How can urban centers be fit for cyclists: an interview with Mikael Colville-Andersen, founder urban planning studio Copenhagenize
The first thing that struck me when I arrived the very first time in Basel after some – few and enjoyable- train hours from Milan, was the bicycle parking just outside the station: there were hundreds, maybe thousands of bikes, apparently chaotic, yet neatly organized. Over the following months and years, I figured out that the same thing happens in other European cities, the more you go north.
For years, in Milan, I have been moving around by bike every day. Every morning I pedal for almost four kilometers, but years ago I used to have jobs forcing me to cover longer distances: seven kilometers, to be precise, that is around half an hour on the pedals. Milan, during the last years, has experienced a dramatic increase in lanes and cycle paths: some of them have been obtained by shrinking car lanes or removing car parking lots, some others have been designed and built from scratch, thanks to the renovation of entire areas, as in the case of Porta Nuova. However, entire areas of the city remain uncovered, tram tracks, also as far as the deleted lines are concerned, a hindrance widespread everywhere, and the “cyclist” education of many city dwellers is still inadequate. In 2015, the urban design company Copenhagenize issued a special version, extremely extended, of the ranking concerning the worldwide most bike-friendly cities: 122 urban areas, from North America to Asia, of course passing through Europe. Europe is the place in which there is the chance to find the best bicycle infrastructures: Copenhagen and Amsterdam are ranked first and second, Utrecht third, followed by Strasburg, Eindhoven, Malmö, Nantes, Bordeaux and Anvers. The first Mediterranean city is Seville and comes just 10th, followed by Barcelona. It is possible to leave Europe only at the 14th position, with Buenos Aires, and to land in the United States with Minneapolis at the 18th position. The City of Milan official website reports 140 kilometers long cycle paths. Copenhagen, which has less than half of Milan population – or we could say even a third – more than 400. Also in light of such a comparison, the fact that the urban design company Copenhagenize is called this way, is hardly surprising. The founder Mikael Colville-Andersen created initially a blog by that name – a blog dealing with bikes, cycle culture, cities- and he called its company that, afterwards. Today Copenhagenize is working together with cities all over the world to design solutions making the streets more bike friendly. «I was at the right place at the right time and I recognized the potential for re-establishing the bicycle as transport in our cities in the public consciousness», he says when I ask him about how he started. Looking his client portfolio up, I dwell on the capture “Complete bicycle strategy”, that is the service realized by Copenhagenize for Almetyevsk, a small Tatarstan Republic city, in the middle-east Russia, close, so to speak, as we are talking about 250 kilometers, to the regional capital Kazan. I ask Mikael what kind of challenge it may represent, and he replies: «The challenge is the scale of the project. Modernizing the transport in a city by designing the bicycle network is a large task. Almetyevsk is a smaller city but we are now doing the same thing for all of Detroit. Nevertheless, it is a straightforward approach. We just map out the Desire Lines and the optimal routes and we reallocate the space on the streets to make space for bicycle transport. It's a big job but we don't have to reinvent anything».
“Desire lines”, or “desire path”, is an expression increasingly used when referring to urban planning. However, we got used to see this “desire path” traced in flowerbed, fields and woods: they are those paths formed as a consequence of vegetation erosion due to the frequent human passage; in fact, they have been chosen as the best way to go from point A to point B. Mapping out bicycle desire lines allows to understand the most used paths in certain urban areas, and to make them real and safe by building a cycle track. It may happen that the desire paths don't follow precisely already built streets, but rather that they pass through buildings, courtyards, or through squares and other areas that are not reserved for circulation. That happens because a city street grid is often more ancient than the buildings it contains, that may change and offer new paths to travel through.
Unlike Almetyevsk, which over the last years has been built thanks to the wealth provided by the close oilfields, the origin of many European cities is pre-medieval, with narrow streets, twisty city centers where it is difficult to create cycle path. «Get rid of the cars. Then there is lots of space», says Mikael Colville-Andersen. «Those streets weren't designed for cars anyway. Simple solution. Helsinki plans to ban private car ownership in the city by 2030 - and providing car share to the citizens. But they are also expanding their bicycle infrastructure network because people will get around on bicycles more». I ask him, as the car sharing will decrease private cars, if the same will occur for bike sharing. «Bike share is a key element in modern urban planning but it rarely has a negative effect on private bike ownership. In the five years after Paris launched its Velib bike share program, with now 20,000 bikes available, two million bicycles were sold in Paris» he explains. «Bike share is handy but it only leads to people wanting to own their own bike. It is all about convenience. A bike is right outside your home. You are up and running in under a minute. That is what people will always choose first». While I am writing this article, in the last warm afternoon hours, I text to a friend and we decide to take a bike ride along the “Naviglio della Martesana”, one of the “small rivers” of Milan, provided with a cycle path headed towards the country just outside the city. It's something that I am used to do during the spring and summer, on Saturday or Sunday, before getting back to the work week. I do that because of Mikael's words: «We are elbow to elbow with our fellow citizens as we move through the city. There is an anthropological benefit under the surface».