I’m a bike nut who lives in New York City, and I’m often frustrated by how difficult it is to get from A to B. Despite regularly ranking within the top 10 or 15 bike-friendly cities in the country, it’s often needlessly difficult here to ride your bike like the utility vehicle that it is for so many around the world. A means to an end, a way to get to work and back.
Mikael Colville-Andersen is a noted speaker who travels the world to talk about urban design and mobility issues. In a 15-minute Ted Talk titled “Bike Culture by Design,” he lays out a compelling case for how more bike-friendly city infrastructure can save lives and change the world.
Cyclist that I am, I’m predisposed to liking his ideas. But what do you think?
If you don’t want to watch the entire video, you can get the gist by reading the points below, but I recommend the video. Colville-Andersen proves himself a completely engaging speaker as he presents the case that casual, everyday bicycle use in a city is not only easy to accommodate, but can also make the world a better place.
His thesis is as simple as this: the best cities are those that accommodate its human beings.
The world’s perception of streets changed with the rapid urbanization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As Colville-Andersen puts it, “the street” had previously been a place where people would gather and socialize, where children played, where people sold goods. They were truly public spaces. As cities became more populated, engineers were upheld as problem-solving superheroes to make the streets more navigable.
Enter the automobile, and streets very quickly became regarded dangerous for people. They were car domain, more akin to a public utility like electricity and water. There was a time of backlash, and cars were, at one point, commonly ridiculed. It’s something Colville-Andersen calls the anti-automobile age. But it wasn’t resilient enough to keep cars from becoming the de facto mode of transport that they are today.
We have very little to show for our efforts in “traffic engineering.”
He rattles off a number of problems that are still quite present despite efforts to address them. Congestion? Still a thing. Human injury related to motor vehicle accidents? Still a thing. Pollution. Social isolation. Colville-Andersen shares a delightful anecdote about his three-and-a-half year old daughter who arrives at the conclusion that “cars are silly because you can’t see the people in them.”
He says that a city’s solutions to these problems — lowering speed limits, building wider sidewalks, adding new bike paths — are left ignored because they don’t fit in “the mathematical equation on the computer down at the engineering department. So many ideas die on their doorstep.” The human beings are being ignored.
Design, *not* engineering, is the key to modernizing city infrastructure.
It’s the designer, not the engineer, who thinks about the human end user. Why not bring this same mentality to how we move around our cities?
“Designing a city for bicycles and pedestrians should be like designing any other product for sale on the market — a toothbrush, a toaster, a smartphone,” he says. Well-designed bicycle infrastructure “will seduce people to use it.” If you make a bike route the quickest path from A to B, people will ride their bikes no matter how hot or cold it is outside.
If this video catches your interest, you’ll also want to check out Copenhagenize.com, Colville-Andersen’s blog about bicycle-based urbanism. Notice the self-updating counter that displays the number of kilometers cycled by Copenhagen residents so far today and tell yourself there’s a better way to get around the next time your stuck in traffic, in your car, unable to see any humans at all.
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