Mikael Colville-Andersen: Building City Streets to Move People (on Bikes)

Image courtesy of Ontario Good Roads Association

Mikael Colville-Andersen: Building City Streets to Move People (on Bikes)

Story by Albert Koehl
Photos by Wayne Scott

The dilemma for Toronto’s cycling community was on full display Monday night during a presentation by Mikael Colville-Andersen, CEO and founder of Copenhagenize Design Co., and the discussion that followed with Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmat, and Straphanger author Taras Grescoe.

People will ride bikes if it’s fast and convenient (i.e. you won’t convince them by talking about the environment, says Colville-Andersen). The most important factor is good infrastructure. Getting good infrastructure requires political leadership. Political leadership will develop from a strong grassroots movement. And grassroots support will grow when cycling is fast and convenient.

Colville-Andersen jokes that he doesn’t design political leaders, he just designs good streets for cyclists.

Copenhagenize Design works around the world to make cities better places to live, relying heavily on the bicycle. The bicycle, proclaims the company’s website “is the most powerful tool in the urban toolbox for rebuilding our urban spaces to become more life-sized.”

Colville-Andersen’s examples about urban cycling success stories makes the Toronto listener feel distinctly like the dullard in the room, given our slow progress on bike lanes, but he assures us that cycling infrastructure is a simple solution that works everywhere. It’s somehow heartening to hear that Colville-Andersen was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta (Canada’s tar sands capital) and grew up in Calgary, even if he has lived in Copenhagen --- where 400,000 people per day ride bikes and where his company is based --- for the last 23 years.

Image of Colville-Andersen's powerpoint presentation - courtesy of Wayne Scott

Colville-Andersen says the problem with urban design in Western cities started with the arrival of the automobile – a machine initially detested by much of the population for the danger it created. Effective marketing, he says (citing Peter Norton’s book Fighting Traffic), succeeded in “changing our perception of what streets were for.” Eventually the main question asked by traffic engineers, who had been put in charge of our roads, was: “how many cars do we fit down this street?”

Today, the question has finally been transformed into: “how many people can we move down the street?” For the first time in 100 years we are looking at our cities in a different way and “the bicycle leads the way,” says Colville-Andersen. He quotes former mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanöe: “The fact is that automobiles no longer have a place in the big cities of our time.”

It’s now “time for us to re-democratize our streets; to re-democratize our urban landscape,” argues Colville-Andersen.

Key elements of a good cycling city are traffic calming, a bike share program, and infrastructure. In terms of the appropriate type of infrastructure, in Copenhagen streets with 40 kmh speed limits generally get painted bike lanes; at 50 kmh, grade separated bike lanes; and at higher speeds complete separation (sometimes using bi-directional lanes).

Copenhagenize Design focuses on design and observation -- and data. (He says it’s important for activists to gather their own data.)

Traffic engineers traditionally tell people where they should go, instead of designing streets to allow people to go where they want to go. His company focuses on planning based on observed mobility patterns, or what he calls “desire lines.” There has, however, been surprisingly little research, says Colville-Andersen, about how cyclists move around a city.

On the issue of the common characterization of cyclists as “rogues” in the urban landscape (both in Copenhagen and here), he points to observations by his company at a particular Copenhagen intersection. It turned out that only 7% of cyclists disobeyed the law. Colville-Andersen characterizes most law-breaking cyclists as “momentumists” – they don’t like to stop because of the effort it requires. He concludes that, “Good design improves human behaviour. Citizens react to the infrastructure (or lack of it) with their behaviour. Listen to them. Don’t scold them.”

One of the great opportunities in cities today is how we move cargo. Colville-Andersen says that 51% of cargo in European cities could be moved on a bike or bike trailer. It’s a point Wayne Scott, a former foot and bike messenger in Toronto, has pushed for years.

Cycling infrastructure should be an obvious choice even for fiscal conservatives given how fast investments in cycling infrastructure pay for themselves. In Denmark, therefore, it’s no surprise that even right-leaning politicians vote for bike lanes. Colville-Andersen says that 67% of the members of Danish Parliament actually cycle to work. The savings are certainly convincing. He says riding a bike for one kilometre saves the community 24 cents (Cdn), while driving a car for the same distance costs 91 cents.

Image of Colville-Andersen's powerpoint presentation - courtesy of Wayne Scott

Earlier in the day, Colville-Andersen spoke at a conference of the Ontario Good Roads Association. He jokes that he got jovial pats on the back for his talk but no so much enthusiasm for his recommendations to implement cycling infrastructure. If the Ontario Good Roads Association is today slow to come around to the idea of good roads for cycling, it’s only because they’ve strayed from their roots in the late 1800s. It was cyclists, sometimes allied with farmers, who pushed the good roads movement in an era when asphalted or even nicely graded roads weren’t the norm.

Colville-Andersen concludes by saying that Copenhagen’s bicycle network is the city’s “greatest monument.” In Toronto, we know that we don’t yet have much cycling infrastructure to brag about -- our monuments are mostly dedicated to the automobile. But Colville-Andersen says that cycling infrastructure works in all cities. He simply rejects the notion that, “It’ll never work here; it’s different here.”

Toronto’s cycling community is certainly familiar with the “It’ll never work here” response from many Council members whose goal remains to move as many cars as possible. It’s too bad these politicians still espouse a discredited transport wisdom that emanates from a by-gone era. It remains our job to convince them otherwise.

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer, writer, and co-founder of Bells on Bloor.

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