A Hierarchy of Needs for Cycling? [Part 2 of 2]

In "A Hierarchy of Needs for Cycling? [Part 1 of 2]", I introduced you to Maslow's hierarchy of human needs and how this idea has been adapted for walking and cycling. In this post, I would like to share with you my own adaptation of a cycling hierarchy of needs. 

By placing the needs of cycling in a hierarchy, it is possible to understand cycling at each of these levels using expertise from a wide variety of disciplines and professions. I believe that understanding cycling must be an interdisciplinary endeavour. For example, it is perfectly reasonable to expect a traffic engineer to have some answers to the safety level in this pyramid, but how do you solve problems related to directness and distance? Or, moving up, how do we talk about less tangible ideas such as comfort or pleasurability? How do we understand both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of cycling? Are some aspects of cycling more fundamental than others? 

I think a pyramid is the best way to illustrate these ideas:

 Cycling Pyramid of Needs by George Liu

Cycling Pyramid of Needs by George Liu

Having a cycling mode share of 10% doesn't just mean ten times more cyclists than a cycling mode share of 1%. It entails a qualitatively different way of experiencing cycling. This make sense. If you build a city around cars, you don't get London or Amsterdam with more cars. You get Phoenix, or Dallas, or any of the other post-car cities in North America. 

The author John Brodie Donald put this succinctly: more of the same is different. In other words, quantity has its own quality. Take helmet use, for example. The safest policies may not always be the best solution. Sometimes, the levels of the pyramid conflict with each other. Is a truly delightful or even comfortable cycling experience compatible with everyone on a bike wearing a helmet? Perhaps not. 

Think about what it would take to get 50% of all trips by bike in your city. Imagine the quality of the infrastructure and urban design required to compete with driving around in your own air conditioned box with leather seats. Imagine how the design of your cities have to qualitatively change to enable not just your children to ride to school, but also for your grandparents to bike to the grocery store. 

Below, I'm showing graph that illustrates how I think cycling gets better, one step at a time. Coming from a typical North American suburb to a compact Dutch city, this graph mirrors how my thinking about cycling gradually changed. 

  1. Distance. I realized that everything is close by. Everything in life is feasible by bike or some combination of bike and public transport. 
  2. Directness. It became clear that everything is actually more direct by bike. My home to the city centre, for example, has one direct route for bicycles and pedestrians. Cars have to go around. 
  3. Safety. It is absolutely safe to go anywhere by bike. This includes social as well as traffic safety. Over time, the trust in the safety level of the city is gained by experience. 
  4. Comfort. Most bike routes are reasonably comfortable. You learn which routes have the least amount of traffic lights, where to find the smoothest asphalt, and which streets has the lowest traffic noise, (hills are not much of a concern here, but other cities this may be a concern)
  5. Pleasurability. Finally, you think about which routes are most pleasurable. This is highly linked with comfort, but I think this is where urban design has the most influence. There are some routes that wind through a park, others that have the smell of fresh coffee, and on others you can catch the laughter of children on their way home from school. 

It is at this final level that I have the pleasure and opportunity of doing cycling research. I know how important the base of the pyramid is. I absolutely agree that traffic safety and mixed land use are key to supporting not just cycling but also livable cities. Since moving to the Netherlands, I have the opportunity to ask, what is next? How do we design a cycling experience so pleasurable that people will voluntarily to leave their car at home in favour of cycling to work?