Sunday Train: Cycle & Pedestrian Islands and Tiny Trains

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

crossposted from Voices on the Square

“Oh, sure, more than 1/5 of journeys to work in Eindhoven, The Hague, Amsterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands are by bike, but they are flat. It would never work here, its hilly.” Given that Copenhagen has one of the highest European cycling mode shares in trips to work, winter is obviously not the obstacle that it is sometimes made out to be ~ ah, but hills. They are an insuperable obstacle.

Back in April, 2010, comparing Portland and Seattle, Jarret Walker asked, Should we plan transit for “bikeability”? This was following a project by Adam Parast comparing the cycling potential of Portland and Seattle, including potential bikeability with improved infrastructure. And the geography of Portland, with most development and activity on the flat or gently sloping floor of a valley, is substantially different from the geography of Seattle, built on “seven hills”, with water obstacles tossed in for good measure.

Today’s Sunday Train looks at what role public transport can serve in helping to increase cycling mode share.

What are Bikeability Islands

Consider the maps developed by Adam Parast. These are not current bikeability, they are with infrastructure supporting bikeability ~ bikeways, bike boulevards, effective cycle / traffic intersections, etc ~ the bluer, the more bikeable, the redder, the less:

Looking at Portland, there is large core are with high potentially bikeability, and then scattered fingers and islands to the north, east and south. And connecting the bikeable islands together does not appear to be a serious challenge, as its possible to traverse from an island to the core through “light yellow” areas ~ except for one small zone at the northeast corner of the Portland map.

Seattle also has a potentially bikeable core … but there the similarly ends. The larger secondary potentially bikeable areas are to the north, with quite challenging terrain between those secondary centers and the core. And the potentially bikeable areas to the south tend to be very small and surrounded by challenging terrain.

It is this comparison that provokes Jarret Walker’s question:

The image of Seattle as an archipelago suggests that it will need a lot of “boats.”  On each “island” pedestrians and cyclists will be able to get around locally without much trouble, but getting from one island to another will be a challenge.  Is it possible to design bike boulevards that will connect all of the islands?  Some effective boulevards already exist, crossing water barriers where the topography is gentle, such as the link north from downtown across the Fremont Bridge.  But many desire lines face huge topography barriers.  It’s hard to envision any infrastructure that will make an average cyclist want to ride from downtown to the fortress-like hilltops of West Seattle — let alone that archetype of Dutch cycling, a 60-year-old woman with two bags of groceries.

So archipelago cities who want to invest deeply in cycling — and who want cycling to penetrate the culture beyond the young and athletic — are going to need some links between these islands.  Perhaps we should be thinking about rapid transit more specifically in those terms.  Perhaps this means that highly obstructed “crossings,” such as downtown to West Seattle, should have rapid transit options where you can take your bike on board.  Sound Transit’s new Link light rail line is one such, and it usefully connects downtown to the bikeable “islands” of the Rainer Valley and Tukwila.  But elsewhere, Seattle has buses, and the standard bus generally has limited provision for bikes.

So, this week’s Sunday Train is a consideration of some of the means of bridging between these “Bikeability Islands”.


The simplest technology is the folding bike. If a 20in., 6-speed folder is sufficient transport, within the bikeable island, then with a “Bolsa Bag” to carry it, it can be brought onto a bus or train or ferry without requiring any special facilities on the public transport.

For the folding bike, the only accommodation required is the one that Jarrett Walker pointed out: you want an express route that has sufficient transit speed to your destination that it feels like it is as fast or faster than the bike ~ which is not the case for many local bus routes. If you feel a temptation to get off the bus as soon as you crest a hill, then you need a faster route to make the folder and public transport combination appealing.

And that was my experience in Newcastle. The folding bike was a complement to the train, but unless I had a flat or it was raining, it was an alternative to the local Newcastle Bus service buses.

The Classic Furnicular

Seattle is not the only place where they build on hilltops. Another place that has a lot of towns build on hilltops is Italy. A hilltop position is often the most defensible position, after all. However, that means that various Italian towns have long coped with this problem with respect to Walkability Islands. It was, indeed, a Train Blogging post at the European Tribune that inspired today’s Sunday Train.

Pictured above is the funicular (called “inclines” in some parts of the US) from the Orvieto rail station, down in the valley, to the town, at the top of the hill. A funicular is one of the earliest types of tracked vehicle, with two vehicles attached to a cable, and one going uphill while the other goes downhill. In the picture, we see the funicular coming up to the halfway point, with its opposite number coming downhill toward it.

On what would be a single track, except for that passing track section in between.

In other words, we are also seeing the trick that was worked out over a century ago to reduce the cost of funiculars.

The original funiculars ran the vehicles each on their own track. However, they are only passing be the same point in the middle of that track. If only there was some way to pass each other at that halfway point, then both the rising and descending vehicle could use a single track for the rest of the hillside.

So the clever system that was worked out is that on one side, the wheels of the funicular have flanges on both inside and outside, so that they follow the track on that side, and on the the other side, there are not flanges on the wheel, so they are just rolling on the top of the track on that other side. So the car going up is holding onto one rail, and the car going down is holding onto the opposite rail, and at the halfway point, they are each pulled separate ways so that they can pass.

(You can also built it with three tracks, which requires a little more width but makes it simpler to string the cable through the passing section.”

Like an elevator with a counterweight, a big advantage of the funicular is energy efficiency. They are normally powered with an electric motor at the central pulley on the top of the hill, but some have been powered by filling a water tank at the top of the hill, and then at the bottom emptying enough water so that the top vehicle is heavy enough to pull the bottom vehicle up.

Speed of transit of the funicular is not a serious problem for the cyclist, since the cyclist is likely to only be using the funicular to overcome a specific slope. So effective cycling paths at top and bottom ~ whether on the public right of way or in dedicated cycleways ~ and the funicular allows for a break in between.

The Minimetro / People Mover

Also from Italy, in Perugia, is the example of the “Minimetro”. This is a line through town, included elevated and tunneled sections, with small cars running at about a one minute frequency. Its an automated system, and when a car gets to the end of the line, it runs onto a turntable that rotates 180 degrees so it can make its run in the other direction.

Looking at the videos on the Minimetro site, the cars would get fairly crowded with even a single bike inside, but it would be straightforward to include hanging bike hooks. And if one car is full, just wait: there’s another one coming in a minute.

Public Escalators

But the Minimetro is not the only potential “bridge” technology for obstacles to bikeability that can be found in Perugia. There is also the public escalator.

That’s right: escalators are not restricted to shopping malls, airports, and other internal people-mover tasks. Public escalators can be a useful walkability aid in hilly terrain ~ as Hong Kong has also discovered.

Most escalators are not particularly cycle friendly, and heavy cyclist use would substantially reduce the transport capacity of a normal escalator, but a belt on the outside of the guiderail moving at the same pace as the escalator would make it easy to hold onto a bike while riding the escalator up or down. So making an escalator cycle-friendly is more an institutional challenge of getting it accepted as part of the design envelope than an engineering challenge.

The Trampe

In Trondheim, Norway, they have installed a dedicated bicycle lift between the center of town at the bottom of a hill and the University at the top of the hill, the Trampe. A “lift pass” costs about $17 a year.

The way it works is that you stick your right foot in the starting block, keep your left foot on your left pedal, and stick in your lift pass card. A metal plate comes out of the starting block to pick up your wait, and you rest your weight on that plate as you coast up the hill.

This is a wonderful system, but as the “Phenomenal People Movers” post at Web Urbanist says of the Trampe,

So why isn’t this great idea employed elsewhere in the world? According to the official Trampe website, it’s not for lack of interest by other cities. The idea has been well received by locations all over Europe, Asia and the US, with many cities promising to install one in the future. But before that can happen, the overall bicycle infrastructure has to be ready to support such an endeavor. For many cities, that means installing dedicated bike lanes on the streets before undertaking an ambitious project like a bike lift.

Unlike the escalators, funicular, and Minimetro, the bike lift is not designing general purpose local transport to also accomodate cyclists, its designing cycle-specific infrastructure. It is after the cycling mode share has been raised into the double digit range for some bikeable core that cycle-specific infrastructure like a cycle lift can come into play.

Bridging Islands with … Bridges

This is one of the more radical ideas. However you get to the top of one hill, if you are not merely going to the bottom again, but are going to the bottom so that you can get to the next hill to go to the top of that one … a cycle bridge could run across and skip the descent.

The picture here is from the US so, of course, it is not a cycleway running between one hilltop and the next, but a cycleway running over an expressway … because funding infrastructure to get over the obstacle posed by a limited access expressway is something we occasionally do (and, of course, normally describing it as “cycle” funding rather than to the expressway that is causing the obstruction). Building cycle specific infrastructure, not so much.

However, note that for a people mover along the lines of the Minimetro, the elevated sections are cheaper than the tunneled or trenched sections, so they will be biased to have more elevated sections than tunneled or trenched sections. Incorporating a cycleway into the design ~ which could, indeed, be a cycleway suspended beneath the people mover viaduct ~ gains the effect of a cycle specific bridge at a substantially lower incremental cost.

Trains and BRT

Now, while a folding bike works with most any public transport (including, in my experience, escalators that are aggressively cycle-unfriendly), a folding bike is not for everyone, since it generally involves basically paying more for less bike.

For buses, there is the system where you have a fold-down rack that holds a bike in front of the bus. This is a system we have locally on our main bus route (note the singular ~ I do not live in one of the high density parts of Northeast Ohio). Every time I use it, I am waiting for my bike to fall off the rack and get run over by the bus.

Far better are the systems of bike hooks that allow bikes to hang inside the vehicle. Hanging the bikes vertically makes for a much better fit with the interior of a train or bus as well.

However, for these systems to work well, with least delay while boarding and exiting, there should be level access to the floor of the train or the bus. This requires level boarding platforms to be provided for trains. However, level boarding is a general benefit to all train passengers, including those relying on wheelchairs, walkers or canes, and improves the speed of operation of any train during peak hour.

For buses, all-level-boarding brings to mind the upgraded type of bus routes normally called “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) in the United States. And if the BRT lives up to its name, that also fulfills the underlying requirement for general public transport bridging distinct bikeability islands, which is that express service is more important than closely spaced stops.


Steep terrain poses challenges to bikeability. However, it does not pose an insurmountable obstacle. And if we look around, we can find examples elsewhere in the world where people have faced this obstacle, or the similar obstacle to walkability, and have found ways to overcome them.

As always, none of these are silver bullet solutions, since there is no such thing as a real silver bullet solutions. And for most of the US, with bike mode share for commuting often below 1%, these may seem over the horizon.

However, in the coming two decades of increasing climate chaos and roller coaster gasoline prices, we will not be facing the challenges of sustainable local transport as a some kind of homogeneous national mass. We will be facing the challenges as distinct communities. And as individual communities push their cycling mode share into the double digits, the question of bridging gaps between “bikeable islands” is going to start coming into the frame in a growing number of communities.

Midnight Oil ~


  1. … I want to ride it where I like!

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