Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

May 4, 2010

“Urban Revolutions” event at MIT

What follows here is a very long post, but Robert Winters has given me a free rein. I haven’t seen any other news coverage of the “Urban Revolutions” event, so here goes. Despite its length, this is not a transcript — though I quote the speakers liberally, I have summarized much of the session. If you see a “more” prompt just below, click on it so see the rest of my account. Thanks Robert!

A description of the event

On Wednesday, April 28, 2010, an event called “Urban Revolutions” was held at a large lecture hall at MIT. The following is more or less a straight news story about that event, though, where there is a question of factual accuracy, or an obscure remark, I have added a clarification in parentheses. A companion piece describes a conversation following the event between Cambridge resident Jessica Eckhardt and one of the presenters, Boston’s Bicycle Program Director Nicole Freedman.

Several speakers gave presentations, followed by a panel discussion and questions from the audience. One panelist was David Byrne, of the Talking Heads band; copies of his book Bicycle Diaries were on sale outside the door. The audience was of all ages, but with a concentration of people in their thirties. Some attendees were stylishly, though not formally, dressed. It was hard to tell how many were Byrne fans and how many were interested in urban-design issues or bicycling. There were about 300 people in the audience; about one set in 10 was empty. Tickets had been made available for free over the Internet and, according to Jackie Douglas of the advocacy group Livable Streets, which had organized the event, demand had exceeded the auditorium’s capacity by 400 to 800 people after tickets ran out. Evidently, some people took advantage of the free tickets but made only a light commitment to attend.

The event was scheduled for 7 PM. Around that time, the audience began to file into the lecture hall, where cheery music was playing over loudspeakers, and clips from various films and TV shows featuring bicycles were showing on two screens, one at either side of the blackboard at the front of the room. I recognized a couple of the clips: Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy riding together in the Muppet Movie; the Andy Griffith Show. Around 7:15, the event got underway.

Introductions

Prof. Adèle Naudé Santos, Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, began the session by describing Critical Mass rides, in which bicyclists congregate to take over the streets. These rides began in San Francisco and have spread to cities worldwide. According to Santos, there were 80,000 riders on Earth day, 2008 in Budapest, “obeying all rules of course” (laughter from the audience).

Santos indicated that it’s a small world of people who actually care about these issues. “We will debate this issue, not that there’s much to debate. We love bikes, right? We love electric bikes. We love electric bikes that are even cooler than the usual electric bikes.”

She then introduced Liborio Stellino, the Italian Consul General in Boston, who described himself as a Talking Heads fan and expressed astonishment at sharing the stage with David Byrne. He praised the event, saying that it compared well with the questions he gets about restaurants in the North End (laughter from the audience). He praised Italian technology partnerships with the USA, particularly in the area of environmentally-sensitive projects, and specifically the E-bike which would be demonstrated later. He then Introduced Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City lab, describing Ratti as a world traveler, leading technologist and eligible bachelor.

Ratti then spoke very briefly. “I never had such an introduction and I don’t know where you got the bachelor thing from.” He described himself as “probably the last person cycling in Beijing and also having Mao’s Red Book in my pocket,” while Europe and the US are developing a “bicycle 2.0 revolution”: Paris with the Velib (bicycle rental) system and Copenhagen, “a city where 20 years ago most people used to drive cars, and now over 50% of all trips every day are actually by bicycle,” (Ratti later reported that his source for the mode-share information was the mayor of Copenhagen. Another source has reported a mode share of 22%.) Ratti described these developments as part of “a broader phenomenon which will radically change city life.” He then introduced the panel members.

Byrne

David Byrne, of the Talking Heads band, began by recommending books about urban design, starting with Jane Jacobs’s classic Life and Death of Great American Cities. He showed a series of drawings of cities as they are and as they might be including futuristic visions by famous architects, who assumed that people would live in high-rises and that space would be organized for motor travel; Frank Lloyd Wright – “Thank God he didn’t get to be an urban planner” – his drawing showed a city with no street life, and “flying saucer” aircraft. Buckminster Fuller would have had people in Harlem living in what look like giant cooling towers. Byrne showed a picture of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, with more high rises, and quoted Le Corbusier as saying “we must kill the streets.” A General Motors 1939 World’s Fair exhibit similarly showed high-rises with multi-lane highways in between. Byrne then showed some actual American cities where “to some extent that vision came true and “whatever life there is in the city has been killed ,” including downtown Houston with empty streets at 11 AM. “a little clump of people around the corner, those are the smokers.” (Laughter from the audience). (It also can be very hot in the summer in downtown Houston, while the buildings are air-conditioned…). Parking lots are “dead zones,” nobody wants to go there except to get the car and drive it away. Byrne followed with photos of Cleveland urban decay but not Detroit, “let’s not go there” and of Philippine workers in Hong Kong congregating under an underpass because there are no public spaces. “There’s a Web site called deadmalls.com.” (More laughter.) And he showed some photos of abandoned shopping malls.

He then showed examples of towns and cities that he regards more favorably, where people walk. In essence, Byrne was making the social space argument, that bicycling is conducive to social interaction, but most of the examples he showed were of people sitting, standing or walking rather than cycling. He did not address the issue of compatibility of bicyclists with pedestrians.

Byrne gave an example of bus mass transit in Brazil and Istanbul, with special bus lanes and stations where passengers pay their fare before getting onto the bus, decreasing travel time. “They’re cheaper than light rail, not as permanent, but they can be thrown up much more quickly.” (An argument for light rail lines is that development will cluster around them because they can’t be moved; an argument against light rail lines is that if development goes elsewhere, they can’t be moved – also, streetcar tracks trap bicycle wheels. A bicyclist was killed this way in Boston two weeks before the event.) Byrne next showed bicycle-parking facilities in various cities around the world — some were impressive, including bike racks that can be moved as demand indicates, and multi-level bicycle storage. A bikestation in Chicago includes showers. He went on to show a Berlin bike path on the sidewalk (the German bicycling advocacy organization campaigns endlessly against these), “cyclists are not on the street at all,” and a couple of separate on-street bikeways in New York — “It’s kind of amazing, it’s really safe.” (that varies. The 9th Avenue bikeway has fully signalized intersections. Others do not.) He called these “bicycle boulevards” – (incorrect use of the term: bicycle boulevards are through routes for bicyclists, generally on streets paralleling main streets, but with through motor traffic excluded by barriers and diverters). He concluded with a photo the American representative for Louis Vuitton, riding a bicycle to work in New York city wearing a business suit, with a large smile on his face, pedaling on the arches of his feet and not wearing a helmet. The bicycle had a full chain case, appropriate to avoid chewing up the trouser cuffs of a Louis Vuitton suit.

Douglas

Jackie Douglas of Livable Streets spoke next. She thanked the audience and organizers and noted that “people like to bike when the streets are opened to them” (She meant when cars are banned on some weekend days). People “like to bike because it’s an efficient way to get around and because you might run into a friend.” Since 1950 (actually since 1900), streets have been increasingly designed for cars. “When you design streets for cars and traffic, there will be more cars and traffic.” She equated today’s “bicycle movement” with the movement of the 1970s which stopped a highway that would have run “right through this campus.” (Actually, the Inner Belt would have run north/south just east of Central Square, a quarter-mile to the west. It would have been disastrous for Cambridge and several other communities.)

People want livable streets, cities where people can live, work and play and grow old. On “parking day”: people pay a parking meter to camp out in parking spaces – a bike mechanic, kids’ play zone, musicians. Douglas showed three pictures, comparing space usage of 50 people in cars, in buses and on bicycles (not the Muenster posters, but similar: the cars and bicycles are parked and the pictures do not show actual space requirements for travel). We need to design for cars and bicycles and public transit. “We want more people riding bikes and walking… attractive transit that’s accessible and affordable; livable communities.” A world-class city needs a world-class transportation system. An early success was the first mile of bike lanes in Boston, on Commonwealth Avenue.

“We need to build the grassroots support to empower Nicole (Freedman) and other officials. We are asking these officials to go out on a limb.” Douglas made a special pitch to improve the bridges across the Charles River, and connections to these bridges. She showed a photo of the Longfellow Bridge with its extremely narrow sidewalk at the Boston end, with parents lifting a baby stroller from the roadway. An altered photograph of the Longfellow Bridge showed a bike lane (though, in my opinion, the bike lane was in the wrong place, where it would lead to conflicts between high-speed bicyclists coming down off the bridge and right-turning motorists, same problem as an intersection in Portland, Oregon where a cyclist was killed by a right-turning truck). The bridges could have wide sidewalks, also known as promenades, where people could sit and enjoy the view. (Some bridges are overbuilt – a coalition of advocacy groups has recommended promenades for the Longfellow Bridge, reducing the number of travel lanes, but lane reductions on some bridges might lead to congestion.)

“They could have bicycle lanes, even separated bicycle lanes, which are known as cycle tracks.” “Studies show that an increase in bicycle infrastructure– bicycle lanes, separated bicycle lanes, leads to an increase in ridership, and turn leads to an increase in safer streets, and fewer injuries.” Douglas showed a couple of separated cycle tracks in new York City (including the same one Byrne had shown) for which she described a 46% increase in ridership after it was put in in 2009. A cycle track increased ridership 18 to 20% in Copenhagen over 8 to 10% if you just put in a marked bike lane. (That number applies only to the streets with cycle tracks, not to the city as a whole, where the best information is that cycling has declined slightly since the year 2000. The cycle tracks also substantially increased the crash rate for bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians alike, as noted in the same study Douglas cited.) Douglas claimed “a doubled increase in ridership over the past 9 years, and every year, a 25% decrease in crashes” in Cambridge. (According to the City’s report, the number of crashes increased from about 85 to 110 from 2002 through 2008. The graph on page 4 of the report is scaled so that precise numbers can not be retrieved, and the report contains no tabular data for the crashes, though there are such data for traffic volumes. The report contains no information on how the crash data were collected, or on how serious a crash had to be to be counted. According to City Councilor Craig Kelley, there was a 60% increase in bicycle crashes from 2008 to 2009.) “We can’t wish people onto bikes, but we can build the network that makes them want to get on. Take the next step, ride your bike one more day a week; if you’re driving or when you’re opening your car door, look out for bicyclists. Become active, become a member of Livable Streets (which is an overarching transportation-reform organization, not a bicyclists’ organization), take the next step.”

Freedman

Boston’s Bicycle Program director Nicole Freedman came across as an enthusiastic public speaker. She thanked MIT for hosting the event and Byrne for attending. “What am I doing speaking with (musician) David…After 6 years, my violin teacher looked at me and said ‘you’re a good athlete, aren’t you?’” Freedman grew up in Wellesley; got her driver’s license at age 17. All her friends in wealthy Wellesley got Volvos. She learned to bike because she would not be seen in her father’s 1972 Chevy Nova. Wellesley is a rather good place to bike. Then she moved to the Bay Area for college and decided she would be a professional cyclist; she had a great four-figure income; became a homeowner, moving into a van. (Laughter). She would ride 60 to 80 miles a day but had to do all her errands by car; there is no rush hour, there’s traffic all the time; 45 miles from Palo Alto to Oakland, 60 to Marin County, 20 miles to San Jose. The Bay Area has urban sprawl, strip malls, towns without centers. There is an equity problem too, gorgeous neighborhoods but you need money or you live down in the sprawl.

She returned to Boston, which she said has the potential to be a fantastic bicycling city – “We lived before the car in Boston and we can do it again.” Boston got the “worst city” award for bicycling three times from Bicycling Magazine (hardly accurate – try riding in Nashville, Atlanta, Las Vegas). In 2007, the Mayor came out for bicycling and said “Nicole, deal with the details.” Since then, Boston has constructed 15 miles of bikeway, we’re doing 120 more this year; 500 bike racks, 250 more this year. “There is a revolution going on: we’re looking at the protected bike lanes” like in New York, (a whoop in the audience, and applause) including one on Boylston Street, but have to prove that there is excess capacity, “so don’t drive on Boylston Street.” (Designs for Boylston Street that I’ve seen are like that for the one on the Boulevard de Maisonneuve in Montreal, one of the poorest bicycle facilities I’ve ever ridden). Coming soon are mandates for businesses to have secure on-site parking (good!). We are fortunate that our mayor is committed to putting in the effort and finances to transform transportation in Boston. We have gone from worst to 26th in the country (according to Bicycling Magazine.) The new motto in City Hall is that the car is no longer king. (Applause.)

Biderman

Assaf Biderman of MIT’s Senseable City Lab described the Copenhagen Wheel , a bicycle wheel with an electric motor, complete with battery, in a rear hub that looks like a huge vertical M&M candy 12 inches across, and can be retrofitted to any bicycle (though not folding bicycles with small wheels!). The battery is plug-in chargeable.

The main thrust of the Senseable City Lab is that, with distributed technology and with sensors’ becoming smaller, a city becomes more open-source, and in this way it is possible to address environmental issues in a better-informed way. Last year, the Lab did trash tracking in Seattle, New York and London, placing smart tags in items of trash to see where they went. Some went all the way across the country. Biderman played a short video illustrating this experiment, with background music from a Haydn symphony. Applause followed the video. Biderman said that this experiment would give people more environmental sensitivity and awareness of where trash goes, and would provide information on whether the waste-removal stream is working optimally, to improve efficiency.

The Lab partnered with the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen as that city was gearing up for the climate-change conference to see what small technological change would make bicycling more attractive. The Wheel project is a collaboration between the Senseable Cities lab, the Smart Cities Lab of the MIT Media Lab, the Italian Ministry of the Environment, (the Italian motorcycle manufacturer) Ducati, and the City of Copenhagen. There are 600,000 bicycles in Copenhagen, more bicycles than people. How could bicycles be made more attractive and add more functionality? Biderman showed a short video with pumping rock music. The wheel includes not only a motor/generator and batteries, but also GPS and Bluetooth radios and environmental sensors. “You can plug that into any bike and transform it.” The riding experience is quite smooth. All control of the wheel is through the pedals. (Not so: it automatically limits top speed to 12 mph by turning on the battery charger at that speed). A sensor tells how to supplement the rider’s energy. When braking by pedaling backwards, the motor charges the battery. Big cities become smaller. Control is through a smart phone. Functionalities of the accompanying software are “ride, analyze and share,” and you get information on exposure to pollutants in real time. In analyze mode, you can see how much you have been exposed to pollutants (actually, how much the wheel, which is much closer to the ground and in motor vehicles’ exhaust plume, has been exposed), and you can collect Copenhagen “green miles” (kilometers!) which are reimbursement for bicycle use. You can share information anonymously with the city, so every bicycle becomes a mobile weather station. (This technology has great potential to collect research data, but also for surveillance!) The Wheel was shown at an event for mayors at the Climate Summit, to get their feedback. Biderman showed another video with testimonials. (Sympathetic, approving laughter in the audience.)

(Follow-up, a few days later: I asked what the Wheel does at higher speeds. I was told that it limits top speed to 12 miles per hour. That is, if you try to go any faster, it won’t let you. That helps keep the battery charged, but I don’t think it is going to be very appealing. If I understand this correctly, when you reach 12 miles per hour it will suddenly feel as though you are hauling a huge trailer and can’t accelerate. That’s downright dangerous when you need to outrun a chasing dog or get across an intersection before the light changes. Bicyclists generally keep energy in reserve for short sprints they can use for that kind of situation. To be limited to 12 mph downhill also is annoying. The Wheel, if I understand it correctly, would help on uphills and for acceleration, but it would drag on the level and downhills.)

Question period

Katy Zacharias from the Senseable City lab moderated a question-and-answer session.

Anne Lusk, of the Harvard School of Public Health, who holds a PhD in architecture, said that she believed that cycle tracks are “the one answer to increase bicycling. I wonder if Boston would look to the next step in cycle tracks. We know to put roads on road diets. Would you also consider putting sidewalks on sidewalk diets, making them less wide, with fewer benches, some fewer trees, but then allowing space for a wider cycle track…(moans in the audience), allowing a parent to ride with a child, and also allowing a bicyclist to pass.” Sidewalks “have grown exponentially in size.”

Freedman: “I probably can’t commit to anything right now. …Actually, I’ll make a commitment. if we look at the phases of where we are, we probably can’t look at double-wide cycle tracks when we don’t have a single-wide cycle track yet.”

Pete Stidman of the Boston Bicyclists’ Union indicated appreciation for a cycle track on Western Avenue, support for one on Boylston Street, and asked about how fast the Copenhagen Wheel could go.

Biderman: a person usually puts out 100 watts when cycling; the motor puts out a maximum of 250 watts. “You don’t want bicycles becoming motorcycles, they won’t really integrate into sidewalks, which we should still keep on the route, so we have limited this to 20 km (12 miles) per hour.” (In other words, the 250 watts would only be needed when accelerating or riding uphill, because 100 watts will propel a typical bicyclist at 20 km per hour on a level, paved surface.)

Freedman said that the best thing cyclists can do to support a specific project is to show up at public meetings.

A questioner who did not identify herself considered bicycling, like eating local and organic food, as more of a middle-class and upper-middle-class phenomenon, and what would encourage other people to ride.

Freedman: “In the second world, they talk about the 5 E’s: we talk about the 6th, which is equity.” (See this post on my personal blog for a discussion of the 6 E’s. She praised Bikes not Bombs, Stidman’s effort, and a community program which the City of Boston has started.)

A male questioner: do you need a smart phone to use the Copenhagen wheel. How do we promote more ridership in winter?

Biderman: no smart phone needed. If you don’t need all the special functionalities, there’s an on/off switch.

Douglas: it just gets to showing people how to do it, how to dress, having facilities in buildings.

Biderman: it’s not much warmer in Copenhagen than here (Copenhagen’s temperatures are moderated by west winds from the Atlantic: it is cooler in summer and warmer in winter, so there is snow much less often); bike lanes have their own traffic-light system, a lot of people ride in winter.

Zacharias (?): lived in the Netherlands a lot. Beautiful pictures of bicycling there show sunny days, but it rains a lot.

Cathy Buckley of the Central Transportation Planning Staff asked for help with a bicycle count. “If you haven’t spent an hour or two standing at an intersection and counting bicycles, you haven’t lived, or you could at least ride down Boylston Street and help Nicole’s project.”

Glenn Berkowitz, on the board of Livable Streets, asked about providing information to buy music on davidbyrne.com.

Byrne: some of this music isn’t available.

Berkowitz: How about Byrne’s Wall Street Journal article?

Byrne: They didn’t want only to be writing about finance.

A Chinese student of urban design at Tufts: bikes give her beautiful memories from childhood but cars are taking over now. Parents used to carry children on bicycles. Is it still proper to carry children on bicycles? Parallel lanes for parents to ride with kids, bicycles for more than one person…

Freedman: I look toward when that will be possible in Boston. We are now at 1.6% of trips by bicycle, when we’re up to 20% in about 10 years, then that might be possible. “I hope nobody checks the math on that, it probably isn’t accurate.”

Male questioner: is the Copenhagen wheel for sale yet?

Answer, not yet.

Another questioner: This meeting points toward the revolution in cycling. Does David have insight as to what has happened in New York, a real revolution grassroots cultural shift.

Byrne: Something is happening but bicycles and public transport are a symptom. More people are moving back into cities, they can be kid-friendly, and the object of a career is not necessarily to get out of the city as fast as possible. People now say “this is our life, we want it to be enjoyable now. We don’t want to spend our days in traffic; we don’t want our kids to have to dodge traffic.”

Second question from the Chinese student: Could bicycles go behind the parked cars to make the cycles safe? (Applause.)

Douglas: That’d be great. That’s the idea of the cycle track. (Note: routing bicycles behind parked cars has been shown very hazardous unless turning and crossing movements are controlled by signals, but these cause delays.) “I would love to see that.” Responding to Lusk’s question about wider cycle tracks and narrower sidewalks, “We have to start somewhere.”

Byrne: New York cycle tracks are wide for purposes of street cleaning and trash pickup.

Female Questioner: What about Boston’s aggressive drivers? Is there a project to address that?

Freedman: We are addressing that. There was a bicycle safety summit a week ago. Raise your hands high? Who has run a red light by bicycling. (Probably 9/10 of the audience raised a hand.) How many have driven, seen the light turn orange, gunned it and had three cars follow behind it?

Freedman: More than half have run a red light. (Actually, almost everyone has run a red light at some time; the proper question is whether the action is intentional and habitual or not).

Zacharias: The risk of falling is great, if there’s any risk, I get off my bike. I felt incredibly safe in a huge plaza in Italy. Cycle tracks in the Netherlands are thought through. Can you talk about different theories of planning.

Freedman: would prefer to have a $5 gas tax, remove parking, but she would never run for elective office.

Byrne: has heard of a city in Germany where stop signs were removed and the number of accidents goes down, not saying that we should do this in Boston right away.

Biderman: Japanese traffic engineers went to Cairo and said “don’t touch it, it works.” Cars are not going to vanish. “In Copenhagen and Amsterdam, people were watching, when a turn was approaching, if I was coming, they couldn’t make a right.” (That is, right-turning cars are routed to the left of through-traveling bicyclists.)

Ratti: thanked everyone. (Applause). Signed copies of Byrne’s book are outside (more applause).

End of session.

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