Thursday, August 23, 2012

Getting to Amsterdam, Beijing and New York City

After much consternation and hand wringing, it seems that a majority of New York City residents have come to terms with the expansion of bicycle lanes in New York City according to this recent poll. What is interesting about the results is that people don't necessarily see them as good for themselves but see it as good for the city or for people they know and seem to see it as a balance argument that we need to support many forms of transportation and it is good for public health. This got me thinking, what would it take to get to a bicycling norm and I reflected on my past world travels and it brought to mind two very different places.

The first is Amsterdam in the Netherlands which is an incredibly bicycle friendly city. If you visit during the spring, summer or fall you will see a huge number of bicyclists getting around. Bicycles there are cheap and functional, and mostly stolen. It may be apocryphal but supposedly the average bike has been stolen five times in Amsterdam, so it effect it has become a de facto community bike sharing program. Though apparently they have to dredge the canals periodically of the bikes thrown in there. Regardless of the set backs, bicycles have a primary role despite a weather situation similar to New York City. It has persisted as well.

Another city in my past travels has been Beijing, China. When I went there for the first time in the late 1990s, bicycles were a dominant form of transportation. The legendary "Flying Pigeon" Ruled the road. There were lots of bike thoroughfares connecting the different rings. Ten years later the car has become the dominant form of transportation and bicycles are relegated to the poor and to the "recreational" (that's a joke). Modernization, status seeking and decrease in cost of cars has led to this change in transportation mode.

New York City isn't quite Beijing, but it's not Amsterdam. The question is will policy be sufficient to change the mix of transport. What is the tipping point that leads to Beijing or Amsterdam. The next couple of years in NYC will be interesting to see how it plays out. I am optimistic, the transformation of Times Square to more of a square shows change is possible.


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