Friday, October 30, 2009

Suburbanization and cycling

Suburban sprawl by David Shankbone 2008

As you may know, I am a geography student, so why not utilize my education? Forgive me if I'm dry, I'll try to be at least informative :)

There are 2 types of suburbanization: British and American. Both mean that people desire to live outside the city center. The British suburbanized in the 19th century by developing public transit system. The American way was to get to the suburbs by private automobile, which also enables the low density population structure and urban sprawl. Nowadays there the both suburbanization types occur in Europe too. The American type has proved to be particularly detrimental for cycling, because the distances are too long and often the necessary and safe light traffic infrastructure does not exist.

Low density housing in America pretty much destroyed community walkability and light traffic infrastructure, but in those European towns that have managed to invest in cyclist friendly infrastructure the cyclist rates are still very high (Follman 2007). The examples of 20th century Amsterdam and Copenhagen prove this point but they also show that it is possible to reverse this development and break the connection between suburbanization and lower cycling rates.

In the 1st half of the 20th century up to 75% of trips in Amsterdam were done by bike. 75 percent! After the second world war cars took over Amsterdam and the city expanded. This obviously had a massive effect on cycling, and the cycling rate dropped to the all time low of 25% in Amsterdam and 10% in Copenhagen by the 70s. How ever, the city road capacity couldn't handle many cars and the oil crises forced the government to think of measures to decrease oil dependency, so they began aggressively promoting cycling among other things by investing in bicycling infrastructure and enhancing cyclist priority in traffic. They succeeded and nowadays the cities have 35-40% bike trip share. That is impressive! Nowadays the cities are known for their cyclist friendliness and are among the safest cycling cities of the world (Jacobson 2009).

So, usually suburbanization and cycling decline go hand-in-hand, but it does not have to be that way. Suburbanization can also promote cycling if the suburb is not too far, but that would be on the expense of pedestrians or public transit, not cars. It is better to reign in the (mostly the American type) suburbanization a bit by supporting strong city centers and restricting suburban mall-building. E.g Muenster has some positive experiences of that strategy (Pucher and Buehler 2007).

Turku has both American and European type suburbs. Less than half of the households on the closer and denser (British type) suburbs have cars, but 70% of the more distant ones have at least one. The highest cyclist rates coming to the center of the city are from the closer suburb area. Surprisingly the cyclists are not coming to the grid plan center as often as the average cycling rate (11,5% of all trips) suggests. From the more distant “American type” suburbs almost no-one bothers to ride a bike to the center (numbers are from Turku Bustrip self-assessment report 2006, in Finnish).

So, it looks like these suburb theories do fit pretty well on my town. How about you, do you have any theories about the connection of suburbanization and cycling or would you like to share your experience? Is this kinda stuff too boring for you or do you wanna hear more of my academic brain farts?

P.S. Here's a video about the solution to the problems presented by urban sprawl (which is not the same as suburbanization, but closely related to the American type)


Anonymous said...

I'm having the same thoughts about my home town, Ljubljana / Slovenia, and how to stop and reverse automotive epidemy. City goverment is spending some funds to solve this issue but I'm affraid, the point is beeing missed.
Great post!
Cheers , Gregor

Sonja said...

Thanks, Gregor! City planning is a key to solving this problem, but there often is not enough political will or funding. How ever, contemporary suburban way of living and planning is not sustainable, there has to be a change sooner or later, even in Ljubljana and Turku :)! Where are they putting those funds meant to solve the problem?

anna said...

Of course we also have suburbs in Vienna, called "Speckgürtel" (bacon belt literally, but commuter belt in proper English I think). People from there commute by subway, train and of course cars to the city. I think bikes are not used that much because the distances are too far and the area is rather bike-unfriendly. Plus, in Vienna the city is seperated in two parts by the Danube. The structure of Transdanubien (the parts north-east of the Danube) is also very different from the southern area.

I think the negative impact such a way of living has on cycling is not the only one. Generally it's much more energy-efficient to live close together of course (in terms of heating, land consumption, basic infrastructure such as electricity, gas, water etc., mobility and so on).

Like your academic brain farts as you call it :). Keep up informing us about such concepts.

Sonja said...

Hey anna! Where does that funny name "bacon belt" come from? (I came to think of life style diseases) And as always, you are totally right :), there are numerous adverse effects with that sort of development. But many people just have to have their own private yard and no wall neighbors.

Anonymous said...

"Here is a video"... where?

anna said...

@ Anonymous: just click on "video" -- it's a link :).

Anonymous said...

That image is really horrible - don’t they know how to plant a tree?

Sox said...

It seems people move to the suburbs to 'get away from it all' and then, because they feel pressed for time, need a car to get back to for the activities that take place in the older areas.
My friend recently went to a conference to promote cycling. One fellow theorized that riding your bike to work needs to be promoted as a time-saver. If it takes 20 minutes to drive to work and 30 minutes to cycle, you are getting a 30 minute workout that really only costs 10 minutes. I'm hoping that idea takes off.

Suzanne said...

It often comes as a shock when one realizes that living in a concrete ugly modern but well built high rise, in a densely populated urban area, and commuting to work by bike, is more eco-friendly (energy efficient, less polluting, etc.) then commuting by car 30 km to your off-the-grid heaven in the countryside. Thought provoking for the tree huggers, isn't it?

Melanie said...

Hi Sonja,

Great post! I wanted to interject a little as an American geography student. :)

American suburbs were actually originally built around the streetcar or trolley (referred to as the streetcar suburb). It wasn't until after WWII, when the US govt. created a number of federal incentives for homebuilding, that the typical American suburbs actually came to be. In fact, early on, personal automobiles were hard to use since many roads were not paved (it was actually 2 cycling groups that started the road paving movement in the US).

Anyhow, one way or the other, I totally agree that many American suburbs and cities are not conducive to utility and transportation cycling and in fact, the urban design often discourages it.

Sonja said...

Hi Melanie! Cool that there is another geography student following this blog :D That stuff about American suburbanization was from a geography dictionary, but as you know, there are always so many definitions as there are dictionaries. So they actually wanted to create that sort of city plan, who would have known :)Thanks for the info! BTW, I'm a bit biased when it comes to things that make or don't make sense in America and Europe. I am European so I can't see some things like an American would. When I was in Canada, I couldn't understand their love of cars, but probably my heritage makes it difficult to see car's true cultural importance.

Melanie said...

Haha, I must not be a very good American then, because I don't care much for cars. ;) Thanks for the response! I enjoy the blog!

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