Can Urban Bicycle Networks Help Develop Sustainable Communities?

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As the Urban Bicycle Networks and Sustainable Communities series draws to a close, it would be great to say that I’ve established a definitive connection between the two. Sadly, that’s not happened. That is not to say the connection does not exist, or has not been hinted at within this series, more that establishing comprehensive proof is difficult. In part, this can be attributed to a lack of research with a specific focus on the effects of physical bicycle networks rather than bicycle use itself. Numerous independent reports from cities all over the world have generated similar findings as to the spending habits of cyclists, yet few have studied the economic effects of the infrastructure those cyclists rely on. With convincing research available on both spending habits and the change in cycling levels as cities develop their bicycle networks, it is easy, and possibly quite reliable, to form connections between the two, yet a lack of attempts to address the connection is frustrating.

This series deliberately focussed on the physical infrastructure behind a bicycle network, partly as an attempt to establish tangible and quantifiable connections. Yet in addition to the difficulty of proving such connections, the importance of the non-tangible elements of sustainable communities has become even more obvious. Cyclists spending habits are understood, and a perceived local economic benefit from developing urban bicycle networks was expressed by some. However, the social impact of shopping locally is harder to get a broad view of. Concepts such as whether a bicycle network encourages social interaction between residents and local shopkeepers are impossible to quantify, yet developments such as these can be considered important contributors when creating sustainable communities.

Sense of place and access to services can both be analysed from a tangible and non-tangible viewpoint. By looking at a city’s urban form and the layout of its bicycle network, the potential for improved access to services can easily be understood. Amsterdam, for example, with its relatively small size, tendency for mixed-use developments, and comprehensive network of bicycle lanes and bicycle priority roads, is ideal for accessing services via bicycle. Assuming that such a network would encourage increased bicycle use (which levels of cycling in Amsterdam might suggest), then a fuller sense of place could be generated, albeit without the guarantee of that sense of place being positive. Even with the many assumptions present in that statement, less tangible methods could be used. The anonymity associated with automobile use was raised within this series, as was the potential for an increased connection with a city brought about by using a mode of travel without a physical divide. Might this be just as valuable a contributor to sustainable communities, even if it is more complex to analyse than the combination of urban form and bicycle network design?

Amsterdam’s form is an excellent starting point for sustainable communities, which its web-like bicycle network has further supported. London has demonstrated with its newest bicycle network additions that a large city with a dominant commuting culture can indeed increase levels of cycling by a noteworthy amount, though the approach taken has been less of a positive contributor to sustainable communities. San Francisco’s efforts clearly show that a bicycle network is not the sole contributor to urban cycling levels, or sustainable communities. Yet despite different findings from these cities, each also demonstrated the limited capabilities of a bicycle network. Equity was an issue, with even Amsterdam struggling to achieve truly equitable distribution. Enrique Peñalosa offers a different view of equity, arguing that a bicycle network is an equitable transport addition simply due to the fact that it offers another transport option to those unable to afford a car. Either through an inability or a lack of interest, some people are never going to want to ride a bicycle, regardless of the bicycle network they are surrounded by. That those people do not choose to cycle does not mean the bicycle network has failed to be equitable.

Political support in both Amsterdam and San Francisco has no doubt played a part in their respective cycling successes, made all the more powerful by citizen enthusiasm for cycling and bicycle networks. London, on the other hand, has taken a much slower approach with its bicycle network, one which is laden with compromise. The British capital acts as a sad example of the comparatively poor standard a bicycle network can reach when political and organisational efforts do not match the enthusiasm of its residents.

Understanding the effect of both local urban form and bicycle network form has been a key part of the approach taken within this series, although one simple factor frequently emerged – especially during primary research – as an all-encompassing answer to local bicycle network variations: ‘culture’, or the numerous interconnected and non-tangible elements that make up a community. The same non-tangible elements that were consciously avoided within this piece of work, that are, in hindsight, likely to be equally significant, if thoroughly difficult to quantify, contributors to sustainable communities. Maybe it’s time to start planning Urban Bicycle Networks + Sustainable Communities – Part 2.

Image courtesy of Luana Spagnoli on flickr