 13 cities within 8 different countries: Cambridge (UK), Berlin and Munich (Germany), Seville (Spain), Ferrara, Bologna and Padova (Italy), Zurich (Switzerland), Copenhagen and Odense (Denmark), Stockholm (Sweden), Houten and Delft (the Netherlands). Individual posts highlighted structural and policy peculiarities of cycling in each city. Looking back, what are key take-aways and what can communities across Minnesota learn? (Some reflections below likely apply universally to many US communities (suburban and urban) but where appropriate, I highlighted elements that might be more specific to Minnesota).
How is the context similar to Minnesota?
- Global automobility. Even among progressive communities in the developed world, the story is remarkably similar: how to cope with legacy effects of largely auto-based communities and free cycling from its supposed long-time suffrage. Issues range from dependency, reclaiming right-of-way space, to coping with fast moving cars, addressing problematic crossings/intersections. While the magnitude of the auto-based issues are considerably scaled back relative to the US, many of the same tensions exist. Even in the Netherlands—the country where bicycle is king—the auto lobby is stronger than it’s ever been and is arguably growing in influence.
- Owing to the above, it appears that many of the politics, policies, and financing endure remarkably similar paths as in Minnesota communities.
How is the context different from Minnesota?
- The price of gas and general cost of auto-mobility provides a unique cost advantage to cycling (and transit and everything non-auto related).
- The rich histories of the cities (e.g., extremely narrow right-of-ways in most instances) provide exceptionally unique transportation issues.
- General culture–almost all aspects–favors cycling.
- The legal default setting is completely inverted (i.e., the auto driver is generally assumed to be at fault given a crash…as opposed to the inverse in the US).
- Countless other things.
Based on the EU-BICI, what’s working in these different contexts? What’s new?
- Devil is in the (concrete) details. The most progressive communities are liberally using small bits of concrete to better identify and differentiate bicycling facilities from car facilities. Ever-so-slight differences in concrete treatments (e.g., colored bricks, types of bricks, angled placement of bricks) go a long way to ‘cementing’ bicycling infrastructure over the long term. Plus, it looks better. This is in contrast to almost all communities in Minnesota which simply use paint on asphalt to differentiate travel lanes. Paint is cheap. Paint is temporary. Both are assets in some circumstances (and still used in many settings throughout Europe). But detailed paving treatments are generally more sophisticated and longer lasting (both politically and from an engineering sense), though more expensive.
- Half-inch is all it takes. Perhaps the most well-known (or most popularized?) imported bicycling infrastructure is the “Copenhagen bike lane.” In reality, this might not so much be from Copenhagen as from Denmark more generally. Furthermore, whereas most North Americans infer that there needs to be an obtrusive barrier between the auto-traffic and the cycling lane, for most Danish bicycle planning, it really comes down to a stone curb no more than three inches high and wide: high enough to signal to a slow moving car that the space is not for them yet small enough allow a bike to easily roll over the curb if needed. And, a different type of stone helps clearly signal demarcated space. Where common North American folklore tells us that protected bike lanes require a row of parked cars, planters or other hard obstacles, it seems the ‘core’ of most of the protected bike lanes lies in 3 inches, vertically and horizontally.
- Where are the cars? Relative to the US, European cities are more willing to have car-free streets in the core. Almost all the cities in the series had some element of a car-free core; it was just a matter of how expansive and what modes were allowed (e.g., ranging from buses to nothing on wheels whatsoever). The Italian cities had the most pronounced traffic-limited zone. The one is Ferrara and is largely the best thing going in that community. Other than Nicollet Mall and Milwaukee Avenue, now is the time to be expanding these treatments throughout Minnesota.
- Sharing the lane. Along streets and corridors where cars and bikes co-exist, key “sharing” aspects of the European culture shine. In Zurich, it is not uncommon for a 6-foot auto travel lane to have a 3-foot bicycle lane embedded. Throughout many streets all over the Netherlands, multiple modes simply co-exist. Bike boulevards in Minneapolis are a first step in this direction (as was the Bryant Ave experiment).
- Super cycle tracks. Longer distance, intersection-free bicycle routes are clearly a new wave of bicycle planning treatments in Europe. They warrant completely different planning criteria in Denmark; they are being spearheaded throughout the Netherlands and Cambridge to better connect towns and employment centers; within the fabric of a large city, Stockholm is pursuing them complete with timed countdowns to tell you to hurry up so as not to have to get stopped by the light. The strong Minnesota tradition for clearly separated, intersection-free, bike paths might have an edge relative to most of these places, but so much of the context is different.
- Speed kills. A stark difference between almost all of the EU-BICI sites and Minnesota communities is the difference between auto and cycling speeds. Car travel, unless it is clearly outside the city core, is generally slower. This can be attributed to narrower travel lanes, right-of-ways, and some speed limit signage. More attractive cycling environments clearly have lower auto speeds.
- Intersections are detailed. The breadth of different intersection treatments was generally impressive, ranging from protected right turns to cycling signals and everything in between.
What else is interesting?
- Subtleties are…subtle. There is a common impression (at least among North Americans) that bicycle planning in northern European countries is superior to any place in the world. Many infer that the recipe is relatively standard. In reality, this is far from the case. For example, the Dutch are strident in suggesting their bicycle planning is different from the Danes (and vice versa). Differences exist in treatments related to parking, intersections, flows, and expected use. What specific aspects does Minnesota want to import? The general approaches thus far seem to be more Danish than Dutch (e.g., prizing longer distance cycling, clearly separated treatments).
- Paint treatments are varied. Where paint is used on the streets, its treatment is varied and inconsistent, consistent with previous writings.
- Outside of Seville, where political parties used an election to campaign for wide-sweeping changes (and maybe similar to the 2008 elections in Munich), most communities were employing incremental improvements. However, aside from Italy (who appeared to be a bit further behind) and the Netherlands/Denmark (who are clearly setting the bar), many communities appeared to be on the cusp of more monumental improvements (even Odense with the removal of the 6-lane principal auto street in the core).
What’s missing from the series?
- There was only a bit on the relationship between snow removal and snow storage. Odense and Stockholm had elaborate protocol and machines for clearing snow and formal prioritization schemes, but there is more to the story of which I am unaware.
- Details on politics and other process issues were intentionally absent; advances in each city are extremely context dependent.
- A deeper analysis of how cities are specifically addressing key advancements is still warranted. Other loose ends on some prevailing themes include: thinking about facilities more so as complete corridors (particularly true with the super cycle track movement), bicycle exemption from one-way travel restriction on one-way streets, other forms of audits to better assess gaps in the system.
Keep posted. Rumor has it there might be a smaller-scale 2015 EU-BICI series focused on more select advances from locations such as Nijmegen, Zwolle, Amsterdam (the Netherlands), Nantes (France), Bormio (Italy) and others.