Freeways for bicycles, as in the old days

bicycle symbol on pavement

Convert freeways to bikeways? Photo: Dylan Passmore via Flickr.

Corresponding recently with Shin-pei Tsay of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, some interesting transportation issues came up, first around Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) vs. rails, then a little known factoid that freeways – elevated even! – were first for bicycles and only forty years later for cars. (I’m proud to relate I drew pictures of elevated bicycle freeways 20 years before I knew they had once existed – the virtues of ignorance in providing opportunity for creative thinking!)

All buses lead to Curitiba

Said Shin-pei, “I question the idea that light rail is the best transit fit with ecocities – the fixed guideways are expensive. With buses improving in emissions and the low cost of implementation, what do you think about BRT as a transition system technology?”

I replied that I’d visited and taken tours on Curitiba, Brazil’s BRT system on two different trips to the city. That’s where we had our Fourth International Ecocity Conference in 2000. The basic idea is to have a fixed system that stays fixed so the development land use pattern and transportation can grow up together and compound each others’ convenience for the most people along with multiple efficiencies.

I first heard this idea when I was hired to organize an Earth Day 1973 conference at San Diego State University and an exhibition at a local shopping center. The set of two linked events and displays were sponsored by the San Diego Ecology Centre and had the single name “Energy Coming and Going – Earth Day 1973.”

The regional Comprehensive Planning Organization (CPO), a government established regional agency, provided one of the three dozen exhibits and reading their materials and talking with their representatives I learned they emphasized that a public transit system should not only go where the people live and work, that is, serve higher density areas for far greater efficiency and energy and land conservation, more convenient headways and so on, but also that the system should be rigid, not “flexible.”

After hearing for years of the virtues of flexible transportation systems, dominated by cars and the high value of extreme mobility, here I was hearing the opposite. Said they, buses can follow cars around the sprawl cars create, but when they do they don’t work well at all, running far from full and requiring subsidies car drivers resent and blame on transit in general, not the compromised bus system that’s trying to play catch up to cars. Meticulous analysis at CPO was conclusive: the flexible system was the system that gives us sprawl, land and energy squandering, much higher fatalities and injuries on the transportation system and higher total cost per person for physical access to the range of offerings of the city.

In the case of Curitiba and its world’s first real BRT system, higher density corridors along the transit routes were fixed not by rail but by firm and lasting city design, general plan and zoning code. The idea is to hold to the density that’s associated with transit and make sure it doesn’t spread out into sprawl. With permanence (never easy) that kind of BRT would be cheaper and probably would be in other ways as good as rails on similar routes.

Their solution in Curitiba was to zone five corridors of high density mixed use development to run in narrow arms out from a pedestrianizing downtown with these corridors surrounded by very low density frequently punctuated by parks and other open spaces, thus keeping the great majority of development close to frequently used transit lines. Community centers oriented development along those lines, featuring a wide range of civic and commercial services – with sports, education, clinics, everything – served  to strengthen even more the efficiencies of development and transit working together.

Curitiba was remarkable in being more committed to a good thing over time – the density/transit combo – than most cities. Being a democracy, the winds of public opinion can shift and people change their minds about whether they want to favor cars or transit, private whim for “convenience” (if you can afford the car and its accoutrements and want it all now) or favor their public transportation system (convenience for all levels of income and benefit into the deeper future).

My take on Curitiba is that the commitment has weakened some over time, though it is still way ahead of most cities. I say this seeing that few new pedestrian streets and areas are growing up there now from the reports I receive and buses, cars and more development is filling in many areas between the higher density arms along which dedicated lanes for the BRT system run.

Don’t count rail out

That’s where the virtues of rail come into play, in reinforcing the density/development/public transit pattern. Rails, both because they require a higher investment and because they’re made of steel which is much physically harder and long lasting than asphalt, represent a bigger more serious longer lasting commitment. If you can amortize the extra cost of rails or simply find the investment money because people believe it is worth it, over the years I doubt very much rails turn out to be more expensive per person served than the streets with their potholes needing filling every decade or so or complete resurfacing.

It’s important to notice the contribution of New Urbanists’ thinking here (among others), the idea of the virtues of centers oriented development around transit stations at less frequent intervals than bus stops along corridors. That means many more people served at the station because more people live and/or work closer to any one point of departure and arrival.

The higher speeds between the less frequent stops mean the system covers a larger geographical area and the open space between the stations provide for the preservation or restoration of agriculture or natural features and landscapes.

The car city has spread out over vast areas and my description in the last sentences suggest a similarly large metropolitan area could be served by rail, if far fewer miles of rail than miles of asphalt, concrete, freeways, interchanges, streets and driveways. But in the case of the car scattered city, virtually all the landscape is filled with suburban development, whereas the ecocity arrangement around centers oriented development and rails would easily be 1/5th buildings and associated pedestrian streets, landscaping and plazas and 4/5ths open space.

By the way, this could be called an “ecopolis,” a term used by our colleagues Paul Downton of Australia and Rusong Wang of China if somewhat differently, but here meaning “ecological metropolis,” completing the pattern than starts with ecovillage at the small scale, then ecotown, then ecocity, then ecopolis at the largest scale. A pattern of villages, towns, cities in a matrix of open space – though this is all still theory if good reasonable theory to date – could arise where today we see everywhere cars, streets and scattered low density development.

Bikes in the sky with diamonds

On the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival on Manhattan, Shin-pei Tsay was an organizer of a competition in New York called the New Amsterdam Bike Slam hosted by Transportation Alternatives, NYC, for which Shin-pei was working at the time. She mentioned in our communications the idea of bicycle freeways turning up in this New York/Amsterdam event for artists and designers with a two-wheeled love of transport. The idea was to come up with schemes for getting one million Manhattanites on bikes by 2015.

Richard Register's sketch of an elevated bikeway

The author did a sketch in 1985 of a concept for an elevated bikeway (Click to enlarge).

I’d drawn a picture of the bicycle freeway idea way back in the mid 1980s which she ran across in one of my books and I still think such bicycle freeways would be relatively unobtrusive, would be a lot of fun and would work well in higher density areas. I described for her that one day about three years ago, just being interested in the history of things, where innovations come from, the creative process itself and its dynamics, I happened to be looking into the history of freeways. I’d heard the Pasadena Freeway was the first, so I looked it up and to my surprise it was preceded by 40 years by a bicycle freeway on the route of the later car freeway (if not as long). No kidding!

One Horace Dobbins incorporated the California Cycleway Company and bought six miles of right-of-way connecting the Hotel Green in Pasadena with downtown Los Angeles. The bicycle way left the hotel, passed through Pasadena’s Central Park and headed south then southwest through mainly open space toward LA. Dobbins managed to build about one and a half miles of the elevated wooden structure that opened January 1, 1900.

As misfortune would have it – for all of us – the bicycle fad thriving in the preceding decade started its quick decline almost exactly then, when cars started seriously proliferating and pushing bikes out of the way. The full elevated bicycle freeway was never completed and what was built was dismantled and soon sold off for lumber. Most of that ancient bicycle-way is now the thoroughly nondescript Edmondson Alley running between neglected commercial back doors and expansive bleak parking lots through a portion of town with such large blocks of automobile dependent layout it would take you forever to walk or bike anywhere shoved around everywhere by hundreds of cars.

Worth thinking about, however, is the design shown on the New York Times article covering the New Amsterdam Bike Slam. There is a picture there with a bicycle freeway slung under a car freeway – not a good idea! Bicycling in the shadow, noise and pollution of the cars overhead, it would seem only the zen warrior bicyclist pushing a point could enjoy such a dreary, struggling ride.

Look instead to the High Line running in the sun parallel to the Hudson River on Manhattan’s West Side – and also to my own drawings – for intimations of a much more pleasant experience for bicycling. One interesting point: the High Line, most of which is almost twice as wide as needs to be for an elevated bicycle freeway, demonstrates that an elevated structure for bicycles would very minimally impact the streets and sidewalks below. Imagine bicycling through the air, safety railing along the sides, naturally, and not having to stop at intersections, bother pedestrians or dodge traffic. Very nice!

Here’s where you can find Wikipedia’s story of the first freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway in California. It was for bicycles, not cars.

Cross-posted from EcoCity Builders.

– Richard Register

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