Urban Bicycle Networks and an Improved Sense of Place


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A good bicycle network acts as a connection between local services, offering an easy and environmentally sustainable way for local communities to get around. The addition of a bicycle network can open up areas previously disconnected due to poor public transport connections, making a city even more discoverable.

During the 1980s, the Dutch city of Delft invested heavily in its bicycle network. Creating new bicycle lanes, bridges, and bi-directional roads, the city found that cyclists started changing their routes, passing through parts of the city that previously had few cyclists. By investing in its bicycle network, Delft’s cycling patterns shifted, and trips by bicycle started to spread across the whole city.

This kind of change is powerful for more than one reason. Easier access to urban areas is incredibly valuable, but by improving access, bicycle use could also potentially develop an individual’s sense of place. When I met up with Marc van Woudenberg – founder of the cycling blog Amsterdamize – earlier this year, he called a bicycle’s potential to improve sense of place ‘one of the most underrated elements of cycling’, contrasting it to car users ‘sitting in their box, isolated’, adding ‘when you’re riding a bicycle, you see something you like and you can stop.’

There is also support for this view from beyond the blogosphere. Mario Polése criticised automobiles for ‘reducing points of contact’, allowing urban residents to ‘travel from one point in the city to another without ever observing neighbourhoods inhabited by other ethnic or social classes’. On the benefits of slower transport modes, Glenn Lowcock suggests ‘we’ll become more aware of people living nearby and a greater level of social cohesion will develop’.

Despite the potential for better access to urban services and improved sense of place, not all agree that changes brought about by developing a city’s bicycle network will be positive for local communities. William H. Whyte expresses concern that the smaller scale developments theoretically encouraged by a reliance on bicycles could be culturally damaging, worrying that it would be ‘tougher for small areas to create lively spaces’. If a city’s scale were to be defined by its bicycle network, could it become a dull city?

Quantifying ‘sense of place’ also introduces complications. In fact, it’s an impossible task. Even if a bicycle network does increase access, the resulting effect on an individual’s sense of place can’t be positive by default, largely down to the fact that every person has a different sense of place for the same place.

What is your experience of your city’s bicycle network? Has it improved access, and has it improved your own sense of place?

Image courtesy of andreybl on flickr

  • Rick Risemberg

    Whom is Whyte trying to kid? Smaller-scale places encourage interaction, both social and commercial. Larger-scale places reduce people to units in a  herd. Freeways and fast roads keep people confined in cars except at very limited nodal points, where their actions need to be controlled because of sheer numbers. Bicycle networks allow multiple nodes and wider varieties of social and commercial activities to develop, providing more vectors for personal, social, and economic expression. They also let people see and stop to explore what they are traveling through.

    Times Square is much, much smaller than a typical Wal-Mart and its parking lot, but which is more alive?

    As a bicyclist, I see more of Los Angeles than any driver can ever hope to. I go by bike to meet someone in an area I haven’t previously visited, and when I exclaim over the charms of their neighborhood to them, they are usually puzzled because they’ve never seen them, as they always drive! This happens to me often.

    • http://amsterdamize.com amsterdamize

      what Rick just said ;).

      And I’ll quote James Howard Kunstler: “Make a place attractive and people will flock. They will go to places they actually want to be.”

  • Newcastle Cycling Campaign New

    The urban revolution and successful regeneration of our grey spaces depends on how much we allow the bicycle to make it happen.