“For 7000 years,” says Mikael Colville-Anderson, “streets were the most democratic space in the history of Homo sapiens.”

Nearly everything that could be done in public could be done safely in city streets. People walked and talked and argued, children played, markets and festivals were set up – and if a horse-drawn wagon needed a bit of extra room for passage, that could be negotiated too. Except in times of war, carelessly stepping out into a street did not bring the risk of a sudden violent death.

That all changed in western societies in just a few decades, Colville-Andersen said, when the rapidly growing automobile industry launched a successful public relations campaign. “Jay-walking” was painted as a dangerous, foolish and anti-social activity, while the new profession of traffic engineering focused on streamlining streets to facilitate the speedy and steady movement of cars.

Colville-Andersen was speaking in Toronto on February 27 at the Ontario Good Roads Association annual conference. Kudos to the OGRA for bringing him in as a featured speaker, along with panelists Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner for the city of Toronto, and Taras Grescoe, author of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. (in top photo, clockwise from left, Colville-Andersen, Keesmaat and Grescoe)

The discussion focused on the best urban transportation design practices in the world – while also raising difficult questions about why many cities have lacked the political will to implement rational design.

Canadian by birth, Colville-Andersen lives in Denmark and has established an international consulting practice, Copenhagenize Design Co. His firm helps cities around the world in implementing pro-pedestrian and pro-bicycling policies, when they are ready to move away from an overwhelming reliance on cars for everyday transportation.

Design played a big role in cementing the dominance of cars in our reshaped cities by specifying wider – and faster – turning radiuses; ring roads, multi-lane arterial roads and even expressways built right through old neighbourhoods.

The predictable result, Colville-Andersen says, is that most urban dwellers do not feel safe biking on city streets. Just as predictably, he says, biking rates go up rapidly as soon as a usable network of safe infrastructure is established.

It is useless, he said, to exhort people to bike for the sake of their own health or for the health of the environment. In Copenhagen, where more than half the people bike to work or education each day (compared to 14% who routinely travel in cars), neither personal health nor the environment rank high as a motivating factor.

Instead, repeated polls have found that most people choose to bike simply because that’s the quickest and most convenient way to get around Copenhagen.

And that’s no accident – it reflects a 40-year-old prioritizing of active transportation, with the goal of making walking and biking safe and convenient, while making driving less convenient.

Colville-Andersen summarized this process with “The Quickest Planning Guide You’ll Ever See”.

At left is traffic engineering as practiced in most wealthy cities for the past 60 years. Cartoonish in its simplicity, it nevertheless summarizes what many people experience daily. Bike networks are disjointed snippets of little use to commuters on bike. Sidewalks and other walking routes also include frequent jogs to accommodate motorways. Bus routes have continuous runs but often wind around cities wasting their occupants’ time – while car and truck routes are made as straight and fast as feasible.

At right is the prioritizing exhibited in Copenhagen. Bike routes and walking routes are made as convenient and efficient as possible, with public transit routes next in priority. Meanwhile many jogs, detours, narrow lanes and other traffic calming designs intentionally slow motor traffic. This not only makes biking and walking much safer in those inevitable intersections, but also gives drivers daily incentives to stop using their costly and slow cars.

A question of design, or a question of power?

The “best practice” biking infrastructure designs that have evolved in Copenhagen and other European cities result in high rates of cycling, more just societies and more convivial cities. But the political vision required to even consider the Copenhagen approach was a contentious topic in the panel discussion that followed Colville-Andersen’s speech.

In Toronto, far from being willing to intentionally impede car traffic, successive city councils have approved very modest extensions of bikeways only when they have been assured that the bike lanes will not significantly slow down car traffic.

For example, when council debated adding “protected bike lanes” to two busy one-way streets downtown, Mayor John Tory was cautiously supportive “as long as the cycle tracks don’t interfere with commuters”. It was Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat who recounted this anecdote, and who also drew out the implication that in the Mayor’s way of thinking only the car drivers counted as “commuters”.

A recently installed bike lane on Adelaide Street in downtown Toronto. The partially protected bike lane resulted in an immediate jump in bike traffic. But it is also the subject of frequent complaints about taxis and delivery vehicles which cut around the widely spaced bollards and park in the cycle lane – forcing cyclists to swerve out into the traffic.

Thus while Keesmaat enthusiastically backed the major thrust of Colville-Andersen’s design approach, she also emphasized the difficult task of building a political constituency for cycling, so that councils become willing to support transformative action.

The frustration with the glacially slow growth of Toronto’s bicycle routes became especially clear in the question period. One long-time cycling advocate angrily told the panelists they were all missing the point: “we have an automotive industry in this province that dictates how Toronto runs.”

Indeed, auto manufacturing has long been a dominant industry in the province of Ontario, a force to be reckoned with by all political parties. Even the nominally left-wing New Democrats are reluctant to back any measure that could cost jobs in auto manufacturing, as the auto workers union has been one of their most important constituencies.

In an economic system where anything other than steady growth is seen as failure, it is hard to imagine Ontario municipal leaders telling the auto industry “we’re going to intentionally slow down car traffic throughout our cities, so that large numbers of drivers stop driving and switch to walking or biking. Your car sales will go down a lot, but you’ll just have to deal with it.”

When Copenhagen embarked on its transportation transition 40 years ago, the local power dynamics were likely far different. Not only did the transition begin during the oil price spikes of the 1970s, but Denmark had no major automotive or petroleum industries at the time. Copenhagen may have been under the influence of car culture, but the car industry apparently did not have the same financial and political clout that it wields in many other cities or regions.

By the same token, the design approach to bicycle urbanism may turn out to be an important but passing phase. The current design approach, after all, generally amounts to gradually carving out small protected lanes alongside the much larger proportion of urban streets that remain the province of cars.

If fossil fuels don’t remain cheap in coming decades, and the car economy coughs and wheezes until it no longer dominates civic life, there may be no need to set aside small “safe spaces” on city streets. With only a few cars and trucks on city streets there may be no need for separate bike lanes, because the streets will once again become the democratic spaces they were for 6900 of the past 7000 years.

In the meantime, however, we welcome every step forward in providing safe infrastructure, and every additional rider who feels comfortable biking as a result.

The Richmond Street bikeway, on a busy one-way street through Toronto’s financial district, at evening rush hour.

Top photo, clockwise from left: Mikael Colville-Andersen, CEO of Copenhagenize Design Co; Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner, City of Toronto; Taras Grescoe, author of Straphanger