08.08.2012, 12:06
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Following the public forum, “Time to act: How to prepare a city for bike lanes”, we spoke with its moderator Oleg Pachenkov, an urbanist, sociologist and deputy director of the Center for Independent Social Research, about how bicycles can change the city.

Why have bicycles become a part of the conversation?

Bicycle transportation can increase social cohesion, which is very important in a city and something I think we’ve lost to a great extent. The bicycle is an open vehicle, it allows us to communicate with each other. When 60 percent of the population rides bicycles, you get completely different people and completely different relationships between them. You get something resembling an urban community. The difference between a mass of cars at a stoplight and a mass of bicycles at a stoplight is enormous.

Why are we doing this? For whom? What does the city gain from this?

It’s no coincidence that Viktor Vakhshtein, the director of the Center for Sociological Research at the Presidential Academy, asked precisely these questions during a recent discussion. They must be answered one-by-one, and the answers are connected. The questions force us to reflect, and in the process of answering them, we come to see that every city and every problem is unique.

Resources are always limited, and we’re forced to make priorities. Sometimes we have to choose between different ways of improving the urban environment.

For example: Do we need more parking spaces and, if so, where should we create them? Should we invest in parking spaces or bike lanes, and in what ratio? Can we take bikes on the metro? Perhaps at certain times or in certain metro cars?

About the origins of urban life

Our colleague in New York [Hayes Lord, director of the Department of Transportation's bicycle program] recently talked about how New York launched bicycle tours of the city’s public art installations.

Once bicycle infrastructure reached a certain level of development, and once people began to grasp the concept of a “livable city”, someone had the idea of creating a bike tour of the city’s public art.

Up until then, public art wasn’t a part of most New Yorkers’ consciousness. Public art was for the people who lived around the corner from it. Now, thanks to the bike tour, New Yorkers and visitors can see the city from an entirely new perspective. This is an example of how we can change urban life by introducing new ways of interacting with the city, such as bicycles.

About the participatory effect

The most progressive city planners and managers understand that the participatory approach is the best one. End users must be involved in urban planning.

This is where independent organizations enter the picture. In New York, officials can rely on these organizations to help plan infrastructure improvements. In Moscow, these organizations are forming as a result of the planning process. In other words, the process of planning bicycle infrastructure is having an unexpected and very important side-effect — it’s creating neighbourhoods, squares and other public spaces and communitites.

Muscovites currently don’t belong to communities because they don’t have the time, reason, or desire to do so. But if you give people the opportunity to discuss what’s happening outside their windows while they’re on the way to the metro or the mall or the movie theater — via the bicycle — you can spark dialog that leads to collective action.

About the approach to planning

New York has gone from centralized planning to de-centralized planning within communities.

The city places bicycle parking near stores, barber shops and cafes. This is a good idea for several reasons. For one, the businesses act as free guards — riders don’t have to use clever locks or install other security devices.

But you can only put parking near the entrance to local businesses if you work with business owners to plan the bike path. If the path interferes with truck traffic to the businesses, the owners won’t like them and will protest against them.

I don’t like to use the phrase “laying bike paths”. We shouldn’t “lay bike paths”, we should “build bike infrastructure”. Making a city bike-friendly is not about building a certain number of square meters of painted bike paths surrounded by barriers.

A Scandinavian colleague of mine made the astute observation that a bicycle rider has more in common with a pedestrian than he does with a motorist. For this reason, it’s important to draw from the pedestrian’s experience, not the motorist’s, when designing bike infrastructure. St. Petersburg’s bike infrastructure plan was designed by the institute for auto-transport, and I was quite unhappy with it.

About which department should develop bike infrastructure

Bicycle transportation should fit neatly into the city’s larger transport strategy. Thus, from a technical standpoint, it should be the responsibility of the department of transportation.

But everything in a city is connected, and transport infrastructure influences many different aspects of city life. Because the city is a complex system, it’s impossible to solve any  problem without looking at the larger picture.

Transportation specialists are very good at developing drawings, measurements, and estimates. They’re less good at conceptualizing how bicycle infrastructure changes peoples’ way of life and perception of the city. A bicyclist’s view of the city is, after all, very different from a motorist’s view. It follows that the transportation department should work with the health and human services department, the cultural department, and the strategic development department.

About terminology

Undoubtedly, we need to work on developing new terminology. This is unavoidable. We need terms we can use in driving laws, building codes, and so on. We adopted several terms for the St. Petersburg bike infrastructure plan.

The term “bike path” should be in quotation marks, because it’s a general term. There are several types of bike paths, and each has special characteristics. A path that runs on the sidewalk and requires purely cosmetic improvements is one type. Another type is the conventional 300-km bike path that goes from one end of the city to the other, from the outskirts to the city center, running along roads. The two paths have completely different technical characteristics. This is why you need different words for them.

There’s a constant urge to use the term “bike-network”, because individual bike paths are pointless if they don’t form a network. “Bike-network” should be a term with a specific meaning: connected bike paths and other elements of bike infrastructure, such as bike parking.

About bicyclists’ survival strategy

Bicyclists, as a group, are strategically weak. Therefore, they need to form various coalitions with other groups that use city infrastructure, such as pedestrians and public transportation riders.