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Architect Jan Gehl's Bicycle Revolution
Posted by: Canyon Kyle on February 1, 2010

Danish architect Jan Gehl is one of the preeminent urban planners in the world. Since the 1960s, he has worked to make Copenhagen a cycling- and pedestrian-friendly city. His concepts of “human scale” design and the importance of public spaces have led city planners the world over to rethink the way they design. In 2007, New York City sought Gehl’s help when improving its bicycling infrastructure, which has paid off with huge increases in cycling. We spoke to Gehl on the phone from his office in downtown Copenhagen.

Q: Designing with the human dimension in mind is a key part of your philosophy. What does it mean to build on a “human scale?”

A: I mean planning where you put an emphasis on the people walking and bicycling and also on public life in general. That means you start with the people and end with all the other things […] you start with the people and have motor traffic and buildings as second priorities.

And the point is, in all this, is that if you don’t start with the people side of the story, you can never add the people side after you have made cars happy and placed a number of buildings around a place, and then you look at what space is left over and that can be used by people. You have to start with the people. So, when we talk about human dimension in city planning, that is something about putting a high priority on making sure people are treated well in the planning and then the other things will have to be treated afterwards.

So that’s one side of it. The other side is it’s about human scale. I have written quite a bit about human scale and to me human scale is something which takes its point of departure in the human body and the human senses. If you go to a place like Venice, which was made for pedestrians, you’ll find that Venice is what I call 5 kilometer-an-hour or 3 miles-an-hour architectural. Everything is detailed and scaled in such a way that you have a glorious time moving at 3 miles-an-hour. But also we can talk about 50 miles-an-hour architecture or 50 miles-an-hour scale, which would be the scale of maybe suburbs, and that scale is really awful to walk and bicycle in, because it is not meant to be negotiated at 3 miles an hour. It’s made for 50 miles an hour. And these two scales are completely different. And you can see them. All the old cities would have the 3 miles per hour scale, and maybe [in] the new cities the planners have been completely confused about scale.

Q: Why are public spaces important?

A: Throughout the history of mankind, the history of human settlements, the public spaces have had a very important role in the day-to-day life of the citizens. It has been the meeting place, it’s been the marketplace, and also public spaces have provided access to the various things happening in the city. They have been for transit, transport, communication. What has happened in the last 50 years is that the public spaces have been overrun by the motorcar. We have what I call the car invasion, and the city as a meeting place and the city as a marketplace has been sort of squeezed out of many places.

But what we see now is a renaissance of the public space as a meeting place [...] I think that the increase in the sidewalk café culture worldwide is a very sure sign of a lot of people wanting to be in the public spaces, to spend time in the public spaces and to have a good pretext for being there for a long time. That is the background actually for the café culture, which we see emerging with great speed in all the cities where you have these leisure-time society situations. Where we live longer, have more leisure time, and are living in smaller and smaller households and life is generally becoming more and more privatized. You have a private car, private computer, private everything. But the access to other people in society, that is what public space can provide.

And then, highly exciting, because in public spaces you are directly present, you can interact with other people, you can watch them with your own senses as apposed to seeing pictures on television of what other people have seen here and there. And the real thing that’s really interesting is that that is one of the reasons why the amount of life in the cities is going up very drastically and I think a good example would be what happened in Times Square in New York. The moment they provided much better [public] space, to enjoy the places -- I think they had provided 11 times more space for human activities, and as you know these are packed with people all the time. Ever since they were closed to traffic people took over.

Q: How does biking fit in to this view of public spaces?

A: I think bicyclists are sort of human beings. And we actually include bicyclists in the term “life in public spaces.” Because you can look at them as somewhat fast but they’re actually not driving that much faster than joggers can run. And when you are on a bicycle, you are using your senses and see the other people and see what’s going on. And people on the sidewalks can easily see bicyclists as individuals, as people. So you cannot say that the [public] life is only on the sidewalks, I also think they are in the bike lanes.

But [bikes move] just a bit faster and you have to solve a number of problems so that the slower pedestrians and the faster pedal users will not get into conflict with each other. But both of them are people. And a city with a lot of bicyclists is indeed a city with a lot of life. A city with a lot of cars is a city with a lot of cars, or metal, or speed. Not with people. You can hardly even see people in the cars because of the shiny windows and the speed they move in, so from a human-sense point of view they are not present in a space.

Bicyclists bike in a space and a car will be going through a space. We can also say that a car will be going through a landscape and a bicyclist will be biking in a landscape.

You can use your senses in a completely different way. And use them directly without glass and other stuff between you and whatever is happening. And you don’t have this problem where our senses are not geared, are not able to pick up small things with speed. So that means that in a car landscape everything has to be big. The signs have to big, and the distances have to be big, and the buildings can be made without detail because you can’t see the details anyways when you’re moving at speed.

Q: How was working on bike infrastructure in New York City different than working in Copenhagen?

A: I don’t see a great difference. Only that it’s much easier to make bike infrastructure in New York because you have wider avenues and streets than we have. So there’s more space, so you can actually make everybody happy: sidewalk, street trees, bike lanes, parking, and driving lanes. So it’s wonderful to have a city which has wide streets. And also New York is flat as a pancake and it’s very concentrated so you have many potential bicyclists in the various districts in the city. So many people are living close to the various services and to each other so it’s really very realistic to make a lot of transportation being carried out by bicycles.

Q: What are the most important things cities in the United States can do to promote bicycling?

A: I think that we can learn from New York. I’m very impressed with what they’ve done. They really started in earnest in 2007 and now two and a half years later they have built two hundred miles of bicycles lanes, which is more than we have in the very famously bicycle-friendly city of Copenhagen. They’ve done that in two and half years while we have been working on it for almost 50 years now.

I think you will have to work in two layers. One is to create the bicycle infrastructure which is inviting and which is as safe as possible. It’s very important, especially the crossing of other streets, that the bicyclist can feel reasonably safe going through the city and that’s why it has to be inviting the way it’s constructed. So bicycling infrastructure is one element, but the other element is to introduce a new mindset and introduce gradually a bicycle culture. A culture where it becomes the thing to do to bicycle.

That’s where we are in Copenhagen now, where 37 percent of all commuting is done by bicycle. And we can see gradually how more and more people in the last ten years are bicycling and it become more “in” and the thing to do, to bicycle. Because you are good to the environment, you are good to the climate, and the pollution and noise is low and the price is low also.

I think you have to work, like in New York, on infrastructure but also culture. That means they close streets in the summer; summer streets where you can go and train and bike and explore the city by bicycle by closing down streets to traffic some in the weekends. And also, like in Copenhagen, there’s a lot of programs about teaching the children to bicycle to school, having competition between neighborhoods and between offices and businesses, like which company has the highest percentage of people arriving by bike. My own firm, we have 61 percent of people coming by bike today and the rest of them come by train. So you have to work on the culture and on the infrastructure. You have to change the mindset so people see this as a smart thing.

-- Edited for length and clarity.

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