#1 Street Smarts for Smart Streets
Cars have taken up a lot of space in our growing cities. But are they a good answer to the question of mobility? It’s quite clear they’re not. Cities are now taking different measures to counterbalance that. So what is the way forward, and how do we get there?
Ann is the vice-mayor’s senior mobility policy advisor. For the past few years she worked on strategising and implementing a mobility overhaul for the city, which consisted mainly of freeing the inner city of motorised through traffic. This project was not without hurdles, but because of its success the so-called ‘circulation plan’ is now planned to expand to the periphery of the city as well.
Urbanist at hart, Mikael has strong ideas of what a cityscape should look like. With the Copenhagenize Design Company he exports the idea of bicycle urbanism across the globe, planning mobility networks with simplicity and common sense, while influencing policies to (re)align with human nature for more liveable cities.
With a background as a prominent analyst in the tech and automobile industry, Horace was enamored when he first came across an electric bicycle. After coining the term micromobility, he’s on a quest to spread the word about these lightweight electric vehicles, organising events and hosting a podcast on the topic. Schooled as a business pundit, yet with a keen eye for the social and environmental impact.
Additional notes & links
- While most North-Americans look to Europe as the land of cyclists and their infrastructure, the US actually once was a world leader in bike lanes. Check out this LA bicycle highway in the early 1900s:
- Some thought-provoking numbers from city planner & urbanist Brent Toderian (here’s more data from him):
The typical European car is parked 92% of the time. It spends 1/3rd of its driving time looking for parking. Its 5 seats only move 1.5 people. 86% of its fuel never reaches the wheels, & most of the energy that does, moves the car, not people. #CityMakingMath— Brent Toderian (@BrentToderian) July 30, 2018
HT @brent_bellamy pic.twitter.com/qvaYm7QjsY
- There’s a lot of scepticism about self-driving cars. Here are two good summaries, one from the Wall Street Journal and one from The Outline.
- An interesting study about the adoption and impact of ride-hailing.
- The oversupply of shared bikes in China has led to enormous bicycle graveyards. Take a look at these staggering pictures.
- Hear Michael Colville-Andersen talk more about Bicycle Culture by Design is this Ted Talk.
🎵 All music by Lennart Schoors, except:
Lee Rosevere – More On That Later
Mikael Colville-Andersen by Rui-Camilo.de
Lennart Schoors: Alright, it is now 2 minutes to midnight, and I’m here in Ghent, Belgium, the city where I live. It’s a cold and wet night, there’s a few inches of snow, but I’m waiting here, standing right next to a bicycle counter. Two wires on the path track every bicycle that passes here, and a big display shows the result of that count. The city has installed several of these along the busiest bike lanes throughout the centre. And every night at 12PM, this number is reset. The one I’m currently looking at is at 1247, which is a fairly low figure. On a beautiful spring day, when all the students are in town, that number can go up to 6, 7, even 8 thousand bicycles, resulting in a daily average close to 4000.
Now, this counter also displays the yearly total. And the total for 2018 stands at about 1.4 million. Ah, and there you have it, a new day has begun, and the counter was reset back to zero.
Mei Van Walleghem: By measuring the traffic on the bicycle paths, such as the one Lennart was standing on, the city can make more informed decisions about mobility. This particular bike lane was getting awfully crowded during rush hours. As a result, the city has recently started converting the adjacent road, which was a residential one-way street, into what’s called a bike street. That means bikes come first and motorised vehicles are not allowed to overtake you. The old bike lane was then turned into a regular sidewalk.
This is just one example of how pedestrians and cyclists are slowly becoming more valued road users in the city, reclaiming their space from the car.
This is Tomorrow People, a show about building a better tomorrow, today. I’m Lennart, and I am Mei.
Ghent: Circulation plan
Lennart: Mei, I have a question for you. When was the last time you used a car?
Mei: Uhmmm … about a month ago, I believe. Oh yeah, I had to get to the doctors’ office out of town for a follow-up, ironically after my cycling accident. I’m so happy I get to ride my bike again now!
Lennart: Yeah, I can imagine. You know, about 10 years ago, I lived in the suburbs and worked in the city. I had a company car and a reserved parking spot right in the middle of the historic centre. I didn’t think about it and just drove into town every day. Convenience, you know. Now however, I moved closer to the city again, and I think the car I have will now will probably be the last one I ever own? The alternatives just work better for me.
Mei: Well, it’s easiest for us, living in an urban area, to just jump on a bike really. It beats being stuck in traffic. Did you know that about three out of four Europeans live in a city today? And those numbers are only going up. More and more people need to get from A to B within those dense environments.
Lennart: But there’s no room for any more cars. The share of public space they have claimed over the years is already out of proportion. In Berlin for example, less than one tenth of commuters take the car, yet they use a whopping two thirds of the public space in the city. And for bicycles and pedestrians, it’s the other way round: they make up a large majority of commuters, but they only get to use 7% of that public space. No matter how you look at it, that makes zero sense.
Mei: You’re not kidding. When I was in Rome last winter I was surprised and admittedly annoyed by the multitude of cars and other motorised traffic everywhere. Probably because of the contrast with what I’m used to. Luckily countless cities are taking steps to restore the balance. They’re redesigning streets, removing parking spaces and banning diesel cars. Big capitals like Oslo, London, Madrid, Paris, Athens, you name them. But also smaller places like our hometown here in Belgium, where it all began with a plan from the city council.
Ann Plas: The problem we wanted to tackle was the issue that mobility in Ghent was getting worse.
Mei: This is Ann
Ann: My name is Ann Plas. I’m working for vice-mayor Filip Watteeuw – he’s the one who is responsible for the mobility in Ghent – and I am his advisor on the topic of mobility.
Mei: The story in Ghent was a familiar one of congestion, traffic jams, and just overall grumpiness.
Ann: It was much more difficult for cyclists, pedestrians and public transport to get through the city in a safe and smooth way. We had around 45 to 50 percent through traffic in our city, this means traffic that just drives through the city with no stops at all.
Mei: So a plan was designed to counter all this, the circulation plan.
Lennart: In short, it divides the inner city into 7 sectors. To drive from one sector to the other, you have to circle back to the ring road that surrounds them, preventing you from cruising through the city centre. Now this only applies to regular motorised traffic. Emergency vehicles, public transport, bicycles and of course pedestrians, they can still go from sector to sector undeterred. But public opinion and the media they quickly jumped to conclusions, labeling the plan as being anti-car even before it was implemented.
Ann: The car is for the moment anyhow a very important instrument for our mobility. It was not our purpose to be anti-car. So it’s not that we are against the car, it’s just that we want those that really have to get into the city make it easier for them, as well as for cyclists, as well for public transport.
Mei: In April 2017, the circulation plan was put into effect. And the numbers show a positive trend: through traffic went down, pollution went down, some recurring traffic jams disappeared, others just moved to a different spot. And from a cyclist’s point of view, the city’s generally nicer and safer to bike through.
But, let’s keep it real … it was not all sunshine and rainbows.
Ann: I think what we might have underestimated is the economical impact.
Mei: What happened is that a few stores lost a fair share of clients because of the shift in city dynamics. Some of it was to be expected, like a car dealership located in the now practically car-free inner city. Other businesses suffered because their out-of-town customers fell victim to the false impression that Ghent had simply become unreachable by car. The city had a hard time answering to those critical voices and countering the stubborn rumours.
Ann: Mobility is always a very emotional topic. I believe we had the proper communication. It can always be better and it can always be more. I think the communication and the false rumours that were spread about the circulation plan really had their influence in what happened afterwards.
Mei: The opposition got quite fierce, and even personal in the election campaign.
Ann: It was not a happy period for our vice-mayor. We actually expected like 2 or 3 months of very, very, very negative reactions and we really were prepared to take a shitload of bad stuff, but we really believed in what we were doing and we really were convinced that it was the right thing to do. After the introduction, after the implementation the positive people stood up. People who said like, ‘hmm, ti’s well thought trough and maybe you have to change a bit there, but for the rest everything works fine and I think it’s a good plan and I’m really happy with it’. And that’s what happened. And from that point on we were actually convinced that it would turn out right in the elections as well
Mei: And indeed, 18 months after the plan was implemented, vice mayor Filip Watteeuw and his party gained more seats on the city council, and he was re-elected for his position in charge of mobility.
Ann: It’s difficult to find that balance and see how far you can go. When we introduced the mobility plan we had a vision and we knew what we wanted to do, but of course we would have liked to have done more and maybe we should have done more, because we could have taken maybe a bit more of controversy after implementing. But that’s only what you know afterwards.
Mei: Of course, what happened in Ghent is not an isolated case.
Ann: What we did was not rocket science. This is a well-known concept and a proven concept. On the other hand you are working in your own city with you own context. And you cannot compare Ghent with Copenhagen, because we have another structure, we have another kind of streets, we have other [regulations]. You have to work with your own context, but there’s a lot of inspiration in a lot of cities, that’s for sure.
Mei: Ah Copenhagen and its’ reputation. The Valhalla of mobility. The green haven of sustainability. It is often called the bicycle capital of the world. But there was only one way to verify that status – We had to immerse ourselves in it.
[FLIGHT ATTENDANT ANNOUNCEMENT]
So I just landed in Copenhagen, capital of Denmark. And instead of taking the bus or subway into the city, I’m jumping straight on the favorite mode of transportation around here, the bicycle. Now, back home I already registered an account with the cities’ bike sharing network and I got a prepaid package. So for 300 Danish crowns, which is about 40 euros or 47 US dollars, I have 600 minutes in total to ride their bikes. I reckon that should get my through the week. Also, the wonderful thing about these shared city bikes is that they’re electric. So I don’t even have to break a sweat! And on top of that they each have a tablet, a touch tablet, mounted on the handlebars, complete with a built-in GPS and navigation. So I just show up to the docking station, I pick any fully charged bike, I enter my email and pin code on the screen, and off I go!
Lennart: Okay, here we are, right in the centre of Copenhagen. It took me about 30 minutes from the airport, along some very nice and wide bike paths. There’s some 350km of cycle tracks in Copenhagen, and features like bicycle highways and cyclist-friendly traffic lights make bikes often the fastest mode of transport here. It’s not that there are no cars at all, I mean you see cars everywhere. But still, at least as many bikes.
Mei: Upon arrival we immediately witnessed that there’s plenty of reasons to call Copenhagen the bicycle capital of the world, but here’s a few more numbers to clarify the scope of things. This city has about 700.000 inhabitants and they own 5 times as many bikes as cars. And there’s also 600 bicycle shops. A staggering 50 to 60 percent of all Copenhagen citizens commute by bike every single day.
Lennart: Yeah, no wonder the Danish capital has become a model city for cycling infrastructure. They even made the whole process into a verb: Copenhagenize. It’s no coincidence that is also the name of an urban design and city planning company. They work together with cities all over the world to map, plan and execute their transportation strategies. The goal of Copenhagenize is to show the world that Copenhagen is not a fluke – any city can work towards providing proper cycling infrastructure, and the people will follow. Our first destination was their office in the harbour.
Mikael Colville-Andersen: My name is Mikael Colville-Andersen. I’m the founder and CEO of Copenhagenize Design Company.
Lennart: our first question for him was to give a bird’s eye view of how we ended up in this situation, where cars rule most of our cities.
Mikeal: The bird’s eye view is that birds shit all over the city basically with automobiles. I mean that’s the sort version. It’s important to remember that we’ve lived in cities for 7000 years, 10.000 years, depending on who you talk to, and for almost that entire time the streets we the most democratic spaces in the history of homo sapiens. We did everything in the streets: we met, we transported ourselves, we bought and sold stuff, we flirted, we found our partners, our kids played, right? So when the automobile appeared on the urban landscape – it was a slow start, 1920’s and whatnot, but really starting in the 30’s and 40’s the automobile started to dominate – and traffic engineers just drank the Kool-Aid. And American traffic engineering was exported in the 1950’s when we were all through the war going, ‘let’s have some growth, let’s modernise’, so all over Europe, motorways were being planned.
Mei: This building of motorways was all done in good spirits of course. What we wanted was to separate different types of traffic, so slow traffic doesn’t hold up fast cars and vice versa. Yet we still demanded easy access to everything. So we put up huge asphalt parking lots next to every single point of interest. Ring roads and highways were built very close to urban areas. While public transit lines like tramways were often sacrificed. Our whole environment has been shaped by the very tool that is supposed to provide us with freedom.
Mikael: Nobody thought about it. We all believed in the automobile as the future of transport in our cities, we didn’t question, everywhere. We didn’t have any check and balance, we just sort of said, ‘yeah, copy/paste, let’s go, boom!’.
Lennart: So, how come Copenhagen escaped that path?
Mikael: We often talk about how Copenhagen was, it’s never always been Copenhagen as you see it today. I mean we were car clogged, congested, polluted, like you know everywhere on the planet in the 50’s and 60’s. We ran out of money in the 60’s so we couldn’t actually bulldoze entire neighbourhoods and put in these monstrous overhead motorway systems. Then we made some decisions in the 70’s and started the journey back to the future. So you know, you can live in a lucky city or an unlucky city, you know however fate dictates that. But that really what happened.
Lennart: It’s mostly by chance then that cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam have a thriving bicycle culture?
Mikael: I don’t believe in the phrase bicycle culture. The bicycle was a primary transport form in almost every city on the planet for about, you know, 50 to 70 years. So we’re not inventing something new and crazy, we’re just putting the bicycle back. So the fact that the Danes and the Dutch ride bike has nothing to do with their culture, we just never got rid of it completely. We almost did, we were on the cusp of killing it off like everyone else did. It’s been taking so long to realise that we made these mistakes and now, really in the past 10 years, we’re starting to think differently.
Lennart: Thinking differently starts by asking the right questions.
Mikeal: For about the past 70 years we’ve been asking one question, that is: how many cars can we fit down the street? So now, if we change the question: how many people can we move down the street? We have put so much faith, undeserved faith, in traffic engineering and really nothing else. But now we’re realising that we have other tools. So now we can see that we need to study the people. We need to measure how they move around the city. So 24 hours a day, 7 days a week the people of our cities are telling us how they want to use the urban landscape. Engineers are still there, they’re going to build stuff, they’re going to help us, but we don’t need to have them as the sole voice for city planning anymore
Lennart: you can measure how people use the street, but, let’s go back to the circulation plan in Ghent for a second, and remind ourself of the controversy and fierce opposition it generated. How much value should we place on the public opinion about mobility?
Mikael: Ugh, public opinion, yeah. Cities that are doing the most to change have politicians that get it. Not just get it, know how to communicate it or know how to, not ignore public opinion, but just put it into place. Circumventing public opinion is maybe not something many politicians would want to do, but believing in the concept, believing in the work that you’re doing is incredibly important. ‘Let’s put it in for 6 months, if it doesn’t work we’ll take it out’, that helps public opinion. You go in fast, you leave something green behind … boom, that’s the strategy. You have to believe in your concept, you have to put it in as a pilot and then you’re going to reduce a lot of the problems. A lot of the protest we see in cities are from motorists and we don’t really ask smokers what they think about smoking laws, we just kind of implement it, so we shouldn’t really listen to motorists anymore. We should just make our cities better, because we know how to do it and their opinion is rather irrelevant.
Lennart: The goal is to get the decision makers on board. A new project at Copenhagenize often starts by inviting a mayor or a deputy to a city with exemplary transportation infrastructure, like Copenhagen.
Mikael: If you look at the pattern, it’s all top-down. It is a mayor or a head of mobility or somebody high up who gets inspired, realises this is the future and starts work. For all the activists that I know in my network, sorry but it really is convincing a mayor or a mayor convincing themselves, because they went an a holiday you know to some city and they go ‘Oh my god, I get it. Let’s go home and how to we do this?’. And then they inspire downwards and get their team excited, right? So, you can tell me all about Belgian chocolate if you want and I will go ‘well, that sounds nice’, and then I eat some and I’m going to go ‘oh my god, now I understand. I mean you got to taste it, right?
Lennart: Then they get to work redesigning streets to better reflect the mix of transportation modes that we want.
Mikael: The key is building infrastructure for bikes, but on the narrow streets of a city centre you restrict the movements of cars. The only thing homo sapiens want is to go fast from A to B and if you make the bicycle the most competitive transport form and combine it with public transport, then those are the tools that you need. So I don’t see any problems with any city street on the planet. I have a solution for it.
Lennart: In summary, redrawing our roads can certainly restore the balance in our streets. A project like the circulation plan in Ghent that cuts through-traffic can also be an effective tool. But there are other solutions to get us out of the domination of cars. That’s after the break.
Lennart: This is the ad break in our podcast. You’ll hear one of us talk about a sponsor for about a minute or so, with a familiar, gentle beat in the background. If you have a cool product or service you want to promote, get in touch at tomorrowpeople.today/sponsor, and we’ll make it happen. Alright, let’s go right back to the show.
Mei: Hey Lennart, remember that television series Night Rider?
Mei: The one with David Hasselhof?
Lennart: Yeah …
Mei: I watched it as a young girl in the 80ies, amazed by how Michael could just hail his self-driving car.
Lennart: Oh, I remember. It was called KITT, right?
Mei: Yeah, right! Sadly it was all just fiction then, but in recent years the promise grew that we could have access to that technology ourselves. I was so excited! Electrical, self-driving cars that you can summon with the touch of a button on your smartphone … how attainable is that really?
Horace Dediu: Well, it’s still a dream. I think many people share that dream. There are billions of dollars pursuing it.
Mei: This is Horace Dediu from Helsinki, Finland.
Horace: So my name is Horace Dediu, I consider myself an analyst.
Mei: He made a name for himself as an expert in the field of smartphones and computers.
Horace: And I started a podcast called Asymcar
Mei: … focusing on topics like car sharing, autonomous driving and electric cars. He got a little disappointed by the lack of real progress,
Horace: But then in 2016 I came across an ebike, and I realised then that this was the disruption.
Mei: But hang on, back to self-driving cars. I still want to know, when will we all be driving around in those?
Horace: The problem with it, is that the ability of a society to absorb this, is limited.
Mei: Horace names 4 primary obstacles. The first
Horace: Switching the fleet of cars. There’s 1.2 billions vehicles in use.
Horace: Second question is infrastructure, that is not designed for it.
Horace: The obstacle of regulation itself
Mei: And forth
Horace: And finally you have questions of economics, insurance, ownership, liability.
Mei: After a few years, it seems the initial hype has waned, and we’re going through a phase of disillusionment And sadly for the hopeful girl in me, experts are even debating if we’ll ever be able to overcome all of these obstacles.
Horace: A lot of these are unknowns. We are barely able to make a vehicle operate independently under limited conditions. To get from that to everybody using it in a balanced way globally … it’s very difficult to see this playing out quickly. And this is my frustration: going from that world to this one – from communications and computing to transportation – is one of dealing with disappointment, of dealing with frustration of that rate of change. And it is more important that it happen, because that is what creates the carbon footprint for the planet. And so speed is of the essence. It’s not essential that we have Facebook on every phone, it is essential that we move people in an efficient manner without burning fuels to so so. And this is why to me the frustration comes: why are the things which are not important quick and the things which are important, slow?
Lennart: OK, another solution: ride-hailing services, like Uber and Lyft. You don’t need to own your car, you just call for one when you need it.
Horace: The trouble with ride-hailing is, although there has been a certain degree of a speed of adoption, still it isn’t very very popular in substituting enough miles. But more importantly is, is the substituted alternative better? And in many cases we’re finding now, even though it’s been 7 years we’re starting to see evidence that it isn’t better. You would think that it would take cars off the road, but it’s actually possibly putting more cars on the road, it’s not reducing congestion, it might be increasing congestion. And so it doesn’t seem to be a step in the right direction. It’s a partial solution in many ways. It is better to have a shared resource than a privately held resource, if only because then we don’t spend so much energy manufacturing an underutilised asset.
Lennart: Indeed, our private cars are doing absolutely nothing for an average of 96% of the time. Ride-hailing does improve that, but research has shown that these shared cars don’t actually result in less kilometers driven. That’s because trips with ride-hailing services are often a replacement for trips with public transport, walking or biking, or just not making the trip at all.
According to Horace Dediu, they’re also not sustainable from a business point of view.
Horace: They’re not profitable and because they’re not profitable they don’t have incentives to kind of optimise, they don’t have the resources to optimise.
Lennart: There is an obvious optimisation though…
Horace: Ride-sharing should be done with vehicles that are designed for ride-sharing. The industry for package delivery has designed vehicles that are designed for package delivery, but the industry for delivering people hasn’t designed a vehicle for shipping people. Which you can argue ‘well that’s a bus’. This is one of these paradoxes when you step back and you look at it from an outsider’s point of view then ‘wait a minute why are we using consumer product for fleet operations’ – it’s absurd.
Lennart: So ride-hailing can be another valuable addition to the mix of transportation modes, but it is not the solution. And then there is also this larger problem with cars:
Horace: I try to illustrate it by showing that a person weighs about 70-80 kilograms and then they may have additional baggage or things they carry with them, which I estimate then that the total payload is let’s say 100 kilograms. Now, if you were to ask ‘what is the weight of a vehicle that can carry a payload of 100 kilograms?’. Well if it’s a car, those weights today begin at about 1000 kilograms and they go all the way to about 3000 kilograms for the worst offenders. You can track it from the 70’s to the 80’s to the 90’s and they all just continuously get heavier. And the tendency has been to even build these monstrous SUV’s to carry one person.
Lennart: You often hear that’s because of safety concerns. But it’s a ridiculous arms race, where you need heavy cars to protect yourself from even heavier cars. The question remains: Do we really need a weight that is ten to thirty times our own, just to get around?
Horace: When you actually look at the carbon impact of this waste, it’s just staggering. We’re destroying our planet’s future on this very simple idea, that we need a 3000 kilogram vehicle to transport a 100 kilogram person.
Lennart: More than 90% of the energy used in personal automobility is spent on moving the vehicle, not the passenger. Just think about that for a second. And the crazy thing is, we have already solved this problem.
Horace: You really can easily transport a person with a scooter or a bicycle which weighs under 20 kilograms. And so, let’s draw a line where we say that anything below this line is acceptable and anything above it is unacceptable, and that line is at 500 kilograms in my opinion. So at 500 kilograms, it ought to be enough to transport 4 people. So that’s a 400 kilogram payload with 500 kilogram vehicle size. No more than one to one-and-half times the weight of the person. So don’t forget, a bicycle of 25 or 20 kilograms at 20 percent of the weight of the payload is perfectly adequate. And that’s what I’m calling micromobility.
Lennart: These vehicles can have an electrical motor, but they don’t have to, so think bicycles, ebikes, cargo bikes, electrical scooters.
Mei: Just to clarify Lennart … electric scooters, you’re not talking about mopeds here, but the classic kick scooter, the one you stand on, right?
Lennart: Yeah, right.
Mei: So, let’s define micromobility as any vehicle below 500 kilograms that does not directly burn fossil fuels.
Horace: And by the way it naturally excludes the car, because car makers cannot – if you pay them a billion dollars and put a gun to their head – they could not make a car at 500 kilograms. When I put it out there people are a bit shocked and they have to go on Google and search ‘oh wait a minute, let me check this car and let me check this car and …’. So far no-one has shown me a car that can be 500 kilograms even though again their parents probably drove around in these things.
Mei: The micromobility market is expanding. First gradually, now at a blistering pace.
Horace: We’ve had a decade of this going on. We’ve had hover boards, we’ve had Segway, we now have scooters and we have ebikes. In Europe especially we have millions of ebikes. Bosch is selling motors for ebikes at over a billon dollars a year in terms of their revenue from that.
Mei: Horace envisions a micromobility switch: rural transport and cargo will eventually be conglomerated and automated. Meanwhile he says, urban transport is moving from private cars into smaller on-demand vehicles, and those are optimised for specific use cases. Then, small distances will be traveled in and on small vehicles. But it’s especially these small distances that take a very large slice of the transportation cake.
Horace: It’s about half the trips, it’s about two thirds of the money and it’s about 90 percent of the time. And that’s by the way existing, not just what might be created. Because what really is interesting is that when you actually observe either phones, smartphones, computers whatnot. They didn’t just come in and take the business of their predecessor. They created a lot more demand for that thing they offer. So my expectation for micromobility is that it’ll really create probably several times more of that which it took. In which case actually from an environmental point of view might … again we’ll see statistics suggesting that people are riding on their scooters and they’re not giving up their cars. I expect that will be a story for 10 years to come. But eventually those cars that they’re still keeping are going to be less and less and less. And over time I suspect that those will become as horses are now, nothing more than a hobby.
Mei: We’re seeing this evolution play out today already, at breakneck speeds.
Horace: The car business, all those things we started talking about, those things take decades. Here we’re talking about things taking months. And so certainly its very fast, but it’s also potentially hyper fast and maybe again we’ll have some imbalances to deal with.
Lennart: Talking about imbalances, maybe you’ve seen those images from China, where a true explosion in shared bikes has occurred. To the degree that there was an enormous oversupply from several companies wanting to make a dollar, resulting in bicycle graveyards, where tens of thousands of unused bikes are dumped.
Mei: Yeah, I’ve seen those, crazy. Let me link some pictures on our website so everyone knows what we’re talking about.
Lennart: And similarly, first in the United States and now elsewhere, a bunch of scooter companies with four-letter names are competing; there’s Bird, Lime, Skip, Spin, Jump … they all want a piece of the pie. What’s the situation in Europe?
Horace: Europe has a strong position with cycling. And I think the building on that would enable Europe to also, you know, evolve it’s own culture of transportation, very distinct from the car. I think it’ll escalate to the point where it’s going to become a strategic political platform as important as energy policy for example is now.
Lennart: On a local scale, that is exactly what happened with the circulation plan in Ghent. We asked city advisor Ann Plas if they were in talks with these micromobility companies.
Ann: We have been approached already and as well as sharing bicycle as sharing scooters. I would not say that they are the big game changer for the moment. For instance not in Ghent, maybe in other cities they can be. We have a very large bike ownership in the city of Ghent itself so the bike sharing systems, they can help and they can be of value for some very specific target group, but they will not solve to mobility problem. But they are nice and necessary extra that we need to get everything in line and to make it work. But we already were proactive and we have already voted some kind of regulation in the city council. And I think the whole private market can fill up the gaps that we have, but within the framework we wanted and with the rules that we wanted.
Lennart: It’s clear that this is all still very much happening today. The end of the story has not been written yet.
Horace: We will see experiments, we will see experiments fail, we’ll see big bets made, big bets lost and then we’ll settle into some modicum of productivity and value creation that will eventually be the steady state forward. How quickly that happens, how many more chapters have to be written, I don’t know. But it is much more encouraging than what’s happening in the autospace right now.
Lennart: One of the most common arguments against widespread use of bicycles and micromobility is that it is not the perfect solution for everyone, and for every trip. It was a constant refrain in Ghent.
Ann: The exception is quite often used to demonstrate that it is not feasible for the large part of the people. All of a sudden everybody was very concerned about people with a handicap, people who had to take large packages along, people who needed health care, were inhibited … All of a sudden you see the exception becoming the reason why your plan isn’t a good plan. Instead of looking for solutions for the exceptions it was somehow a reason to say ‘oh, it’s not a good plan’.
Lennart: And as a matter of fact, we do have solutions for these problems, says Copenhagenize CEO Mikael Colville-Andersen.
Mikael: I see 90-year olds in my neighbourhood riding around on a tricycle, you know. Maybe their balance isn’t what it used to be, but they’re on a tricycle. You see disabled people, you know, heavily disabled people riding bikes. There’s one guy in my neighbourhood, he has no legs, so he has artificial limbs and has only one arm, and he rides around on a tricycle and he flirts with ladies at every traffic light. I think he’s from Syria or something, but it’s awesome. I mean you know, people have invented these things already. Most of it about 100 years ago. No, there’s a bike for everybody. It’s not just for the young and fit. It’s everybody. Every age, every wage bracket, every kind of disability. There’s a bike for everyone. There’s no excuses anymore.
Lennart: We can agree there is no silver bullet that works for every situation, but for every situation we have a solution that works. Fact is the urban mobility evolution is happening, and we need to make sure everyone can catch up.
Mei: Whether it’s a mobility plan, redesigning the streets or providing better alternatives in the shape of public transport or micromobility, it’s clear that every city and every individual within that city will have to come up with their own recipe. It’s time to grab those handlebars, and take transportation back into our own hands.
Lennart: This episode of Tomorrow People was produced, hosted, edited and scored by Lennart Schoors, and produced and hosted by Mei Van Walleghem. Additional music by Lee Rosevere. Many thanks to our guests Ann Plas, Mikael Colville-Andersen and Horace Dediu. Additional thanks to Liesbeth De Bruyn and Jens Rasmussen.
Mei: Go check out our website for even more links and information on urban mobility subjects. You should really see this picture of a bicycle highway in LA in the early 1900’s! We’ll also link the excellent micromobility podcast from our guest Horace Dediu that dives super deep into all aspects of the topic. All of that and more, at tomorrowpeople.today.