Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bicycle Rapid Transit for Riga

Most of modern cities currently try to sustain and upgrade booth mass transit systems and cycling infrastructure to attract people to sustainable modes of transport. On the other hand bicycling and public transport are actually competitors in several areas:
1. Users. The latest priority in several cities - cycling usually fight for passengers from public transport as being cheaper and often faster than the conventional busses and trams. Cycling infrastructure is usually aimed to reduce car trips but it may turn out to reduce mass transit trips.
2. Street space. Many cities have narrow streets so putting booth dedicated public transport and cycling lanes may be impossible.
3. Public funds. Public transport and cycling need funds for expansion and operation so sustaining booth modes puts bigger pressure on the city budget.

In Riga all these three arguments are often used to advocate focusing on conventional public transport and not support extensive upgrades in bike infrastructure. And the forth and biggest argument in favor of public transport is the seasonality of bicycling – there is no real way how to make people cycle in -10 degrees Celsius, during snowfalls or rainy days – so the year-round public transport must be supported. Really? Here is my question – why to prefer exactly weather-protected public transport instead of weather-protected cycling infrastructure? And it turns out that the cycling can be put ahead of mass transit even in cities with bad weather.

My idea is that cities can build dedicated cycling highways (see proposal for Toronto) with complete grade separation, high operating speed (>20km/h) between the districts. The system may be considered similar to existing undergrounds – a user arrives to the nearest station, pays for ride and heads to a station closest to his destination. Yet – unlike in a metro – user brings (or rents) his own vehicle, don’t wait for train in first and transfer stations and even don’t stop at unnecessary stations on his way and route himself to the exit station (similar of using a highway network). Altogether the result would be similar to the concept of Personal Rapid Transit system - with the difference of being slower on operation, requirement of user to drive and own (or rent) the vehicle yet with a big advantage of using the same vehicle for origin-to-station and station-to-destination movements.

An adequate riding climate is crucial for Bicycle Rapid transit – the users must be protected from precipitation, extreme temperatures, ice on pavement and direct sunlight, also good lighting is a must. As in practice the bikeways would be located in some type of tunnels – provision of artificial tailwinds may also be considered. Similar to using the conventional public transport – users are exposed to all types of weather while arriving/departing from station (in case of ground transportation passengers are often even forced to wait in bad weather), the controlled climate is provided only when entering the station or car.

New infrastructure required
The biggest challenge in this concept is provision of necessary infrastructure – the bikeways must be wide (>3.5m) each direction to provide high capacity. Maximum capacity for so wide bike path is not clearly known (though some sources state about 4500 bikes per hour per direction – a specific research must be done). The path must be fully separated and isolated from other modes to keep the flow non-stop, sustain the climate, restrict cyclists from entering the system without paying and provide safety. This makes Bicycle Rapid transit more costly to implement than usual on-street bus lines or trams yet cheaper than grade separate rail or bus transit. On the other hand cycling highways – unlike track based systems - can be effectively phased using existing streets for unfinished sections. Even one few kilometers long stretch of good bike highway would attract cyclists from districts yet directly unconnected to the system.

Operation compared to mass transit system
Travel time – generally shorter on Bicycle Rapid Transit because of no stops, no waiting time, no transfers and use of bicycle on the way to/from station instead of walking;
Peak performance – unclear as the capacity of Bicycle Rapid Transit System is unknown but even 4500 cyclists per hour per direction is sufficient for most routes in small to medium cities – it is equivalent to a tram with 200 riders running every 2min 40 sec. It is clear that bikes can’t handle very big flows but that is actually needed rarely;
Off-peak performance – as less crowded cycling would be even faster while public transport slower because of longer headways. If cycling network is closed for maintenance during nights – it would still be possible to use one’s bike to return home;
Accessibility – similar to public transport Bicycle Rapid Transit would not be very appropriate for wheelchair users and mothers with strollers during peak hours but during low hours would offer a comfortable ride. Cycling is appropriate for most of disabled people as specific vehicles like hand-powered tricycles are available. For others a simple bus network with long intervals and small capacity still must be sustained (possibly private). Bikes may provide also considerable hand luggage capacity if bags, baskets and trailers are used.
Building costs – high for cycling highways and associated stations compared to on-street transport. Also more land required than on-street pubic transport;
Running costs – extremely low for cycling highways as almost no moving parts (maybe only turnstiles, bike escalators and ventilators compared to additional trains and buses in conventional systems). Extremely low labor costs – no drivers, no vehicle repair stuff, just highway maintenance and possibly - station stuff. Also energy consumption is low and costs predictable - no moving cars, only highway lighting and ventilation.  Low operation costs is the biggest advantage of this type of system meaning that it can be kept open almost always – even during nights. Cycling is also oil-independent and ecologically friendly and contributes to public health giving huge savings for economy.

Possibilities in Riga
Readers may be tired of different concepts for Riga but I am not doing only because that’s the city I know best but also because of an unique feature – total lack of investment in public transport infrastructure (I don’t mean vehicles in this case – they are very good in Riga). Riga doesn’t have tunnels or elevated ways exclusively for public transport and even bus lanes are rare. That is why this city turns to be a good soil for new ideas.

Some of the cycling highways can be located along railway lines making their construction relatively cheap but still many cycling highways must be build above and parallel to main streets – usually elevated if located outside the railway ring and tunneled below streets in the central part. Districts of Bolderāja and Daugavgrīva are near the sea and booth are detached from other districts by a 6km wide meadow making the cycling highway building costs unreasonable and cycling time long. These districts can be included in the cycling system anyway – using specially equipped bus line for user ferrying together with their bicycles. The cost of ferry bus may be or may not be included in the cost of the rest of system. Theoretically – if such buses turn to be popular they can also link distant points of the system if the travel time by bus is considerably shorter and demand is sufficient.


  1. My old idea was to build just a single (because of the cost) cycling/walk-way attached to roofs/walls of the city buildings and using elevators of these buildings - primarily for recreational purposes, connecting the city centre with the principal resort areas (Jūrmala, Buļļu sala, Vecāķi) and showing Riga from an unusual perspective and attracting cycling tourist from other countries. Of course, such elevated cycling/walk-way would dissolve in less densely constructed areas, turning into normal cycling -ways. But considering Riga's cycling enthusiasm and budget - it would come true only after 2050 or even 2100.

    But for now - Riga city council should clearly paint-mark (and even separate with barriers) cycling lanes throughout the entire city, whereas the municipal police should fine uncautious pedestrians who cross these cycling lanes without making sure no bycicle is approaching.

  2. This is proposed as an alternative to public transport system not one more independent network and claim for the funds that currently are used for city city buses and trams.
    It has nothing to do with on-street cycling path and lanes - they must (or must not) built according to a separate plan. Though I think on-street cycling infrastructure would encourage people using Bicycle Rapid Transit, it is not crucial because the access distances to the stations are relatively short. Some planners even claim that cycling paths actually reduce safety and cyclists must be mixed in the car traffic.

  3. Definitely yes on the last sentence. I'm a passionate cyclist and have been cycling both in Riga and London for many years -- London has it's traffic mixed and it is illegal to cycle on pavement. This results in an improved safety and efficiency as:

    1) the most dangerous and unpredictable are pedestrians so being off the pavement (as usually the cycle lanes are next to it without the separating kerb) will result in a less accidents (no statistics, just the gut feeling) -- cars on the other hand are faster, more organized and transit-oriented, just like the cyclists should be

    2) driving on the street makes cyclists learn the traffic rules and code, and be more aware of the road and their vehicle

    I've mostly been cycling on the street also in Riga but sometimes traffic is really so dense and the motorists doesn't take a cyclist too serious so at some point I've felt like reverting to the pavement would be beneficial for my safety :)

    Thanks BTW for a totally readable blog full of brave ideas!