Of Trams and Bicycles

Written by Roger Bardsley, AICP

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “we hold these truths to be self-evident – that there is not enough room in even a medium-sized city for everyone and their cars.” Actually, he would have said it were he around today. As planners we know that unhindered mobility based on personal vehicles works poorly or not at all when densities reach the “walkable” threshold that everyone is looking for today. And it is not just the traffic that is a problem, it is also the parked vehicles themselves that clog up the landscape.

Americans have been in denial about these simple truths, of course, for many years, but in Europe there is more realism and a willingness to try different approaches. In my recent trip to five countries in western and central Europe I enjoyed seeing and assessing some of their transportation methods.

Amsterdam

Many Americans have been there and know that the backbone of their transportation system is the bicycle, as it has been for almost 100 years. The 16th century canals impose charming constraints on the road system, and the waterlogged substrate rules out a subway system. There are trams and buses, but without the bicycle Amsterdam would not function. In the 1970s Copenhagen set out to emulate Amsterdam and today it also relies on the bicycle to provide mobility for most of the population.

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Bike Parking Garage – Amsterdam

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Bikes on a canal – Amsterdam

Vienna

A beautiful city with good public transportation and lots of traffic that has not embraced the bicycle. There are bicycles but they do not have many separated lanes and paths.

Budapest

Crossing the Iron Curtain was very interesting. Cities in former Communist countries did not have to deal with high levels of auto ownership until after 1989. Before that time you waited for several years to buy an East German Trabbant that might, charitably, be called an automobile. The Trabbis were so awful that they are now collectors’ items. The pictures show two that have been “repurposed”.

Budapest has gone all out for the bicycle, installing bike lanes along most major roads. They have also franchised MOL to set up a city bike system with many pick-up/drop-off locations, all in the last six months. The result – lots of bikes, bike rentals, bike tours, etc.

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Trabbi advertising Thai massage – Budapest

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 Prague Trabbi in Ruins Bar – Budapest

Prague

Another beautiful city that many Americans have visited. It has a dense tram system that is the backbone of their mobility, and a great subway system. They have bike lanes in the suburbs but not in the downtown area. The result – very few bikes and too much auto traffic.

In addition to bike facilities, or lack thereof, I saw many attempts to tame the automobile using some variant of the Dutch woonerf design, or actual car-free pedestrian zones. I even saw a perfect speed table made of stone paving blocks that blended into the stone-paved street.

Conclusions

My anecdotal conclusions were simple:

  1. When it comes to promoting the bicycle (including e-bikes), build the facilities and stripe the lanes and they will appear very quickly
  2. Trams beat buses hands down when it comes to moving lots of people in a urban area. They are faster, carry more people, and load/unload much faster than buses
  3. Trying to get drivers to share and play nice with pedestrians is hard – exclusive pedestrian zones work much better
  4. Cars parked in the wrong places, such as on the sidewalk or in front of your beautiful Gothic cathedral, really damage the urban environment

As I just mentioned, many of the central and eastern European cities are great test cases for what happens when you introduce lots of private vehicles in a short period of time. The Communist governments did not care about bicycles, but they did support and enhance the tram systems. For instance, there are trams in old East Berlin but not in old West Berlin. Thanks God for the trams or many of the beautiful old centers of these cities would be uninhabitable.

For those cities that have recognized the potential of the bicycle to enhance personal mobility the results have been striking. We rented bikes in Amsterdam, Wurzburg and Budapest. The rental experience was easy and cheap, and there is nothing like getting out and mixing with the locals to give you a feel for personal mobility in someone else’s town.

 

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