The Major Urban Revolution of Minor Transportation Means

Today’s guest post is by Yuval Karmi, an architect and urban economist from Israel. He blogs at BoLepo, from which this article is reprinted with permission. Karmi reached out to us to share his thoughts on the transportation revolution represented by small, personal vehicles such as electric bicycles and scooters.

We appreciate the international perspective, and we think the “revolution” question is an important one to be talking about. Promises of revolutionary change in cities abound, from the Internet of Things to autonomous vehicles. We’ve expressed skepticism about some of these, but a recent podcast conversation between Strong Towns Founder and President Chuck Marohn and board member Andrew Burleson toyed with the notion that dockless scooters might actually be a game-changer, by changing the politics of how we allocate street space and who gets to demand it.

How do we know when we’re in the midst of disruptive change versus a fad? If we do suspect a “revolution” is upon us, then what do we do to prepare for it, take advantage of it, but also to make our cities and towns antifragile—able to become better, stronger places as a result of disruption to the status quo?

Read Karmi’s thoughts below, and let us know what you think.

We are in the midst of an urban revolution, nothing less. It’s challenging for us to observe it and define it as such, as we are only human, with short lifespans and even shorter-term memories. Yet the signs of a revolution are already here. Scarce, subtle, and slow as they may be.

The city is primarily a product of transportation. It has always been one. From the size of the city to the width of the streets, everything is constantly adapting to the way we move. Even the height of buildings in the city is a function of transportation: it was limited to four floors before the invention of the safety elevator. The elevator is the most popular public, electric, autonomous and free transport vehicle in the world.

When the Segway was invented, its inventor thought that this vehicle, which is licensed for sidewalks, would change the way people experienced the city. It didn’t happen. But a number of technological means have since matured, and electric bicycles have become a vehicle with enormous advantages. With no need for a license or insurance, zero fuel costs, and a low price point, bikes and electric scooters are becoming the vehicle that really can replace the car for short urban trips. Unlike with regular bikes, the electric bike rider sees no obstacle in steep climbs, hot days, or long distances. These bikes are a very convenient means of transportation if you are commuting to work at a distance of 5 to 15 kilometers.

We are only on the first steps of the urban revolution. It seems as if nothing has changed with the increased usage of said bikes but an uptick in associated accidents. But that was also the case when the car was introduced to the city. People demanded that every car be led by a man walking in front of it with a warning flag in hand. The car frightened both horses and pedestrians and claimed road rights. The public was furious, safety advocates wrote impassioned articles and demanded that cars be prevented from entering the city… sound familiar? [Editor’s note: Here’s a good history of how automakers campaigned to change the rules of engagement around cars in cities, which were once seen as dangerous interlopers.]

Whether they’re mountainous or flat, covered in bicycle lanes or not, cities are being taken over by electric bikes and scooters. They are everywhere, interfering on both roads and sidewalks in ways that overwhelm city planners, architects, and legislators.

The statistics reported in the Israeli parliament (2018) were: 210,000 electric bicycles on roads and sidewalks, 76 deaths in 3 years, and zero legislation. Well, I’ve got some bad news: no effective legislation will be possible in the near future. It is a process that will take years, during which both the law and city planners will follow the current state of affairs and inevitably fall behind in trying to balance competing interests. Any attempt made today to allocate driving or parking lanes for those small vehicles will encounter great opposition as well as come at a great risk to politicians and mayors.

But it’s only temporary.

The change begins with main intersections where cyclists fly through in all directions while cars hesitate to move in fear for the cyclists’ lives. As usual, with no other choice available, some cities start to ban cars from entering their city centers. [Editor’s note: Madrid is doing this in 2018.] A slow but persistent change. Any closure of a car lane makes it less attractive to drive. Already in most large cities, cycling is faster than a taxi ride (see, for example, New York).

It is a mechanism that accelerates itself the moment you begin to comply with it. The more you accommodate cyclists, the less choice there is but to limit cars further. All of that can happen even before cyclists reach “security in large numbers”—the condition in which there are so many of them that the entire transportation system adapts to them and rides become significantly safer.

One thing is clear today: bicycle lanes on the sidewalk are not the solution. The combination of fast bikes with pedestrians is not only dangerous, but is also problematic at intersections shared with cars. Only paths that take up part of the road can really become a valid traffic network, and examples for those are emerging in London, Paris and other big cities.

In cities throughout the world, for the next twenty years, city centers will be facing a major shift. 20 years is the time it took the car to change the urban perception. It took cities 50 more years to adjust to them and give in completely. I would suggest that my fellow architects and city planners rethink their perceptions of what is necessary for urban life. How many cars does an urban family need? What is the width of the required roads? What separation should be maintained between pedestrians and other means of transportation?

Moreover, a cyclist is a creature that we architects and planners hardly know. The pedestrian is familiar to us. For example, he walks at a pace that is slow enough to stop and enter a store spontaneously. The driver in his car is also known to us. We know that he is limited to a narrow cone of vision and does not even see the store’s display window. We know how to plan for either, but the cyclist lives in the middle range. He can stop anywhere as a pedestrian but moves at a relatively high speed, he turns using a small radius like a pedestrian yet is in need of a parking space. What is the size of block that suits cycling as a transportation mode? What size of parking should we supply the cyclist with, and how far from his destination?

The problem is that we do not really know what is going to be more successful and what will fail. For example, have a look at Google Image search for “bike graveyards” to understand one urban problem bicycles, and especially bicycle rental services, can raise. At the beginning of the 20th century the city was a literally stinking place. Horse manure and horses cadavers were left in the street until the municipal veterinarian cleared them out. We may find ourselves in the same situation again, with metal bodies of bicycles and batteries polluting every street corner.

Similar to previous urban revolutions, we are facing the unexpected. There will be mistakes made; people will be injured and even killed until the city adapts. Cars are likely to stay with us forever. It seems likely that electric bikes and riders will need a license and insurance, and it is likely that the entire urban space will change for the worse before it can change for the better.

We live for too few years to remember a city other than the one that exists now, a city polluted with car exhaust and segmented with roads. These small electric transportation means are going to drag us all to a new type of city. Whether we like it or not, whether we understand it or not.

When Elisha Otis introduced the safety elevator in 1852, he never imagined skyscrapers.

(Cover art by the author.)

About the Author

Yuval Karmi is an Israeli architect and urban economist. He blogs at BoLepo about urban planning and urban behavior. Combining architecture, transportation, sociology, economics and more, Karmi uses his blog as a testing ground for ideas that will hopefully become a book.

Karmi has a degree in architecture from the Technion.