Housing Complex

D.C. for People: Jan Gehl Says Old Folks Should Ride Bikes Too

Three generations, one bike. Photo by Flickr user 16nine, Creative Commons license.

Jan Gehl and his wife, who have been married 45 years, regularly ride their bikes 15 miles or more to get dinner. Quite a feat for a 75-year-old, even considering that he's the world's leading voice on creating walkable, bike-able, and pedestrian-friendly urban spaces.

But that, Gehl said at the National Building Museum last night, is just a part of living in a bicycle culture. In a place where biking and walking is a superior choice to driving, a 15-mile ride for a bite to eat ain't no thing, even for an old codger like him.

Gehl, a Danish architect based in Copenhagen, is the author of several titles, including Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, New City Life, and most notably Cities for People. He's widely revered in the ivory towers of planning and has inspired a good amount of contemporary urbanist thought (see William H. Whyte's The City: Rediscovering the Center or Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What It Says About Us for reference after Gehl-ian reference). His schtick is making cities friendlier for pedestrians and cyclists—yes, at the expense of cars, their drivers, and their lanes.

Gehl's preferred term is "inviting" people to walk and bike, rather than drive. The ultimate goal is to achieve a culture of walking and bicycling, where such modes are as ingrained as driving is now. Copenhagen has pretty well achieved this "new normal" by creating an exceedingly well-planned citywide bike lane network, installing dedicated signals and crossing lanes for bikes at intersections, and timing "green waves" for both cars and cyclists (where, if one drives or rides at a certain speed, they will hit all green lights). Pedestrians have benefited along the way: With infrastructure dedicated to bicyclists, pedestrians get safer sidewalks.

But to Gehl, that's just common courtesy. "What we learned in Copenhagen is if you are sweet to people, there will be more of them...what is important in Copenhagen is a citywide policy of being sweet to pedestrians," he said. "The city has changed its car-centric streets to multi-modal streets. Pedestrians and bikes have gotten priority. They are just as important—if not more so—than the drivers."

Though the lecture mostly addressed his general principles, Gehl suggested a few things he believes D.C. could do to become more pedestrian- and bike-friendly:

  • Make better use of the Union Station parking lot and traffic circle. He thinks the bike garage is fantastic, but finds the rest of the space wasted.
  • Expand Capital Bikeshare; he calls our red bicycles "those Montreal bikes."
  • Use signage to visibly encourage walking and biking, and encourage biking in critical masses for safety. Companies should encourage their employees to bike to work. (Gehl Architects gives their staff branded helmets. Attention, City Paper overlords!)
  • Take advantage of those wide streets L'Enfant insisted on by giving over a lane—or more lanes, in some cases—to bikes.
  • More Dupont Circle (that is, well-defined public spaces where there are places to sit, things to look at, and clearly demarcated paths for pedestrians and bikers), less National Mall (that is, sprawling open spaces with no places to sit, no concessions, no visually engaging elements, and a generally unpleasant atmosphere).
  • "There are many funny little green spaces," says Gehl of our National Park Service-controlled pocket parks. "I call them 'pieces of Libyan desert!'" Artists should be allowed to develop these spaces—think the myriad of pop-ups and temporiums we've seen recently, but in public spaces.
  • Become a leader. "I admire very much the hard work going on here in Washington. Like other capitals in the world, it has a very important position. Copenhagen has influenced what is done in Denmark." D.C. should be innovative in its planning policies and inspire other American cities to create healthy environments for pedestrians and cyclists.

Gehl was preaching to the choir last night: I'd wager that at least 25% of the audience made their way to the National Building Museum by bike, and that most others came via public transit or on foot. And, it's worth noting that at least a few local bodies, namely DDOT and the Office of Planning, are following a Gehl-like line of thinking; see the 15th Street NW cycletrack, which embodies Gehl's edict that "cars should protect bikes. Bikes shouldn't protect cars."

The likelihood of D.C. quickly becoming as bike-friendly as Copenhagen, where everyone transports just about everything via bike (and where bike lanes are now suffering from congestion), is slim—but there's always room for improvement. Gehl's suggestions are at worth at least a brief consideration: Walking and biking, after all, generally cost less—and can be much less of a hassle—than owning a car. Making it more inviting and intuitive to do both, as he urges, seems like sound logic for a growing city.

  • crin

    Copenhagen is flat. DC is not. Discuss.

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/ericfidler/ Eric F.

    Did Gehl discuss discuss the political backlash? Would a Copenhagen mayor lose re-election in part due to his enthusiasm for bike infrastructure?

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen Smith

    Yeah, the front of Union Station is an enormous wasted space. They need to take out a few roads, allow (a lot) more development, and put a small (emphasis on small!) park out front.

  • Barn

    DC is not flat but it's no San Fran. Also bike infrastructure in the future could include bike lifts that push or pull you up the especially steep inclines. Google "bicycle lift trampe" and have a look.

  • Joe

    DC's staggering elevation peak of 435 feet at Tenleytown is hardly an impediment.

  • trulee_pist

    @ Steven Smith. That's ridiculous NIMBY thinking! The District paid $40 billion for its Metro system, and building density around this area is the only way to ever make a decent ROI.

    We need more density around the Union Station Metro stop. There's plenty of green space around the Senate buildings, we don't need a park here. Why aren't we building mixed-use retail and housing, 8 to 10 stories high, in that under-utilized space in front of Union Station, between the front door of the station and Massachusetts Avenue?

    Take out all those silly flag poles, too. More retail! More tall buildings! Smart growth!

  • crin

    Didn't say it was an impediment. Said it was different then Copenhagen. It's a fairly basic point that that biking is easier and more attractive where it's flat. Copying Copenhagen's plan and infrastructure alone won't get us Copenhagen's numbers, because lots of people just won't climb Wisconsin Avenue everyday from K Street to Tenleytown.

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