A Welcoming City Has Transportation Choices

It doesn’t feel good when people in your city scream at you. A couple of years ago, I was on my bike on a downtown street, making my way to the new bike lanes a few blocks away. A truck driver yelled at the top of his lungs: USE THE F$&#ING BIKE LANES!!!

Only three days before this happened, I jumped on a bicycle, rode 15 minutes on streets of various sizes that accommodated many modes of transportation — bicycles, pedestrians, scooters, cars, trucks, buses and trams — to get to Utrecht’s Central Station in the Netherlands. I got on a train with my bicycle. In 30 minutes, I was emerging from Amsterdam’s Central Station with a map in my pocket and two hands on handlebars to make my way on bustling unfamiliar medieval streets to Park Museumplein and the surrounding sights. I was in the busy crowd of people moving in many ways through the city.

We make our transportation choices

There were choices about how to move in Utrecht and Amsterdam. We could choose to move by car, on foot, on a bicycle powered by me or electricity or gas, or by bus, tram or train. Choice is designed into the city, and inhabitants live the choices they have made available to themselves. Some people choose cars. Some people choose bicycles or scooters. Some people choose buses, trams and trains. And some people prefer it all. Most importantly, those choices are available just about everywhere. There is a significant public investment made to do this, in the streets and even bicycle parking lots. (Check out this article about the Utrecht Central Station bicycle parking facilities for 22,000 bicycles.)

Bicycle parking at The Hague Central Train Station. Photo: Beth Sanders.

The inhabitants live the choices they have made available to themselves.

There are sensible separations that are responsive to scale and speed, always with a larger intention to allow choice. For a good reason, there are no bicycles on highways, but trains accommodate bicycles. And paths and sideroads between cities are designed with bicycles in mind.

In the city proper, bicycles are everywhere, and the design of the city accommodates them. Make a sidewalk a bit wider, paint it a different colour and there’s room for bicycles on a busy street of any size. On a small local street, bicycles are on the street with cars. Multiple forms of transportation are accommodated at intersections; while more complicated than the simplicity of an intersection only for vehicles, it works perfectly. Regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, people exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

The dance of multiple modes of transportation at the same time in the same place in The Hague: pedestrian, bike, scooter, car, truck, train. Photo: Beth Sanders.

Regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, people exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

A startling contrast

Back in Edmonton, in North America, my experience is a startling contrast. In one 20-minute ride into downtown and back home, I realize:

  1. There is no place for me on a bike. I must choose to be like a car on the road, or be like a pedestrian on the sidewalk. My ride starts on a quiet street, so I choose the street. When the car traffic gets busier, I ride on the sidewalk. I don’t like to do this.
  2. The new bicycle path does not go where I am going, so I choose not to use it, despite wanting to support the public investment.
  3. Friendly drivers don’t know what to do. On a quiet street, I choose to ride on the street. At an intersection where I have the stop sign, a driver stops and waves me on. A considerate choice, but she would not stop like this if I were a car.
  4. The streets with new bicycle lanes downtown do not go where I am going. As I travel through downtown, I pass cross streets with bicycle lanes. I could move south, away from where I am going, to be in a bicycle lane, but that is out of my way and doesn’t feel right. I stay on the street because there are few vehicles.
  5. There isn’t a place to park my bike. I arrive at my destination, Edmonton Tower, for a meeting with City of Edmonton colleagues. There is room for 12 bicycles to park, and it is full. Again, I ask the security personnel to pass along to management that more bicycle parking facilities are needed.
  6. Some drivers are ANGRY. On my way home, I decided to go out of my way to use one of the new bicycle lanes (and be counted as a user of the new investment). On my way there, I find myself on a narrow street with no sidewalk because of construction. On the street, I am in the only place I can be to get to the bike lane. And a driver screams out his window: USE THE F&%$ING BIKE LANE!!!!
  7. Another driver is ANGRY. A bit later, while crossing a street (on the street like a car), a driver honks his horn at me. I look (maybe it’s someone I know?) and see him moving his fingers as if I should be walking across the street. I shrug my shoulders. He honks again. Longer.
At capacity bicycle parking at Edmonton Tower, Edmonon. Photo: Beth Sanders.
Bicycle parking at a train station in the Netherlands. Photo: Beth Sanders.

We choose how we move (and how others move)

The car brought us a sense of control, an ability to go where we want when we want. It brought a sense of freedom to those of us who own and use cars. Our subsequent overemphasis on this singular mode of transportation is exclusionary. It minimizes the ability of many to participate in city life. We choose to limit the movement of people in our cities.

There are practical reasons some folks don’t drive: too young, physical disability, cognitive disability, too expensive, or don’t yet have a driver’s licence. These reasons are not choices; they are life conditions. We build our cities to privilege those with the right age, physical and cognitive capacities and income.

My city serves people with cars better than people without cars. Without infrastructure in place for other modes of transportation, it is often better use of time to move by car. And when public transit is unpredictable, it can be uncomfortable; the possibility of a long wait in the cold or heat is not an option for car users. Public transit or bike lanes may be inaccessible too, not readily available. We do not design our city to work well for people without cars.

That feeling of “control” we have when we can move freely around our city? It doesn’t have to be limited to cars. More choices for everyone means that far more people can move freely about the city — even car owners.

We choose how we move every time we leave our homes if we have choices. If I live in a neighbourhood where the only way in and out is a freeway, then I’m going to travel by car. If I live in a neighbourhood with services close at hand, I can bike or walk over to the grocery store or the pharmacy.

We make our neighbourhoods and cities. We choose our choices.

Are we open to exploring how to make cities that serve citizens well? A city that provides equitable transportation options for more than people who move by car?

To be friendly to all modes of transportation, this is what I envision:

  1. Various modes of transportation are available to all citizens. It is crucial to consider physical access (is the infrastructure there) and the people’s financial capacity. This consideration takes place both on the street and also across the city. (Note — “street” means the entire public right-of-way.)
  2. Various modes of transportation are available to all citizens EVERYWHERE. It isn’t about choosing specific places where bicycles and buses and trains will go. It’s about choosing specific places where bicycles will not go. Bicycle infrastructure is cheap and easy. Just do it, while imagining how this works both on the street and across the city.
  3. There are clear rules for how street users behave because there is a clear place for them. Pedestrians, cyclists and vehicle drivers all have their place to be on the street and know what to expect of each other. The bicycle is not a pedestrian or a car or a train, but since we don’t have places for bicycles, we have an unnecessary conflict between street users.
  4. All street users are courteous and patient. It’s easy to navigate a street for cars or a street for pedestrians. It’s more complicated to navigate a street for cars and pedestrians. It’s more complicated to navigate a street with cars, pedestrians, bicycles, trams and scooters, but it is doable. Millions of humans live this in various parts of the world. The choice is ours, but it will take courage to behave in courteous and patient ways both as we recreate our city and figure out how to relate to each other and our city differently.

There is hard work ahead for us in North American cities. We have a built form that serves the car, and we need to shift it to include other ways of moving. The Dutch cities were like this, too; they chose to include other ways of moving around the city on their streets.

A storefront in Rotterdam, easily accessible by pedestrians, bicycles and vehicular traffic. Photo: Beth Sanders.
Far right: the storefront in the previous photo. This street is for movement of people, as well as resting, visiting, shopping, and enjoying nature in the center of the city. Photo: Beth Sanders.

We choose how we move (and how others move)

The car brought us a sense of control, an ability to go where we want when we want. It brought a sense of freedom to those of us who own and use cars. Our subsequent overemphasis on this singular mode of transportation is exclusionary. It minimizes the ability of many to participate in city life. We choose to limit the movement of people in our cities.

There are practical reasons some folks don’t drive: too young, physical disability, cognitive disability, too expensive, or don’t yet have a driver’s licence. These reasons are not choices; they are life conditions. We build our cities to privilege those with the right age, physical and cognitive capacities and income.

My city serves people with cars better than people without cars. Without infrastructure in place for other modes of transportation, it is often better use of time to move by car. And when public transit is unpredictable, it can be uncomfortable; the possibility of a long wait in the cold or heat is not an option for car users. Public transit or bike lanes may be inaccessible too, not readily available. We do not design our city to work well for people without cars.

That feeling of “control” we have when we can move freely around our city? It doesn’t have to be limited to cars. More choices for everyone means that far more people can move freely about the city — even car owners.

We choose how we move every time we leave our homes if we have choices. If I live in a neighbourhood where the only way in and out is a freeway, then I’m going to travel by car. If I live in a neighbourhood with services close at hand, I can bike or walk over to the grocery store or the pharmacy.

We make our neighbourhoods and cities. We choose our choices.

Are we open to exploring how to make cities that serve citizens well? A city that provides equitable transportation options for more than people who move by car?

To be friendly to all modes of transportation, this is what I envision:

  1. Various modes of transportation are available to all citizens. It is crucial to consider physical access (is the infrastructure there) and the people’s financial capacity. This consideration takes place both on the street and also across the city. (Note — “street” means the entire public right-of-way.)
  2. Various modes of transportation are available to all citizens EVERYWHERE. It isn’t about choosing specific places where bicycles and buses and trains will go. It’s about choosing specific places where bicycles will not go. Bicycle infrastructure is cheap and easy. Just do it, while imagining how this works both on the street and across the city.
  3. There are clear rules for how street users behave because there is a clear place for them. Pedestrians, cyclists and vehicle drivers all have their place to be on the street and know what to expect of each other. The bicycle is not a pedestrian or a car or a train, but since we don’t have places for bicycles, we have an unnecessary conflict between street users.
  4. All street users are courteous and patient. It’s easy to navigate a street for cars or a street for pedestrians. It’s more complicated to navigate a street for cars and pedestrians. It’s more complicated to navigate a street with cars, pedestrians, bicycles, trams and scooters, but it is doable. Millions of humans live this in various parts of the world. The choice is ours, but it will take courage to behave in courteous and patient ways both as we recreate our city and figure out how to relate to each other and our city differently.

There is hard work ahead for us in North American cities. We have a built form that serves the car, and we need to shift it to include other ways of moving. The Dutch cities were like this, too; they chose to include other ways of moving around the city on their streets.

Reflection

  • How do you move around your city?
  • Do you have choices about how you move around your city?
  • How would you like to move differently around your city?
  • What actions will enable more of what you want — and with whom do you need to work?

This post first published at www.bethsanders.ca

Beth works with cities looking for practical ways to navigate the complexity of city life — to hear each other and make better cities. Author of Nest City.

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Beth Sanders

Beth Sanders

Beth works with cities looking for practical ways to navigate the complexity of city life — to hear each other and make better cities. Author of Nest City.

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