In the 1970s, cycling had its moment in the United States. Manufacturers were churning out bikes and adults, not just children, were buying them. The nation was set to usher in a new era where two wheels trumped four, and the infrastructure was there to support this rediscovered mode of transport.
Look around in many cities today and you’ll notice cyclists whizzing by, at best in a bike lane, and more treacherously, weaving between cars and people. But despite appearances, the U.S. is not experiencing a bike boom. “Compared to the 70s boom, today’s is illusory,” author Carlton Reid argues in Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling.
So what happened to the bike-centric world that seemed so promising in the 1970s? Reid, a journalist and author of the 2014 book, Roads Were Not Built for Cars, revisits the promise of a fleeting, bygone bike-crazed era and then analyzes the history of cycling.
Reid weaves a data-heavy tale of nationwide booms and busts; city-scale success and failures; and character-driven movements and their sometimes lasting effect on the history of cycling.
Reid analyzes policy, infrastructure, and cultural acceptance of cycling in the U.S. and Britain, chronicling each country’s attempt to keep up with the Dutch, to no avail for decades. In telling these tales, Reid does not prescribe an specific remedy to revive cycling, but rather looks at lessons learned from attempts to encourage cycling in the past.
The Netherlands — where nearly 30 percent of all trips nationwide are by bicycle — is undoubtedly the longest-reigning king of bicycle infrastructure and cultural acceptance. Reid gives a number of reasons for this, one important one: they’ve been at it a long time. Compared to the mid-21st century beginnings of transportation agencies in the UK and US, the Dutch’s ministry of transportation and the environment was founded in 1798.
“The Chinese famously take the long view of history, and Dutch nation-builders take the long view of infrastructure,” Reid writes.
In 1973, at the peak of the U.S. boom, 15 million adult bikes were sold. “The bike was rural and recreational, but it was also urban and practical,” Reid said. In the U.S., the 1970s bike boom successfully linked biking with the rising environmentalist movement. Beyond a carbon-free commute, biking offered individual agency in movement and efficiency.
But with an uptick in urban cyclist came safety concerns and varying interests among enthusiasts, including vehicular cyclists. Reid devotes an entire chapter to the history of vehicular cyclists and the debate about where on the road, if at all, bikes belong.
Throughout the book, Reid cites separated Dutch cycle paths as a model for creating an environment where cyclists feel safe and comfortable, but that’s not to say other cities haven’t had their share of success.
He goes in depth into factors that allow Davis, California, for example, to become an early and natural haven for cyclists, even when there weren’t separate cycle paths.
Also, cycle infrastructure is important, Reid writes, but that alone will not make people hop on the saddle. Take Columbia, Maryland, in the U.S. and the town of Stevenage in Britain. In both places, the cycle infrastructure was there but, given the option of a quick and easy bike ride or a quick and easy trip by car, people in both places chose cars.
What a robust, connected cycle infrastructure does show, Reid argues, is how welcome a city is that mode of transport. In seeking to replicate the Dutch model, Reid points to Meredith Glaser, a cycle-infrastructure consultant, who once told him that cities need to show their appreciation for cyclists by building “’wow’ infrastructure,” like the Cykelslangen, or “cycle-snake” bridge in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The fact is, we’re behind and we have a long way to go. “It will be tough to replicate what the Netherlands took more than a hundred years to perfect.” But of course, Reid says, that’s no reason not to try.
“Zip codes can determine your health,” said Kelly Porter, regional planning manager for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), at the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City. Given communities right next to other can have significant differences in overall health and even lifespans, it’s important to take a regional approach in order to reduce inequities. Representatives from three regional planning organizations — in Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and San Diego, California — explained what they are doing to improve the health of their regions.
In the Austin metropolitan region, which totals more than 2 million, CAMPO has created the 2045 regional active transportation plan, the first-ever for the region, which is expected to be finalized this summer (see image from the draft plan above). With a federal grant, Porter said CAMPO was able to “double the average number of planning and design charrettes,” so they could “build the regional plan from the small community up.”
Setting up a WikiMap, they identified where the physical barriers were to more walking and biking, and went out in the communities with iPads loaded with surveys to find out where people actually wanted to walk and bike.
Layering over data about average trips, the number of households with children, and the underserved areas that “could really benefit from these projects,” CAMPO planners identified the hot spots to target first. “Our goal is to demonstrate the health benefits of these projects.”
They are now working on incorporating performance measures for even better outcomes. Porter admitted they are just in the early stages of looking at regional transportation through a health lens.
In the Nashville metropolitan region, which totals 1.8 million, the 2040 regional plan has identified 400 projects that will require some $8.5 billion to implement. Some 200 have been funded, explained Rochelle Carpenter, who leads the Nashville metropolitan area planning organization’s transportation and health program.
In this plan, some 77 percent either include sidewalks or bicycle infrastructure, up from just 5 percent in 2005. “Health became a new way to prioritize projects.”
Using both qualitative and quantitative analyses, they discovered the communities with the poorest health levels, and found those communities also had the high numbers of poor, unemployed, seniors, and people without cars. They expect their plan will reduce diabetes and cardio diseases by 3 percent and depression by 1 percent. From that statement, it sounds as if they will be measuring progress after projects to see if health outcomes do indeed improve.
Lastly, perhaps the most controversial planning process is in the San Diego metropolitan area, which has 3 million people. Carolina Ilic, senior regional planner with San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), said three behaviors — smoking, poor diet, and no exercise — contribute to four diseases — heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and lung disease — that account for more than “50 percent of deaths.” Live Well San Diego, a stakeholders group that includes planners and medical practitioners, and San Diego Forward: Regional Plan are efforts to reduce those behaviors, Ilic argued.
Under the plan, local governments in the region will roll out 275 miles of bicycle lanes, undertake hundreds of projects to improve access to transit and regional bike routes, and spend hundreds of millions on Safe Routes to Schools and new sidewalks and crosswalks. Some $200 million will be spent on a “regional bike early action program.” SANDAG gives local communities in its region grants, so they “take on a lot of the work.” Ilic said federal support was “instrumental;” the country received $16 million in grants and SANDAG $3 million, which they then mostly passed on to communities.
A New Yorker can put their arm up in the street in Manhattan and flag down a taxi in a few minutes. Taxis are readily available because it’s a dense urban environment. But with a smart phone and an app like Uber or Lyft, anyone can find a ride fast and experience the benefits of density without needing to live in it. Furthermore, autonomous vehicles (AVs) — which will likely travel in highly-efficient packs via routes optimized for demand — could bring even more of the advantages of dense places to those that aren’t. Rohit Aggarwala, former director of NYC’s office of long-term planning and sustainability and now co-head of Sidewalk Labs, wonders whether autonomous vehicles will then be good for cities. Will they further reduce the relative benefits of city life? Will they even encourage sprawl?
According to Aggarwala, who spoke at the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City, there are six primary attributes of density — three positive efficiencies and three causes of “friction,” or disadvantages. On the positive side, high levels of density mean lower consumption of energy, water, and carbon on a per capita basis. “If you have less space, you consume less.” There is also higher asset utilization — less space and resources are wasted. There are easier physical interactions. With density, the number of unplanned interactions — so critical to everything from market and community development to finding friends and a life partner — increase.
Frictions include a greater reliance on central systems, which can cause problems if those systems are over-capacity or break down. There’s also a greater need for courtesy. In dense places where people are nearly on top of each other all the time, people must expend more energy to avoid annoying each other. And there’s also the need for more coordination. “There are more hassles in dense urban life, hence the need for more coordination to resolve them.”
If there is a positive balance between the efficiencies and frictions, people move into cities. If the costs get too high, they move out, Aggarwala contends. Technology plays a critical role in maintaining this balance. Technology can either make urban living easier or, if these systems are poorly applied, add to the costs. And if they make the many benefits of density, such as physical interaction, less important, that also serves to undermine the value of places like Manhattan.
Aggarwala argued that the telephone, one of the most important technologies of the last century, “undermined physical interaction. The telephone became the agent of sprawl.” In the same way, Uber and Lyft also make hailing a taxi, which used to require physical interaction, something digital that “works in sprawl.” Over time, the “urban convenience of hailing a taxi has become universal.”
Now imagine a highly-efficient, high-speed, coordinated system of AVs, which could make access to centralized transportation systems even less of a necessity. There will no longer be a need to live near a subway, bus, or rail station, or even own a car, with a community sharing rides in AVs. Furthermore, “if everyone is their own transit stop, will we even need transit-oriented development?”
With delivery of products via drones or autonomous delivery services, there is also less of a need to live near a shopping district. “Shopping could just become a destination luxury experience.” With the rise of ubiquitous, high-speed broadband, working from home will be even easier, as employees can create tele-presences for themselves in virtual work environments. And with distributed renewable energy facilities, suburbs could become as energy-efficient as dense cities, removing the appeal of living an environmental lifestyle in the city.
With these expected changes coming, will the value of density continue to outweigh the disadvantages in the future?
For Aggarwala, it will be critical for cities to get technology right in order to further reduce the frictions of density and make future urban life as pleasing as possible. “We need to use big data to make centralized systems higher performing.” For example, that will mean using data to make New York City’s urban transportation system much smarter and more responsive.
Today, the city’s subway seems to be a near-universal source of frustration, as outdated systems mean a power outage shuts down whole lines for hours and rush hour congestion makes the daily commute nearly unbearable. The answer, for Aggarwala, is to “layer digital and physical infrastructure” to make these systems work better.
Furthermore, “we need apps that enable people to share things more easily. We need ubiquitous monitoring systems, so police will treat people better. We need to reduce the coordination problems.” We need subways and bike share systems to connect seamlessly with AV stations.
“Technology can make density more attractive or not, urban life better or not. And reduce demand for cities and increase sprawl, or not.” It will really depend on urban communities and their political leaders to drive improvements that will maintain the appeal of city life and save the environment from sprawl.
In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its infrastructure report card, the first in four years. After crunching the data, they gave the U.S. a D+, explained Tom Smith, executive director, ASCE, at the American Society of Landscape Architect (ASLA)’s mid-year board meeting. “We have a lot of infrastructure at the end of its useful life. And we have a $2 trillion infrastructure investment gap over the next decade.”
Given America’s infrastructure is nearly failing, how should we rebuild? And where do we find the money?
In a panel moderated by ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Smith argued “we can’t just rebuild our grandparent’s infrastructure. We can’t just add more lanes to the highways. We need to focus on land-use planning, sustainability, and resilience. Autonomous vehicles will also be huge.”
Patrick Phillips, Global CEO, Urban Land Institute (ULI), said compact transit-oriented development could “reduce the need for infrastructure.” He believes infrastructure in the future needs to be more smartly targeted to achieve economic development goals but also improve equity. A focus on inclusiveness can lead to new possibilities and a fairer future.
Rachel Minnery, senior director of sustainability policy at American Institute of Architects (AIA) wants to see new infrastructure investments help deal with climate challenges by improving our resilience. “We have a vast stock of existing buildings” that must be made more resilient. “We need a new era of visionary planning.”
“Parks and green infrastructure should be an investment priority,” said David Rouse, ASLA, research director at American Planning Association (APA), echoing APA’s official position on infrastructure. “Green infrastructure creates jobs. We can’t just recreate grey infrastructure.”
And Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs, ASLA, agreed, arguing that more investment is needed in “parks and national lands, which are also infrastructure.” National parks in particular are “overburdened,” said Smith, who noted that parks went down in the latest ASCE infrastructure report card. He added: “treating parks as infrastructure is an idea that resonates with people.”
Blackwell also made the case for increasing investments in “active transportation,” a term for infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike lanes, arguing that any major infrastructure investment must be comprehensive, and not just be about repairing highways and bridges.
So how to pay for the many trillions required for new infrastructure?
While states — even red ones — have raised gas taxes, the federal government hasn’t in decades and isn’t likely to in the future. President Trump has called for an increase in private investment in infrastructure through public-private partnerships (PPPs), but Somerville noted that PPPs usually privilege communities that can easily attract private investment. A private-sector led approach can then be expected to be leave poorer communities farther behind.
Phillips said there is “no silver bullet. We need a mix of private and public funds. Other countries are more effective at PPPs than us. Infrastructure can unlock opportunities in poorer neighborhoods. But, if poorly structured, a PPP doesn’t help.”
Minnery thinks the market will shift development and infrastructure investment patterns. Already the credit ratings of cities on coasts, which are most vulnerable to rising seas and storms, are taking a hit. As climate refugees increase in number and head inland, those cities will face pressure to increase development. “We have to think holistically as a nation about what this means.”
Minnery said there’s often a delay at the state level, because of a lack of resources in planning departments. These departments have huge stacks of projects awaiting review. “Planning departments never recovered from cuts after the 2008 recession.” Rouse also noted that if the planned EPA cuts go through, “that stack of project reviews will get even higher.”
He said “successful infrastructure projects are rooted in local visions and strong regional planning.” To move projects forward quickly, communities must have planning infrastructure in place.
Blackwell wondered if more infrastructure project review responsibilities could be devolved to states. Through the FAST Act, federal lawmakers enabled California, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Utah to conduct their own National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews on behalf of the federal government. The Hill reports that Ohio saved $4.6 million in the first three months of doing the reviews itself.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) urges policy makers and stakeholders to support an infrastructure plan that not only addresses today’s crumbling infrastructure, but also creates tomorrow’s resilient systems. ASLA recommends that the infrastructure plan includes the following:
Fixing Our Nation’s Water Infrastructure
Our nation’s deteriorating drinking water and wastewater systems require extensive maintenance and repairs—more than $655 billion in investments, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Less-costly green infrastructure solutions designed by landscape architects naturally absorb stormwater runoff—the major contributor to water pollution and unsafe drinking water.
ASLA urges policy makers to support a comprehensive infrastructure package that:
Increases funding for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds. These funds provide critical resources to states, localities, and water systems to improve water treatment infrastructure and help implement green infrastructure projects.
Reinforces EPA’s green infrastructure and low-impact development programs and policies, such as the Green Infrastructure Collaborative, Soak Up the Rain, Campus Rainworks, G3, and others, which provide communities with tangible, cost-effective solutions to address water management needs.
Upgrading to a Multimodal Transportation Network
Our nation’s roads and bridges are crumbling and in need of repair. Using expert planning and design techniques, landscape architects are helping to create less costly, more convenient transportation systems that also include walking, bicycling, and public transportation options.
To meet the demands of today’s transportation users, ASLA urges policy makers to support a comprehensive infrastructure package that:
Supports active transportation programs, like the Transportation Alternatives Program, Safe Routes to School, and Recreational Trails programs. Together, these programs are providing much-needed, low-cost transportation options for individuals, families, and communities across the country.
Enhances the Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants program, which, with increased funding, will successfully assist more states and local communities with building multimodal projects that address congestion, improve safety, and expand economic opportunity.
Invests in transit and transit-oriented development to meet the growing demand for expanded public transportation and intercity passenger rail systems across the country. Transit-oriented development is also critical to jump-starting local economic development.
Recognizing Public Lands, Parks, and Recreation as Critical Infrastructure
America’s natural infrastructure should be protected, preserved, and enhanced. Our public lands are also economic drivers and support critical jobs, tourism, and other economic development, yet there is a $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog of projects. Landscape architects design parks, trails, urban forests, and other open spaces that enhance communities and augment the value of other types of infrastructure.
ASLA urges policy makers to support an infrastructure plan that:
Invests in our nation’s public lands, including providing for construction, maintenance, and restoration projects at the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service.
Increases funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which provides critical assistance to urban, suburban, and rural communities for local park projects. Community parks are essential infrastructure that address stormwater, air quality, heat island effect, and public health issues.
Bolsters USDA’s Urban and Community Forestry program, which focuses on the stewardship of communities’ natural infrastructure and resources.
Designing for Resilience
Communities are increasingly faced with addressing hurricanes, tornadoes, severe flooding, wildfires, and other natural disasters. Landscape architects have the education, training, and tools to help these places rebuild homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure in a more resilient manner.
ASLA urges policy makers to support an infrastructure plan that:
Employs a sound planning and design process that incorporates disaster planning, which could greatly enhance a community’s resilience to extreme weather, sea-level rise, and other natural events.
Provides adequate funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to continue efforts that help communities adapt to and mitigate coastal hazards.
Expands the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design competition for additional regions affected by natural disasters. The Rebuild by Design competition is a multistage planning and design competition that uses the expertise of multidisciplinary design teams to promote resilience in the Hurricane Sandy-affected region.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) released this statement in response to President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal:
“We are disappointed with President Trump’s budget blueprint, which calls for dramatic cuts to many of the federal programs and resources that strengthen our nation’s infrastructure and economic development.”
President Trump’s recommendation to completely eliminate two critical community development programs, the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and the Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants program, is short-sighted. TIGER has been one of the most successful and popular programs with lawmakers, communities and transportation planners like landscape architects – the number of applications far exceeding the amount of available funding.
ASLA is also extremely concerned that President Trump’s proposal would drastically reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by a staggering 31 percent, thereby severely crippling key air and water quality programs and critical climate change research and resources. The budget recommendation purports to increase funding for EPA’s Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds by $4 million.
However, the budget also eliminates $498 million from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Water and Wastewater loan and grant program and instead recommends that rural communities access EPA’s State Revolving Funds, thus leaving State Revolving Funds with a $494 million reduction in funding.
The Society recently released recommendations for updating and strengthening all forms of infrastructure, including enhancing the TIGER grants program, expanding State Revolving Funds, increasing funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and others. Together, these recommendations will help provide communities with the much-needed infrastructure upgrades to become more livable and resilient places to live, work and recreate. Unfortunately, if enacted, this Trump budget proposal would leave many communities vulnerable.
We understand that this proposal is the start of a long legislative process. The Society will continue to work with legislators to ensure that funding is available for sound infrastructure solutions that American communities are demanding.
Driverless Cars Could Change Urban Landscape – The Chicago Tribune, 2/17/17 “If self-driving cars lead to a significant drop in the number of vehicles on the road, parking garages could be turned into apartments or stores. Curbside parking could be converted into rainwater-collecting bio swales that help prevent sewers from backing up. Roads would narrow. Sidewalks would widen.”
Wastelands Reborn– CityLab, 2/17/17
“As my colleague Laura Bliss explores in her story about New York’s Freshkills Park, some of the best parts of certain metropolitan areas are literally built on dumps. There’s a whole genre of these parks, from César Chávez Park in Berkeley to the Tiffit Nature Reserve in Buffalo.”
The Global Street Design Guide is the latest in a series of publications from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) that re-imagines our urban streets as more multi-dimensional, aesthetic, efficient, safe and enjoyable spaces. The Global Street Design Guide uncovers what works in cities around the world, the cities that are trying to use streets for place making and city building. This invaluable guide brings together extremely useful information and metrics that can assist city administrations, urban designers, planners, landscape architects, and the public in forging new directions in street design. That said, this guide really needs to target city administrations and their engineering departments if it is to truly become an effective, transformative tool.
There still is a formidable battle going on out there between those who see streets as the domain of the automobile and those who don’t. For many cities, this polarized view has become extreme, perhaps, ironically, more so in progressive cities that have tried hard to integrate alternate forms of transportation and uses into the existing network. This guide can help make the case for multi-modal or, as otherwise known, complete streets.
Because many cities have differing standards, customs, and uses for their streets, this book cannot serve as a template for a specific design (nor do I think it’s intended to be). However, this guide contains all the background data, standards, and dimensions needed to help any designer build a layered, competent, and thorough street design in any part of the world. At the very least, it will help in reducing the guess work and sometimes incorrect assumptions that many designers make when it comes to how streets really work.
My own experiences in China highlight that streets there are very different than from those in Western countries. For example, it is not uncommon, along both major and secondary streets, to see commercial frontages, with widened pedestrian areas planned as public places, be partially or wholly taken over by parking. This parking then disrupts pedestrian flows and the ability to use streets as public spaces. Designers must deal with this reality and patiently try to transform practices.
In China, city planners typically set broad goals for better street design, but decisions to proceed one way or the other are made at a political level, then filter back down to the administrative level, before becoming a part of the design parameters of most streetscape projects. Nonetheless, things are changing. I can see the information in this book as being extremely helpful with developing strategic opening salvos during the preliminary stages of large scale streetscape projects in cities where I currently practice.
Additionally, the practical dimensional information in the guide should be well received by city planners in Asia, where in most cities Western urban design ideas are held in high regard. Because the information contained in this book has been guided by some of the world’s leading thinkers on city building, transportation, and open space design, it becomes an even more potent and convincing arrow in the urban design quiver.
There is a chapter on phasing and interim strategies that I found particularly compelling, since from experience, this is indeed a good way to build consensus with nervous or skeptical stakeholders.
I appreciate the book’s graphic style. The many illustrative drawings include diagrams, plans, sections and well-modeled, 3-D birds’ eye views. They are unadorned, factual, simple, and clear.
Clear, concise sectional geometry options and how they respond the various user needs. This type of tool could be helpful when deciding which geometries could serve a particular project best.
But I also found a few faults with the book. Including many global urban case studies is helpful and informative. However, from my own experience, there are many more good examples out there. Appreciating that a book like this simply cannot feature them all, perhaps a more comprehensive listing of lesser known, but exemplary global examples could be included in the next edition. Readers could then search more on their own.
The overall quality of the photographs is somewhat lacking. They could have perhaps been better placed, higher quality, and more impactful. In some cases they just didn’t seem like the right shot to communicate the idea. A few of the two page spreads register rather poorly along the spine margin resulting in some of the information irritatingly obscured.
All in all, the NACTO Global Street Design Guide should finds its way onto the shelves of all design and planning firms responsible for improving urban streets, regardless of where they practice. As important, it should also be in the hands of politicians, administrators, and engineers who collectively are very much in control of the direction our cities are heading.
Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, is a principal at PFS Studio, a global planning, urban design, and landscape architecture firm based in Vancouver, Canada. In addition to his North American and European work, he often undertakes large-scale planning, design and streetscape projects in Asia with Conglian Landscape Architecture and Planning Shanghai Ltd., a strategically allied joint enterprise with offices in Shanghai, Ningbo and Guangzhou, China.