September 3rd, 2011

Do a PdD and unravel a mess

I would love right now to take a PhD candidate under my supervision, to unravel this knot being made, by consultancies lining up to feed off of bicycling. To quote my planner friend Roberto, they all "smell blood in the water". I'm not saying their work isn't good, but it is methodologically fraught.

Consider the bicycle heat map, by Montgomery Planning in the US. Laudable as it is, on my fronts, it is a hopelessly crude instrument, based on assumptions factored into a points system. Is there a train station nearby? If so, add some points, because we assume people ride to the station. How many points? Well, that depends on the planners' assumptions.

This kind of fudge work, usually making wild deductions from census data, is going on everywhere, exacerbated by the very aspect of cycling that makes its so powerful: cycling is fleeting. We ride around the corner, chain up, walk, hitch a ride, find our bike, ride across town, put our bike on the train to come home, ride two blocks... how on earth can census data reflect something so untamable as bicycle use?

My experience as a researcher, is that fields that are redolent with aggravations like these, are fertile ground for PhD research. So, if you're eligible for a scholarship (an Australian Postgraduate Award, for example), and would like commit 3 years of your life to such a pursuit, drop me a line and I'll look over your application. If living for a few years in Newcastle appeals, I would be happy to supervise your candidature.  

The context dilemma when discussing cycling in global fora

It has been two months since I returned from my 9 week tour of cycling cities in America, Europe etc, and only now has it really sunk in, that my perspective has changed. I have lost the antipodean point of view (POV), that gave my blog its tragicomic undercurrents. I can never get it back either. Ignorance was bliss, and I'm sure quite amusing to watch.

From left: 1K bikes left on the street in Copenhagen; a lonely racing bike kept in a former bank vault in Portland; 3000 abandoned bikes in a rusting bike tower in Amsterdam.

What I have now, is an overwhelming impression of the global diversity of cycling. Context changes everything. There is hardly an issue effecting cycling that could be treated in the same way in two cities, let alone across borders. Take secure bicycle parking, for instance. In Denmark, secure bike parking is hardly required, thanks mainly to social equality, but also the home insurance industry there, that ultimately profits from thefts. In sprawling American cities, long trips on Lance Armstrong signature edition type bikes, to offices in neighborhoods "enlivened" by poor folk, lead to Fort Knox facilities. The Dutch build towers to store beater bikes that have been abandoned. So there we have the welfare state, American apartheid, and Calvinist tolerance leading to three architectural responses to the one problem.
Infrastructure, bicycling laws, cycling mores, and architectural responses to cycling, are all dependent on context. This explains the speaking at crossed purposes we see in bike blog comments streams. Sometimes I wonder if there is anything we can learn from each other at all. All the worst cities are more or less the same: drowning in cars. All great cities are more or less different, because there are so many different ways to fill them with bikes.