Soaring above the city on a bike: you can’t deny it would be a cool way to get around. One of the greatest pleasures of urban transport is being the passenger in a car travelling along an elevated highway — being immersed in the city yet removed from it, revealing a perspective inaccessible to you as a pedestrian. Why should drivers get all the fun, especially when their cars are so destructive to the environmental and social fabric of the city?
That’s apparently a question Norman Foster has been asking himself. Late last year, the British architect proposed a network of elevated bicycle highways that would run above London’s railroad tracks, giving cyclists the kind of speedy right-of-way that motorists have enjoyed for so long. 220 kilometres of elevated bike routes would thread through the city, accessible from 200 locations. Like expressways, these would facilitate long-distance rather than local travel; the idea is to make cycling to work a quick and comfortable alternative to cars and trains.
Though it is not the first time an architect has proposed a network of elevated bike paths, the idea has proven controversial. It’s not only because of SkyCycle’s expense — a 6.5-kilometre trial section would cost £220 million — but because of its ideological implications. There is something decidedly old-fashioned about grade-separated solutions to transport problems. Footbridges, pedestrian tunnels, elevated highways: these are the future of the past. We live in an era when highways are being dismantled and replaced by urban boulevards; “complete streets” is the rallying call of today’s progressive planners.
Many urbanists did not take kindly to SkyCycle. Mikael Colville-Andersen, who runs the urban mobility consulting firm Copenhagendize, called the scheme a “city-killing, Blade Runner fantasy.” He writes: “Removing great numbers of citizens who could be cycling down city streets past shops and cafés on their way to work or school and placing them on a shelf, far away from everything else.”
I came across these bicycles on Janpath, in Central Delhi, not far from Connaught Place. They were resting just outside a construction site, so I assume they were owned by workers. What caught my eye wasn’t the bikes, though, it was the woven plastic baskets hanging from each of their handles.
My love affair with Bixi remains undiminished. This despite the wear-and-tear its popularity has caused — I have been left frustrated by broken docks and bikes on more than a couple of occasions — and the fact that accessibility on the fringes of its service areas is a bit spotty. (It’s no fun to bike home to Park Extension at 3am only to find out there’s no docking spots left at Parc metro, the only Bixi station in the entire neighbourhood.) I love the convenience of being able to cycle without worrying about a bike, the heft and stability of the big Bixi bikes, and even the name, which rolls off the tongue so easily and can be used as both a verb and a noun.
While Bixi has made cycling an even more assertive part of Montreal life, this was a bicycle city long before the first bike share stations opened in 2008. It’s one of the only places in North America where you see lots bikes used not only by students and cycling enthusiasts, but also by parents with children, deliverymen riding specialized three-wheel bikes and people hauling stuff around. I’ve put together a handful of photos, mostly taken last summer, of Montreal by bike. Take a look.
Beijing’s rate of cycling has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, as the economy has developed and more people buy cars. As a result, the city is mired in horrendous gridlock and some of the worst air pollution on earth.
But cycling is still an important mode of transport in China’s capital; according to most estimates, it’s how 25 percent of the population gets around. Now that the government is placing restrictions on car use and ownership, cycling seems to have reversed its decline, even if it still isn’t an attractive option for the newly-monied classes who see car ownership as an essential status symbol.
One thing you continue to see in Beijing that you don’t notice in emerging cycling cities like Montreal is a real diversity of cyclists. People of all ages get around by bike, including people from a wide range of backgrounds: schoolkids, restaurant workers, well-dressed old women, and of course that most global of cycling creatures, the fixie-riding hipster.
Second in a series of three posts about Hong Kong’s waterfront. Read the first post here.
The Kwun Tong promenade opened last year on an industrial stretch of waterfront facing the runway of the old Kai Tak Airport. It’s very short — just 200 metres — but the plan is to continue expanding it until it joins whatever will be built along the waterfront of Kai Tak, which is on the verge of being redeveloped into a large residential and commercial area.
So far, what exists is promising. The design language takes its cues from the surrounding industrial blocks, with plenty of exposed steel that goes nicely with the wood boardwalk. Water vapour is released from vents inside the boardwalk, which is a nice cinematic touch, especially on a hazy winter day. On one end of the promenade is a sculpture inspired by the large bricks of paper that once occupied this stretch of waterfront, waiting to be loaded onto barges and shipped to China for recycling.
There isn’t much to do here but sit and admire the view. If the rest of the promenade turns out to be like this, it would be a problem. A whole kilometre of it would feel one-dimensional. But for the moment, it’s fine, because this is one of just a couple of places in East Kowloon where you can actually get close to the water.
Sai Kung’s bicycle graveyard is back and bigger than ever. Last Wednesday, dozens of bikes were seen piled atop one another on a stretch of government land in the suburban Hong Kong district.
It’s a symptom of a wider problem – an acute shortage of bicycle parking spaces and a government that seems unwilling to address the problem.
According to the last Travel Characteristics Survey, which was conducted in 2002, 15.2 percent of people in Hong Kong had a bicycle available for use. The Cycling Alliance estimates there are more than a million bikes throughout the city.
But the government provides only 41,440 public bicycle parking spots. As a result, many cyclists leave their bicycles attached to roadside fences where they risk being seized by the government. After the bikes are confiscated, there is no way for their owners to reclaim them.
The Sai Kung dump is one of several used by the government to store bicycles confiscated from public areas. They are eventually auctioned in bulk to scrap metal dealers. Last year, after the South China Morning Post ran a story about the practice, the Sai Kung dump was cleared. But now it has returned, with even more bikes than before. Cyclists are outraged.
“This is first and foremost a failure of the government to provide better cycling facilities,” says Hong Kong Cycling Alliance member Martin Turner. “We have a crying need for more bicycle parking but the response of the government is that bikes are a litter problem to be cleared away.”
Imagine it’s a beautiful autumn day in Hong Kong. The summer’s humidity has vanished and you’re out enjoying the fine weather, bicycling along Victoria Harbour. You pass the Star Ferry pier, the new government headquarters at Tamar, then Victoria Park, all the while gazing out at the jade green water.
That was the vision presented by a group of cycling advocates at the Harbourfront Commission on September 7th. The Hong Kong Cycling Alliance is urging the commission to include a 16-kilometre cycleway in its plans for a continuous public promenade along the shoreline of Victoria Harbour. Its members argue that cycling would enliven the waterfront while also creating an easy way to travel between its different nodes of activity.
“Cycling is the most convenient, efficient mode of transportation known to man — and it’s just right for the harbourfront, which we want to be peaceful and well-connected,” says Martin Turner, a member of the Cycling Alliance. “I can see a family going there and hiring bikes for an afternoon. And commuters won’t have to sit on a bus for 45 minutes at the start of the morning. They can get some fresh air and improve their health.”
Turner and other cycling advocates hope that giving bikes a place on the waterfront could encourage cycling not only as a recreational activity but as a convenient way to get around the city. That would bring Hong Kong into line with cities as diverse as Hangzhou, New York and Paris, where cycling has become increasingly popular — and where local governments enthusiastically promote it as a healthy, ecologically-friendly form of transport.
“Our goal is to make cycling a part of everyday life in Hong Kong,” says Cycling Alliance member Philip Heung. For that to happen, though, cycling advocates must face the mother of all obstacles: changing government policy, which does not consider bicycles a means of transportation, even as cycling appears to grow more popular in both the New Territories and the urban areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
The modern bicycle was invented in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until the “safety bicycle” was introduced in the 1890s that cycling really caught on. The new bikes featured chain-drive transmission, pneumatic tires, a metal frame and two small wheels of equal size; they were exponentially more comfortable than the bulky, bone-shaking dandy horses and velocipedes of earlier eras. Their innovation led to cycling’s first episode of mainstream popularity.
More and more city streets were being paved, and with the Model T still a decade away from production, the only things that newly-minted cyclists had to worry about were pedestrians and horse shit. The map above, pulled from the collection of the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec by Spacing Montreal’s Alanah Heffez, shows a collection of bike-friendly streets and roads in turn-of-the-century Montreal. The emphasis is clearly on recreational cycling through the countryside — most of the island was still undeveloped back then — but it suggests the extent to which cycling was seen as an attractive way to get around.
Things changed in the twentieth century, of course. Like most cities, Montreal became more and more oriented around the automobile. Cycling never quite died out the way it did in other cities, and it enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after the 1970s, but it was still a distinctly eccentric way to get around. Even when new cycling infrastructure was built under the Jean Doré administration in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn’t clear whether it was built with the intent to facilitate cycling as recreation or transportation. Plenty of people got around Montreal by bike, but it wasn’t until very recently, when the number of cyclists and cycling infrastructure reached a kind of critical mass, that cycling became a widely accepted way of moving around the city.
Last month, I returned to Montreal for a couple of weeks and I made great use of Bixi, the city’s expansive bike-sharing system. Bixi is now in its third year and the honeymoon it first enjoyed with the public is clearly over; in recent months, the local newspapers have been filled with stories about discontent over broken bikes, a budget shortfall and new advertising panels on each bicycle. Yet the system remains vastly popular: its ridership has grown by 40 percent this year alone, with two million trips taken halfway through the cycling season.
Beijing is at least two cities. There’s the Beijing of the hutongs, a largely low-slung, grayscaled cityscape lying along the occasionally meandering little streets one can find within the old city walls, a one to two kilometer radius of Tiananmen Square. Then there’s the rest of Beijing, a march of high and midrise office and apartment buildings that have both infiltrated the city of the hutongs and supplanted much of remains of Mao’s capital: the cheaply built factories and shambolic workers’ dormitories built beyond the old city.
There are pockets of modern construction all over Beijing’s historical core, but the incursion of the new Beijing into the old is only really consistent along the ten lane-wide route of Chang’an Avenue, the city’s ceremonial main east-west axis, which slices in half the heart of the city with flanks of flashy new banks and government office buildings. The rest of new Beijing lies out beyond the old city and its present outer limit: the Second Ring Road, Beijing’s innermost orbital expressway, which replaced hutong Beijing’s medieval defenses with a different sort of wall — one formed by bumper-to-bumper traffic.
The slowdown of Beijing’s “modernization” has brought with it a stalemate between high-rise and hutong. It’s particularly evident in Xicheng, in the western part of the old city, where the shimmering but somewhat stumpy towers of Beijing Financial Street, intended to form the new commercial heart of China, rise awkwardly against a backdrop of some of the city’s dustiest laneways. And not far away, across the Second Ring Road, the chaotic streetlife of the hutongs has even found a foothold even amid the seemingly hostile, modern streets and plazas of the new city.
Morning rush hour in Utrecht, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, and there’s no traffic jams — just bikes. Lots of bikes.
Like most Dutch cities, bicycles enjoy pride of place in Utrecht, where they are used for roughly one-third of all trips made each day. What impresses me most about this video is not the sheer number of bicycles you see in this video, it’s what you don’t see: collisions, cyclist-pedestrian conflicts, helmets.
In North America, where cities like Montreal and New York are aggressively promoting bike use, there are constant complaints from drivers about unruly cyclists. What those drivers don’t seem to understand is the extent to which the rules of the road are stacked against cyclists. If someone on a bike is riding the wrong way down a one-way street, it’s because the street runs in a single direction for the benefit of drivers and no one else. If they fail to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, again, it’s because those stop signs exist to control the movement of cars — bicycles would do far better with a yield.
Utrecht suggests that having streets that are designed with cyclists in mind, as well as cars, buses and pedestrians, leads to a far better environment for everyone involved.
The following essay appears in the August 2010 issue of Muse, a Hong Kong arts and culture magazine.
I still remember bicycling up Mount Royal. It was a warm summer night and there were five of us riding through the streets of Montreal, looking for something to do. Somebody suggested heading up the mountain that rises like a crouching giant from the middle of the city. The path uphill was surprisingly level but completely dark. Our eyes rendered useless, we relied on our other senses to guide us forward, listening to the gravel under our tires, the wind in the trees. The air smelled damp and earthy. I looked up at the treetops silhouetted against the bright city sky.