It’s been more than seven years since Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett put his entire city on a diet and invested in wider sidewalks, better bike routes, and a larger park to encourage fitness. For politicians and urbanists alike, the connection between the shape of our cities and the shape of our bodies is clear. Those of us who live in sprawling suburbs and commute to work by car are less likely to be healthy, while those of us who live in dense urban neighborhoods end up healthier because we’re more likely to bike or walk to work.
Unless, that is, people in compact urban areas don’t actually walk or bike to work a great deal more, even though it’s a readily available option.
A new study by Timothy Wojan and Karen Hamrick from the U.S. Department of Agriculture takes a close look at the connections between urban form—especially compact cities and metros—and the level at which people walk or bike to their jobs. To get at this, the researchers use detailed data from the American Time Use Survey that collects information on how Americans spend their time, including the kinds of activities in which people engage and what they eat.
What the misguided war between cars and bikes often misses is that it’s perfectly possible for both to coexist in peace—even in the suburbs. Such inter-modal harmony is happening right now in a Dutch town called Houten.
Located about five miles from the city of Utrecht, Houten and its adjacent sister town of South Houten are home to nearly 50,000 residents. In some ways Houten is a typical suburb. The neighborhoods are filled with low-density homes, a fair number of residents own cars (415 autos per 1,000 locals, with 36 percent of households having at least two cars), and on average there’s even more than one parking space per person.
But in many more ways, Houten is anything but typical. Car traffic is primarily resigned to a “ring road” that encircles the area. Within that ring is a network of low-speed streets meant primarily for people traveling on foot or by bike (there are 80 miles of bicycle paths alone) that connect to two main intercity train stations and most of the area’s schools and shops. As a result, car trips are the minority in Houten, with an estimated 66 percent made by alternative modes.
Cars keep to the perimeter, not the core
In the late 1960s, Dutch officials recognized Houten—then a tiny village of a few thousand—as a potential area for major population growth. An architect named Rob Derks came up with a town plan that prioritized pedestrians and cyclists over cars. Construction began in 1978 and was finished a few years later, and when more growth was predicted in the 1990s, the area replicated itself into South Houten.
(These and other Houten details come courtesy of a fantastic 2014 summary report of the area by Nicole Foletta of ITDP Europe.)
Houten’s local mixed-use street network has a low speed limit (~18 mph) and gives travel priority to walkers and cyclists. Plenty of streets and paths are off-limits to cars—some are physically blocked by bollards. The bike paths in the extensive cycling network have their own brick red coloring. Where bike routes do cross the ring roads, underpasses separate bike and car traffic. On average, Houten residents own more than three bikes per household.
A March 2014 map of Houten shows the ring roads encircling the main residential and commercial areas. (Wiki Commons/Janwillemvanaalst)
In addition to homes, the core areas are loaded with shops, plazas, and jobs—many of them adjacent to one of the two train stations. No one lives more than a mile and a quarter from a train, and a majority of Houten residents live within a mile of a grocery store. That makes it easy to do most of life’s daily chores without a car. The biggest transportation problems that locals face are bike parking, speeding mopeds, and “uncollected dog poop.”
The mobility breakdown validates the design. Plenty of people still drive; the car commute share is over 50 percent in Houten and South Houten alike. But the vast majority of shopping or social trips are made without a car. And cycling and walking together account for 55 percent of total Houten travel, with public transit making up another 11 percent.
“Houten—it is a suburb,” says Furth. “This is what’s incredible. It is a suburb. Where you’d expect a really high car share.”
A major of non-work trips in Houten are made without a car. (ITDP Europe)
Could Houten ever work in America?
A short stretch of the bike path connecting the city’s suburbs of Krommenie and Wormerveer has been embedded with solar panels that could potentially produce enough electricity to power three houses.
Constructed by the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) at a cost of some €3.5 million ($4.4 million), the SolaRoad is around 100 metres (328 feet) long, and comprises concrete modules of 2.5 by 3.5 metres (8 feet by 11.5 feet), with solar cells laid under a glass top in one direction. In the other direction, different kinds of top layers have been added.
U.S. startup Solar Roadways has also been testing out the concept. Idaho couple Julie and Scott Brusaw converted their parking lot into solar-panelled units, and have raised around $2.2 million thanks to a viral YouTube video. They expect their first public installation will be ready by next spring.
The more cities that adopt bike-share systems, the plainer the need for coordination between them.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr line sounds like a fantastic way to see the nation. Picture a bucolic ride through diverse landscapes connecting some of America’s best cities. Now, if I wanted to travel around by bicycle at either of those lovely destinations (or at stops along the way), I’d have some decisions to make. Do I go with Divvy, Chicago’s bikesharing program, which after a year of service now boasts 300 stations? Or with Bay Area Bike Share, a smaller service, but one with stations in San Francisco, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose?
The good, Amtrak announced that all its long-distance trains will feature baggage cars, which feature luggage racks that double as bike racks. By the end of the year, all 15 long-distance routes, including the Northeast Corridor, may have these cars. Which means no more messing with bike boxes.
North American bike culture is changing. Fast. And a big part of that shift is in the type of bicycles people are choosing to ride. Traditional upright city bikes have seen an explosion in popularity in recent years, with real implications to the way we design and experience cities.
While this trend may have started with images of stylish cycling Scandinavians circulating on blogs and social media, it is becoming increasingly clear these machines aren’t just a style or passing fad. Urban bikes interact with the city environment in a notably different manner, broadening the way we provide citizens of all ages with healthier, happier, more social, and less expensive means of mobility.
First and foremost, it’s important to clarify what we mean by upright city bikes, and how they differentiate from other styles you may see. With their high, sweeping handlebars and sometimes step-through frames (which are not suggested to be gender-specific anywhere but in North America — just practical, comfortable design), they are designed for a different posture: riding in an upright position — rather than hunching over — taking all strain off your back, shoulders, forearms, wrists, and hands.
Not only are they designed for comfort, they’re sturdier and safer, making them ideal for cruising at slower speeds, providing opportunities for an intimate, unfiltered awareness and experience of the people and places around you. They’re not meant for long distances or off-roading, but are the perfect means for a short, slow, non-sweaty jaunt around your neighborhood.
The most important thing about the growth of sit-up cycling is that it facilitates getting more people on two wheels, changing our perception of how we can move around our cities, making cycling more appealing to demographics that were traditionally left on the sidelines. These bikes help take cycling beyond speed and sport, making it a much broader, inviting, inclusive activity.
Read full article by Brent Toderian and Chris Bruntlett here.