The vision of future cities is that all people will be able to move around with dignity, comfort, and safety. Bicyclists, pedestrians and public transportation users will be given the same priority as motor vehicle drivers. Bicycling will be a viable transportation option for anyone, whether they’re eight years old or eighty years old, because it will be just as safe as any other mode of transportation one decides fits them best.
That’s been the goal of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia since our founding in 1972, and I can now report that city of the future exists—about 4,000 miles east.
This summer, I was invited to join a team made up of the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis and Deputy Manager for Infrastructure and Transportation Clarena Tolson to compete for a spot on the 2016 Study Tour of Copenhagen sponsored by the Knight Foundation. We proposed that as a team we would use the trip as an opportunity to learn more about how to improve existing infrastructure, expand and connect the City’s bicycle/pedestrian network and enhance the public realm and civic spaces. Happily, we were accepted and took the trip from September 30th-October 5th.
We all were excited to see what sort of new, safe, infrastructure and ideas Philadelphia could learn from the city of Copenhagen, a city where 30 percent of inhabitants commute by bicycle.
As an advocate for better U.S. urban and suburban bicycle infrastructure in the nation’s fifth largest city, the overriding goal of my work is to promote change in attitudes about bicycling and walking, and in the street design, so that bicyclists and pedestrians can move about with the highest degree of safety and comfort.
If bicycling is accepted and valued as a mode of transportation and sits on a level playing field with motorized transportation, then it deserves high quality infrastructure to encourage as many people as want to use a bike or walk instead of drive to their destination. This vision is something I hope will be realized in the not so distant future.
I accompanied 27 other participants from twelve other north American cities on a five day tour of Copenhagen and Malmo, Sweden which together are linked by a mile bridge and becoming a bi-national metropolitan region. We visited parks, playgrounds, high quality bicycle infrastructure, a world famous library and a sustainable urban residential and mixed used development emerging on an old shipbuilding site.
We heard lectures from architects, planners, municipal officials and champions of urban public life. We biked thirty miles and walked five miles all over both cities. It was at times wet (riding several miles in pouring rain) and overwhelming, but very satisfying and thought provoking.
Multitudes of people (young and old) are riding bikes simultaneously in Copenhagen. Streams of them. Try to imagine a city street with not one or two bicyclists passing in front of you every 15 seconds, but 30 or 40. Visually, it’s like nothing I had ever seen.
It was tomorrow, today.
Having now been home a week, I came up with the following that Philadelphia could adopt and work towards.
Physically separate bike lanes from travel lanes
On nearly all streets with two or more lanes of traffic, the Danes built 9 foot bike lanes that are a few inches below the sidewalk and a few inches higher than the travel lane, separated by a curb. The width of the bike lane allows for two bicyclists to pass each other comfortably, or ride next to one another to experience “conversational bicycling.”
Not only the physical separation, but the large scale and seamless bike lane network of separated bike lanes allows people to use their bike for long distances. The sense that you can always expect a constant level of safety at the next turn frees your mind from worrying about figuring out the best route to your destination. As a first step, Philadelphia could build a network of physically separated bike lanes that would connect people between residential neighborhoods to the City’s major employment centers.
Bicycle traffic lights
Intersections work for bicyclists because they’re designed with them in mind. Many intersections have bicycle traffic lights and the difficulty of accommodating left turning cyclists is resolved by creating the conditions so that cyclists safely use a two-step process. Philadelphia could start to employ bicycle lights if it chose to. It requires including bicycles into the “phase” of the traffic signal. The benefit is that it induces much better bicycle behavior and compliance.
While you do see bike lanes on most streets, car parking is not ubiquitous. People on bikes are prioritized over cars. It doesn’t mean that car parking doesn’t exist; but the parking spaces are elsewhere, off the street. The value of the street space in Copenhagen and Malmo had reached a point where space for bicycling was deemed more valuable then parking cars.
Is Philadelphia there yet? Maybe not. But it’s a matter of time.
- Artificially low-cost car parking on the street is not sustainable.
- Bike parking is a must.
Bike parking spaces were built against buildings, on sidewalks and in-street corrals. Thousands of bike parking spaces, including free double-decker racks, are provided at rail and transit stations. Philadelphia can clearly, more efficiently, provide more bike parking on its sidewalks and the time is long overdue for a large-scale concentrated bike parking area near Center City’s business core.
It was a privilege to see two cities that have done so much to normalize bicycling and make it such an important part of their public life. Philadelphia can learn a great deal from these cities and make its own version of streets and spaces that not only meet the needs of its residents today but also set the stage for improving public life for tomorrow.