Back to the Future

Could Bicycles Be Part of the Answer for Sustainable Cities?

By Gail Lichtman

Could a 19th century invention - the bicycle - be the answer to creating sustainable cities in the 21st century?

According to Prof. Marc Schlossberg - Professor of Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon (UO) and co-founder and co-director of the Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI), also at UO, as well as an executive committee member of the National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC) - the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

“A sustainable city has to be a livable city,” explains Schlossberg, who recently spent six months (until March 2016) at Technion as a Fulbright Senior Scholar. “It has to be an interesting city where different kinds of people should be able to get around easily and interact with others in shared space. It also needs to be a city with a lot of green space."

“My focus is on transportation,” he continues. “For me, a very important part of transportation in the sustainable city involves the minimization, if not elimination, of CO2 emissions through the use of walking, cycling, and/or mass transit.”

Schlossberg’s teaching and research at UO focuses on sustainable transportation and the redesign of cities for walking and cycling. “My work is applied - not hyper-theoretical. I am interested in working with communities, policymakers, and academics to rethink how to make new ideas and approaches work.”

“If students get training in redesigning cities for bikes, then they will be able to implement it when they become tomorrow’s urban designers.”

In Oregon, SCI developed a pedagogic model to connect communities and universities on a larger scale than normally conceived. “This model takes advantage of existing students and courses and connects them with a city to work on city-identified projects - be it housing, transportation, parks, economic development, et cetera. Every year, we work in a different city, utilizing 25 courses from 12 to 14 different departments. Since 2009, we have worked in five Oregon cities and trained 25 other universities, including Technion, to adopt this model.”

While in Israel, Schlossberg engaged in the same hands-on approach. In addition to guest lecturing in courses at Technion and elsewhere, he took part in organizing a conference, with Technion Prof. Karel Martens, on “Rethinking Israeli Streets,” co-sponsored by Israel Ministry of Transport and Road Safety, Technion, Tel Aviv University, and the United States-Israel Educational Foundation, which sponsors the Fulbright Israel program.

Noting that cities over the last 70 years, both in Israel and other countries, have been built to accommodate cars and not people, Schlossberg put forth the idea of bicycles, which he says are not only eco-friendly and cost effective but also a space-saving mode of transportation.

In the six years since his previous visit to Israel, Schlossberg was struck by the incredible increase in the number of cyclists in Tel Aviv and by the city’s bike rental system.

“The biggest issue preventing more wide-spread use of bikes is non-existent infrastructure,” Schlossberg explains. “There is not one city in Israel where the cyclist is not in competition with the car. You will never get a lot of people to use bikes without better infrastructure. More people would bike if safer infrastructure were available.”

He cites a U.S. survey that found that only one percent of the population - mainly individuals he terms “invincible males around 18 years old” - will bike without infrastructure. Another six percent will do so if there are bike lanes. But the bulk of the population - 35 to 40 percent who are interested in cycling - will not do so on a busy street if there is only a thin white line separating them from the cars,” he states. “What is needed are physical barriers between bike lanes and car lanes, which then makes cycling as comfortable on busy city streets as it is on separated trails along the beach. Cities that want to be serious about bicycle transportation must design in this way.”

And what about hilly cities where cycling is too challenging for most? Schlossberg was encouraged by the emergence of the electric bicycle (e-bike or booster bikes). “But even for these bikes, better infrastructure is needed or you can forget about having large numbers of people using them,” he adds. “That is why I focus on redesign. If students get training in redesigning cities for bikes, then they will be able to implement it when they become tomorrow’s urban designers.”

Schlossberg also got involved with Technion’s Social Hub for Community and Housing, within the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning. Its goal is to lead social change by making knowledge developed at Technion available to communities. Two years ago, the Social Hub launched the Urban Laboratory, a multidisciplinary model that combines fieldwork with communities and academia, thus giving practical meaning to academic and professional knowledge while at the same time helping cities to solve their problems. Its current project is in Acre (Akko), an ancient mixed Arab/Jewish city that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“You will never get a lot of people to use bikes without better infrastructure.”

“I didn’t know that Technion was involved in such a project before I came,” Schlossberg relates. “The Laboratory works with faculty and students not only from Technion but also from the University of Haifa. The Laboratory is a great applied program and a wonderful opportunity for the community to get access to young minds and fresh thinking. The project in Akko is looking at the disparity of living conditions in order to create a multicultural, sustainable city.”

As part of his efforts to promote more cooperation between Technion and U.S. scholars, Schlossberg is pursuing co-authoring a book with Prof. Karel Martens of the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning, whose work also focuses on sustainable cities.

Concerning his stay in Haifa, accompanied by his family, Schlossberg says, “Israel is a complex, multicultural country that also seems interested in creating sustainable living cities with shared space for all. I enjoyed being in city spaces where diverse populations mingled and kids could just be free. It was healthy and nice and the types of building blocks I think that are necessary for cities around the world to meet both their sustainability goals and their goals of being multi-cultural, diverse, and inclusive.”