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edition 11 (225)
November 2017
Architecture

If you build it, they will come

Cycling slows down the general pace of a city, but at the same time it also speeds up the transport – it always gets you to the office on time

Rafał Ostrowski

If you build it, they will come
Mikael Colville-Andersen, CEO, Copenhagenize Design Company

Danish urban designer and mobility expert Mikael Colville-Andersen tells us how to improve the feeling of a city and why he wouldn’t even bother to take his kids for a bike ride in Warsaw

Rafał Ostrowski, Eurobuild CEE: Do you like Warsaw?

Mikael Colville-Andersen, CEO, Copenhagenize Design Company: Well, I like the people. But when I come here with a professional eye, it’s like it’s 1952. The flight from Copenhagen to Warsaw brought me back like a time machine to the 50s. I guess it’s important that we have cities that still haven’t evolved, so we can learn how stupid things were in the past. But I know it must suck to live here. I am sure that there are some nice neighbourhoods in Warsaw, like there are in every European city, but if you have to move around, then no! God, what a nightmare.

What is the main problem with moving around in this city?

You were happy to get rid of the Soviets, but you didn’t bother to get rid of their traffic planning. It’s as if you said: “No. This part of the Soviet legacy we are going to keep.” It was really unlucky that this traffic engineering was introduced: huge, wide streets for cars, which will dominate for years to come.

Wide streets for cars its not only Warsaw that has them.

Well, we all fell for that trick, but other cities are fixing it. This is the main focus, I mean all over Europe. All over the world they are trying to figure this out, how to reduce the number of cars. In Warsaw there is no effort, I see nothing happening compared to so many cities in Europe. What you still have is the tyranny of car traffic, it is the dictatorship of car transport. Even American cities are doing more to change this. Now that’s embarrassing when American cities are improving more than you are. You still have that fascination with cars, which is so extraordinary. You are a major European city, a major global city – but when you look at that league table, you guys are really quite far behind...

You have said that Warsaw should be copenhagenized. What does this mean?

This is a word I made up in 2007. Like so many things in our modern society, we need a new catchphrase, like ‘smart cities’, for example. What does that actually mean? Nobody knows – but it sounds really cool. So copenhagenize is similar. For me it is taking bicycles seriously as means of transport again, returning to how European cities and global cities used to be.

Did it use to be so in Poland as well?

Yes, it did. I very often hear people, say, for example: “Oh! We never used to cycle here in Singapore, it’s never been a part of our culture”. Then, surprise-surprise, Mikael’s network finds photos from the 1950s and 60s of Singapore when people were biking to work. We have a short urban memory; we suffer from long term memory loss in all of our cities. Bicycles were a normal form of transport everywhere. Here, in Poland, in every Polish city, you were riding bikes from 1880 until the 1950s.I am researching these facts for a book that I’m currently writing.

Why do you think Poland is not turning to bikes to the same extent as some other European cities are?

In Eastern Europe the car still has a high status. Under communism it was a dream to have a car and now – oh! I can finally afford a car. That is something we also see in China and Brazil, and so on. You know it is time to change our dreams and to copenhagenize is just to make cycling a normal, respected and equal means of transport. As we have in Copenhagen, but also in the Netherlands and now in Paris and Barcelona, Minneapolis… everywhere. So it’s just making things even. There are too many cars, so we have to reduce their number. We have to democratise our urban space.

That involves what, exactly?

Dividing up the space in a different way. Our streets are the space from one building to another. That is all we have and this space is now dominated by cars. It involves making the car-lanes narrower and putting in place decent bicycle infrastructure and making wider pavements – you also need this in many places in Warsaw. It requires making cycling and walking the dominant forms of transport; and as for cars –well, there will probably still be cars left in Warsaw, but not in the way you see them today.

But why are you so fixated on bikes as if it was so crucial to have them? What will this really change?

It changes the feeling of a city. If you could stand on the Rondo Dmowskiego roundabout, the main intersection in the centre of Warsaw, which makes me almost vomit when I look at it, and in an instant be transported to Copenhagen, you would have a completely different feeling.

What is it about Rondo Dmowskiego that is so disturbing for you?

This can be easily seen, when you look down at this roundabout from the Novotel hotel, as I did this morning at the rush hour. You can see all these pedestrians coming from trains and trams and then disappearing just like rats into the tunnels under the intersection. This is a dystopian sight at a major intersection in a major European capital: not to be able to see any pedestrians, any humans – except out on the fringes and all the rest is cars. All the Soviet traffic engineering came from America; the Soviets would never admit this, but it did. The only thing that Soviets contributed to the urban transport is the walkways under the streets and you guys still have those. In Budapest they are getting rid of them...

You have posted some pictures of Warsaw Central station on Instagram and added a few comments not very flattering ones, to say the least. Again, what did you find so disturbing?

This is the central station of the capital of a country with 40 mln people in a city where 5.5 pct of the population are cyclists, which is still quite high figure for cities that have just started to change, and there are only 16 bike rack spaces. That’s parking for just 16 bikes, and not even that close to the station. There is just this one big car park around the station. Again, transport-wise we are in 1952. I can’t cycle with my children in Warsaw and my kids are good at cycling, they are Copenhageners. But here I would not even try.

OK. So why should we have more bikes here, because probably not everyone has the same feelings about them.

Cycling slows down the city, but at the same time it also speeds it up – it gets people from A to B quicker. You know, we have a modern economy, we have to get people to work on time. If you do that by bike, you do it more effectively. My staff in Copenhagen – they can never be late for work, there is no excuse for being late, because bicycles always get you there on time. If someone drives a car there is always the risk of being late because of the traffic – even in Copenhagen. So, we know that commuting by bike makes sense. It also improves the public health – and this is important when we live in societies where we are not doing anything apart from sitting at work. And people are suffering from heart disease, diabetes, all of these things. These are epidemics, and we are not even trying to address them. We are ignoring them and the bicycle is the ideal remedy that will solve and prevent so many of these diseases. It is the ultimate pill, the medicine for modern cities. If 25 pct of Warsaw switched to bikes, that 25 pct would be saving a lot of money for the Polish health sector. It would also mean reducing the number of cars, because people would swap their cars for bikes. We could also combine more bikes with trams and trains – I mean this is stuff we’ve been doing and people are doing in many cities. We are seeing this trend of environmentally aware political parties gaining power in major European cities. If you look at Oslo, for example, they are going to making their city centres car-free in terms of private cars by 2019, taking four years to implement the scheme.

But what about the people who live there? Are they happy to do this? We have for example recently written in Eurobuild CEE about woonerfs streets with slow and limited traffic. Not every community wants this...

It is also psychology and it depends also on the approach of the people who do it. You could say: “Hey, we want to do a thing to your street and it will now look maybe like this.” And the answer is typically: “No!” We are conservative – all humans are conservatives. We only see what is in front of us and a little bit before and a little bit behind. That’s the nature of homo sapiens. I met some activists yesterday and told them: you guys have to photoshop how the street is going to look. You have to do just the ultimate photoshop, because the regular citizen will just go: “Oh! That’s what you are going to do.” Because they have no idea what a woonerf is, and it is a stupid Dutch word anyway; but if they see what it is, you can convince a lot more people. But we also know from Montreal, Seville, Buenos Aires and a number of other cities that if they do something they often call it a pilot project, which makes people a bit more comfortable with it. They think: “It is a pilot, so we’ll get rid of it if it doesn’t work.” Then they put it in, and as soon as it is in, 15 minutes later the residents are going: “Ok, that’s all right.” Because they don’t understand it until they see it. And to make my final point. A mayor of a large borough of Montreal, when asked how to do this, explained: “You do it fast and you leave something green behind.” So if you take away road lanes, you have to plant trees, and people find it difficult to complain about that. His advice is to do this overnight, and not to ask for permission, but for forgiveness, as soon as you do it. Not every city can do this, we have various political systems, but it is really a case of having the political leadership that knows what to do. This is nothing new – it has been true for the last 30 years. In France, since the 1980s they have had a national law stating that all cities over 100,000 people must have a mobility plan to reduce cars, to improve bike and public transport. Many cities didn’t want to do that but they had to by law. So it became a thing. Some cities are way ahead and some way behind – and Warsaw is Poland’s capital. It’s a big city but so old fashioned in its approach to transport.

In your presentation today you pointed out some cities that have made huge improvements with increasing numbers of bikers. How did they achieve this?

They built it. If you build it, they will come, to coin a phrase. They just built it and it was as if the biking infrastructure fell from the sky. Then some political fighting took place but people went out and said, “ah, ok”. They had a political leadership who believed in what it was doing. They knew they were going to get the kind ofresults they were going to get, and they just made it happen. In every city around the world that is changing positively and putting the bicycles back – and I have looked at many such examples and it is always top-down leadership. There’s a politician doing this, you have some activists pushing for it – and that is also important – but with all the cities that are doing this it is mainly through political leadership.

What other important urban issues are there in your view? Its not all about bikes or is it?

No. It isn’t. There’s also public transport. You have an awesome tram system in Warsaw, you have dedicated lanes for the trams. Many cities have ended up putting cars in the same lanes so the trams are then stuck in traffic. You guys are still doing that well. Wise urban planning – green spaces – this is the new thing. In Copenhagen all new buildings have to have a green roof for the cooling effect but also for biodiversity, so this is another huge thing. There is a new park on pl. Powstańców. It is just a long park, there was a car park there before, but there was nobody in it yesterday – only one guy reading a newspaper and that’s because it is surrounded by cars. It is not an attractive destination. We have to make destinations attractive. Green spaces and the stuff you are doing on the Vistula boulevards are all very nice, but there is still a lot more potential for new designs. Generally when it comes to urbanism you guys are going to get it, but you are still struggling with accessibility. Like you have a lot of cool places to go to, but getting there is a pain. I can look up and say, oh, this is a nice building or a stupid building, depending on my taste, but when I look down, it’s like, how do I get around?

So to wrap things up, if you had the power to change something, just one key thing, what would this be?

For the money needed for 5 or 10 km of your new A2 ring road I could copenhagenise all of Warsaw and you would have 25 pct of commuters on bicycles in under ten years.




Biking ambassador of Copenhagen

Mikael Colville-Andersen is a Canadian-Danish urban designer and the CEO and founder of the Copenhagenize Design studio, which advises cities and towns on re-establishing the bicycle as a form of transport in cities, policy, planning, communications and general urban design. Before establishing Copenhagenize Design in 2008, he was a film director. He graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in screenwriting, and studied at the London School of Journalism as well as at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

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