The Guardian: “How cities fail their cyclists in different ways”

My top go-to news source The Guardian blogs on “How cities fail their cyclists in different ways“. What a great article: rather than highlighting some of the best examples of bicycling infrastructure and policies around the world, Peter Walker shines light on cases where cycling is underserved in fundamental ways. The article takes up both cities where cycling faces seemingly insurmountable challenges (e.g. Hong Kong); cities that seem ripe for a cycling boom that has never emerged (e.g. Auckland).

And why not? From a social (and, indirectly, ecological) sustainability point of view, it could actually be far more important to address these kinds of cases, rather than to make the best (or fairly-good cities, like Stockholm) even better. From a systems-optimization or economic point of view, it is perfectly obvious that one should focus on places where the marginal benefit is the greatest for the marginal cost. Cities where transport problems are severe, like Hong Kong, are where the marginal benefit could be greatest; and cities like Auckland, in which increases could be just around the corner, are where the marginal costs are probably the lowest.

Lines on Maps

It’s been an exciting week for transport news:

That last news is about a new agreement between the City of Stockholm and its suburbs Nacka and Värmdö to carry out a pre-study of an extension of the tunnelbana, or underground, to the fastest-growing corner of the Stockholm metro area, currently served by extensive commuter buses and a very limited, aging commuter rail line, which due to long sections of single track can run at most one train per 20 minutes. This announcement kicks off a new round of enthusiasm from politicians, media, and the general public, continuing several decades of experts and public transport enthusiasts alike (the line is rather fuzzy) drawing lines on maps of exactly where this new extension could go on its way to the southeastern corner of the region.

The new twist today is a proposal by construction firms Skanska and Sweco (in Swedish) to reduce costs by combining the new underground line with the proposed Eastern Link motorway, since both require a new tunnel under Stockholm’s inner harbor.

While the new proposal, shown above left, is intriguing for its efficiency, it’s also noteworthy in its omission of any stop on Södermalm (the south island of the central city) or Hammarby Sjöstad. The only stop between the core and Nacka is at Skansen, a tourist-only destination that is already served by Stockholm’s recently updated #7 tram line. It thus loses two potential benefits: trips from the southeast suburbs to Södermalm, and trips across Södermalm.

The first, trips to Södermalm, are clearly better served by SL’s preferred alignment, shown above right. But what’s interesting is that even that alignment doesn’t do much to help intra-Södermalm trips. This has been an underserved dimension since the tunnelbana was first designed. Characteristic of most radial transport systems, all three lines — as well as the commuter rail line — would be oriented toward the city center, north of the Mälar-Baltic channel (see this map of Stockholm’s inner city).

The origin of the problem is that Stockholm’s tunnelbana has from the beginning been designed as a radial system with elements of spiral curves. In the entire system there are only two intersections between two different lines: T-Centralen, which is truly the city center; and Fridhemsplan, where the Green and Blue lines cross. Fridhemsplan is an excellent example of how the configuration can facilitate trips that don’t go through the city center, shortening those trips and alleviating congestion in T-Centralen. A better example might be the DC Metro, where the three central alignments cross at different stations, creating a central triangle.

Can the tunnelbana configuration in Stockholm be changed to create more transfer points? Not without adding significant distance and tight curves to this new extension of the Blue line.

What about a surface tram line? The planned extension of Tvärbanan will end up at Slussen and head north, just like the tunnelbana. How about buses? Unfortunately, Södermalm’s street grid and turn restrictions make cross-island bus lines extraordinarily circuitous, best exemplified by Bus 66 (see again the same map linked above).

It seems like for the foreseeable future, the best way for Södermalm’s artists, hipsters, youngsters, and the rest of the stereotypical population will be to walk, bicycle, or transfer on buses to get around.

UK to Privatize…no, PrivatiSe Roads

An interesting development in the UK, as PM Cameron proposes to sell some roadways to the private sector. This came to my attention via Chris Bertram, a philosopher at Univ. of Bristol, who sees “the new enclosures as a threat to freedom“, in the sense that many basic freedoms could possibly be curbed, such as rights to assembly, protest, even take photographs.

The contrast between this line of argument to the long-standing economic argument for congestion pricing of roadways, is jarring. The latter holds that trips on a congested roadway carry untaxed externalities, and should therefore not be seen as an intrinsic right, but a service that needs to be regulated to ensure that decisions to travel on the roadway are socially efficient.

This contrast highlights the danger in conflating very different kinds of roadway management issues. In the case of congestion pricing, the targets are usually an urban motorways or arterials with high levels of recurring congestion. Being high-capacity components of the network, such roads are physically separated from dense land uses, acting as trunks that feed smaller roads leading to houses, offices, government buildings, etc.

The point being that these are not good candidates for demonstrations. Where freedoms of expression and congregation are the concern, the priority is usually to be visible, targeting public squares, government and quasi-public buildings, and perhaps particular corporate offices. These, as far as the Guardian article indicates, are not the subject of Cameron’s proposals.

So, can we differentiate between these in a practicable way? The grey area appears when we try to motivate privatization of motorways on the basis of different rights: why is it justifiable to sacrifice motorists’ rights to drive on a roadway, while others’ rights to stand in it are preserved? Perhaps the answer lies in motor vehicle licensing. If the government requires guarantees for personal rights from the roadway operators, while allowing vehicle passage to be privately regulated, then a balance can be struck.

Stockholm’s New (Draft) Bicycle Master Plan

Stockholm has released a draft Cykelplan, describing a set of strategies for further developing the city’s infrastructure to support cycling, with the ultimate goals of improving safety and of increasing the bicycling mode share. I had a chance to hear a bit more about it in detail at a workshop in Kulturhuset, Monday morning.

I’m impressed at the center-right government’s turnabout with regard to certain transport-related policies, both at the municipal and national levels. At the municipal level, this has led to an express commitment to expanding the local bikeway network. Indeed, the draft plan shows an impressive map of the future network, reflecting some serious ambition among city staff.

But reading the document, I became concerned. Perhaps most importantly, there’s surprisingly little in the way of an existing conditions analysis — no maps of land uses, estimated cycle traffic volumes, accidents, key locations for connecting modes of travel, etc. This means that the proposed future network stands out as being either arbitrary or based on implicit knowledge of the city and its cycling problems. Furthermore, there was no inventory of the existing bicycle facilities in neighboring municipalities (the suburban cities). This is quite dangerous for the success of the plan: without providing an adequate motivation for the proposed network in terms of such factors as activities, land use, and the broader transport system, it will be all too easy for future staff and policy-makers to deviate from the plan, potentially sacrificing an important link because they did not understand what made that link important in the first place.

The draft plan seems to be a typical example of planning for a mode of travel in isolation, despite the staff’s valiant efforts to think holistically. I’m still formulating these thoughts into some comments in Swedish, but I’m worried that my real advice for this proposal is that they should take a step back and reflect on how this document is meant to be used, and then ensure that they have included everything that it will need in order to be an effective planning tool.