Triumph of the City

The post takes its title from the book I have just finished reading and which I intend to summarise so that you can either enjoy the synopsis and be inspired to read it for yourself, or simply take away my interpretation of the lessons presented therein. [caveat: I initially started reading this book about three years ago and got most of the way through it, but admittedly found some of the chapters repeating the same ideas, which made me put the book back on the shelf and only pick it up recently to finish it, for my personal satisfaction of completeness.] I have decided to use the concluding chapter as a guide to comment on the ideas presented in the book with subheadings as in the original text, which I quote from liberally.

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Copenhagen: More bikes than cars

In the news today: bikes outnumber cars for the first time in Copenhagen

In Copenhagen, which I had to pleasure of visiting in May, the balance has finally tipped so that more bicycles (265,700) have been counted than cars (252,600) in the city centre. The figures are a daily number, though it’s not clear whether this is a yearly, monthly, or other average.

Cycle Counter in Copenhagen
Cycle Counter in Copenhagen

Key Facts:

City: Copenhagen

Population: 600,000

Investment in cycling infrastructure: £115m (1bn DKK) since 2005

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Free Public Transport

Have you ever been tempted not to pay a fare? I imagine this will largely depend on the nature of the transport system you are using. In Paris, the barriers to enter the Metro are full height, so no chance of dodging them. In London, Underground barriers are about chest height, so probably too high to get over. In Warsaw, on the other hand, the barrier is only a turnstile, which I have seen jumped over (or slipped under) many times. Would a simple solution such as broader barrier stop this from happening? I’m pretty sure!

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What makes a successful transport system?

This evening, I attended a presentation of the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority’s new WM Strategic Transport Plan entitled “Movement for Growth”.

After a presentation of the long term approach to transport in Birmingham over a 20 year period, a discussion ensued with unsurprising comments either applauding the plans, questioning them or criticising them for taking so long to come to fruition. Not much to write home about. What I did find notable, however, was one gentleman’s comments answering the question of “What are the characteristics of a highly successful transport system?” He mentioned 5 things:

  1. Legible
  2. Through ticketing
  3. Easily interchangeable
  4. High frequency
  5. Run on electrified rail

According to him, the combination of the above make cities easy to use. I found this list to be a great summary, in line with my personal experience of using transport systems in a range of cities, countries and continents. Furthermore, he pointed out that the way in which a transport system is characterised is the same for both a newcomer to a city and a long-time resident of the city, be they a new or experienced user. Granted, an ‘old’ resident may know that the 41 bus runs past their house and takes them to work or to the city centre, but if they have to go somewhere new, the above list of items will ensure that the transport system is easy to adapt to their circumstance. Needless to say that such as system is necessary to encourage sustainable travel and decrease the reliance on cars.


What is your opinion on what makes a successful transport system? Do you agree with the above list? Are there any key characteristics which have been missed out?


A few weeks ago, I came across the Guardian’s Bike Blog which contains entries on a variety of cycling-related issues. The blog has all manner of content: some entertaining, some serious, some informative, some just to rant, some to make you think. The bottom line is that it presents views on issues relevant to cycling but it is also a platform for discussion and the generation of issues.

Guardian have even published a book which compiles some of the most interesting posts: the aptly-named “Cyclebabble“. I believe that this should be compulsory reading for anyone working in a position where they can do something about the topics raised.

Borrowing Boris’ Bikes

For those not in the know, “Boris Bikes” is the popular name of the London Bike Hire scheme (officially “Barclays Cycle Hire“) which allows anyone to ride around London for free (almost). The basics are that you pay a £1 fee (by debit card) to gain 24h access to hiring bikes. You then insert your card again and obtain a ‘release code’ to take your Boris Bike from the stand. If you cycle around and return the bike within 30 minutes, you don’t have to pay a penny. And if you need to go further, just wait a few minutes, then get another bike and continue for another 30 minutes absolutely FREE. Docking stations are located roughly 300m apart, so you should always be within reach, both at your departure point and destination, of one of the 8000 bikes which form part of the scheme which was launched in the summer of 2010.

Having never lived in London itself, I have only used the bikes occasionally, but my experience has been positive and I think that the scheme is a fantastic idea, despite the criticisms which follow. 😉 The process of acquiring a bike could be made a little smoother (for those who don’t have a release key which literally frees a bike in seconds), as the touchscreens of the terminals seemed a little unresponsive – then again, probably a design decision to make them durable. The bikes themselves are heavy. Very heavy. Luckily, London is mostly flat so instead of complaining about the robust design, enjoy the wide saddle and thick tires, which actually make for a pretty comfy ride. My biggest concern remains London traffic, but as more Boris bikes are seen on the streets, drivers become more aware of them and safety increases in numbers. Meanwhile the mayor is doing his best to improve cycle paths and lanes, going as far as constructing “cycle superhighways” – arteries to connect outer boroughs with the centre.

Undoubtedly, bikes aren’t for everyone, but if you can see the benefits of picking one up to get from A to B instead of packing onto the ever-crowded tube, you can enjoy the sights above ground, save some money and feel good about getting some exercise.