September 12th, 2011

How transport cycling came to be mainstream (a prophetic history)

This is a long post, but I rank it among my magna opera. It's actually one of the most condensed things I've written, so I hope I can hold your attention for the whole essay.

I can't go on writing about cycling and cities from a 2011 perspective. So come with me, my regular readers, into the future. We're getting out of this era. We're going to start talking as though we've woken up in 2021, and all this nonsense has passed.

So here we are, in 2021, and for the first time, my country, Australia, has conducted a census that showed cycling to be a mainstream mode of transportation. 20% of trips in Melbourne and Brisbane are made using bikes. Sydney has 15%. My own middling sized city of Newcastle topped the lot, with 30%. That is because Newcastle was the first Australian city where planners applied the principles of a Bicycle Oriented Development, or BOD, to urban renewal sites, on former industrial land.
It's funny, less than 10 years ago, the word "bod" would have referred the human body, in a trim state. You rarely hear it used in that sense anymore, not now that so many people are trim from all the cycling they do, and when everyone knows "BOD" refers to a high density town, where most of the buildings are ramped, or else ride-through, and where you feel like your shoelaces are tied together if you're not on a bicycle. And don't even try to take a car into a BOD. If you're lucky enough to find a road in, you certainly wont find a parking space. Zoning laws prohibit any car parking at all in these places.

What we once called a "bod", and what we can now say was a proto-BOB, Orestad outside of Copenhagen.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can say the early 2000s was a kind of "proto-BOD" period. There are three reasons to say that.
1. A wave of development saw many urban renewal projects forge ahead, but with urban morphologies that were hardly as fine grained and walkable as urban designers would have prefered. During the former growth period of the 1980s, the narrow streets, small lots, and high site coverage ideology that flowed from the thinking of Jane Jacobs, Gordon Cullen, Jan Gehl, etc., were a barrier to the biggest developers. By the 2000s, pension funds had made large scale developers the norm. Urban renewal authorities acquiesced with big lots, and wide streets. The cities resulting had a scale that was alienating to pedestrians, but that wasn't so bad if you had a bike.
2. Looking back we can say Copenhagen gave us another milestone of the proto-BOD period, with urban renewal schemes like Orestad, just a 15 minute bike ride away from the city. For decades bikes had extended the reach of metro stations in towns outside major cities, in countries like Denmark and Holland. But when your home station is just 15 minutes from town, and when modern bikes let moderately fit people ride with so little effort, why mess about with the mode change?
3. The other significant development of the proto-BOD period, was the building of recreational bike routes, not where people needed to cycle for transport, but wherever people could ride their bikes, without inconveniencing voters with cars (which back then, meant virtually everyone). So recreational bike routes flanked waterways, crossed parks, and made use of rail easements, often left abandoned by industry. Minneapolis: a classic example. 10 years ago, in 2011, its bike share was just 2.5%, but in those days, that was enough to make Minneapolis America's second big bicycling city, after Portland, then with just 5%. (For reference, New York's bike share, a decade ago, was half of one percent—incredible, by today's standards.) What Minneapolis had, that got cycling started, were rail trails, park connectors (for example, where once there were mills by the river) and old industrial bridges, one that the city bought for a dollar. From 1991 onwards—thanks to the passing of the Surface Transportation Equity Act (ISTEA), that guaranteed funding for bike works—routes like these that bypassed the roads, were systematically fixed up for bike use. In a country brainwashed by John Forester's 1976 doctrine of "vehicular cycling" (that says bikes are best treated like cars), Minneapolis's recreational network—circuitous and lonely, as it was then—at least gave cyclists a chance to use bikes for transport, even at night, in the rain, when cycling on the road is unconscionably dangerous. (More on Minneapolis in this pdf).
So what changed in the last decade, that those recreational bike routes are now flooded with kids riding to school, people using bicycles to do shopping, cargo bikes making deliveries, and a billion people world wide, cycling to work? Put simply, planners, when they had tried to introduce protected bike paths in established areas, were stymied by voters wanting more space for cars. So, albeit with some reluctance, planners brought Main Street to where there were bikes. The brown field tracts, waterfronts and under-utilised parklands flanking the recreational bicycling routes, were rezoned as BODs, to allow the construction of public institutions, shopping centres, workplaces and lots of high density housing. While the new developments had no car parking, and minimal investment in buses or trams, there was no expense spared in pandering to people on bikes. The enclosed back-drafted bike routes we now take for granted, were unimaginable just ten years ago. 
Images of Velo-City

A decade ago, when driving was viable, the expectation was that former industrial land should provide even more open green space than existed already. Selling existing urban parkland to developers, even if no one was using it, well that was unthinkable! How quickly the mob discards lofty ideals to suit changing circumstance, though. Because the exburbs were struggling. Peak oil, and the late running on alternative electricity generation, meant both regular and electric cars were too expensive to run. Suburban house markets collapsed, as "The Great Reset"—identified by Richard Florida in the wake of the 2008 GFC—looked more like a great exodus, from the burbs to the city. Urban consolidation, once a fancy word used only by planners, appeared as graffiti on walls. Any green space in the city, if it was only being used as a toilet for dogs, was rezoned for high density housing.
It was a happy coincidence, that many of the former industrial sites favoured by developers of affordable housing, also flanked former industrial rail routes—no surprise really, given factories and rail originally belonged to the same networks. Quite by accident, suburbia's refugees, upon moving to town, found their newly built neighbourhoods were on the edge of recreational bicycling trails. The same was true of under-utilised parkland, being sold for development. New housing here, tended to flank bike paths that ran beside waterways, and across parks.
Governments and developers realised what was happening, at about the same time. A pattern of urbanisation had grown out of circumstance, that inherently favoured bicycle transit. Governments had been prepared to back bicycling since the early 2000s. All they lacked, were ways to help cycling, without jeopardising their support from voters accustomed to having all of the road. They wanted to spend on cycling, because they knew spending on cycling could mean saving on healthcare, reducing emissions, and saving on roads and new trains. So they welcomed the chance to invest, not on bike lanes in old parts of town, where car-lovers took umbrage, but on recreational routes, now being used for bicycle transit. It would not be long before every waterway, canal, and old rail easement, had covered bike lanes and flyover bridges where they intersected with roads.
As for developers, they could see cyclists were a ripe demographic. The ones fleeing car land, each had an extra 10K at their disposal per annum, that many were choosing to spend on their housing. But a surprisingly high proportion of bike-nuts were wealthy: middle class fitness buffs; educated left, or green, voters; and retirees ageing actively. A wealthy, healthy, but hitherto odd demographic, suddenly, were worth going after.
Among developers, there was competition to build the most bike friendly buildings. They looked to a building in Copenhagen, called 8-House, by the starchitects BIG, that had been built in 2011. Built in Orestad—the place I said earlier was a prototype BOD—8-House pampered bicycling residents with access balconies spiralling all the way to top, like switch-back roads ascending a mountain. They could ride home from work, to their apartments, without putting a foot on the ground.

Developers looked to 8-House, the way public housing authorities in the 50s and 60s looked to Le Corbusier's Unite de Habitation in Marseilles. Only 8-House—part perimeter block, and part 5th Avenue Guggenheim—had overcome Le Corbusier's oversights. Its access balconies really were like streets in the sky, contiguous with each other, and the real street, down on the ground. They made Le Corbusier's elevated streets look as the streets of Manhattan would look, if the Avenues were taken away, and people had to move from street to street via the vortex of the subway.
Architects conceived buildings with no vertical subways (by that I mean, lifts), only ramps. They looked to Carlo Ratti's London Cloud, an unbuilt proposal/fantasy from 2010, imagining spiralling towers that people would ride up on bikes. They looked at Cube House, in Rotterdam, one of the earliest ride-through buildings. What if schools and shops were ride through? The many ride-through buildings appearing in architectural journals now in the twenties, are products of that theoretical discourse.
As well as discussions around bike friendly typology and circulation, attention turned to the first wave of buildings that propagandised for cycling: the Washington Bikestation, that looked more like an avant-garde museum than a place to park bikes; The Danish Pavilion at the 2010 world expo in China by BIG, a ride-through spiralling building, dispensing free-to-use bikes; and the Bikestation at Long Beach California, designed and sited to be iconic.
Architects' rhetoric was redolent with bike allusions. Anything that could be said about a bicycle's frugality, irreducibility, or means of production, architects found they could say about buildings. The bicycle was a paragon, as cars, ships and aeroplanes had been in the 20s, or as the body had been in the Renaissance.
Pruitt-Igoe, 1956-1972.

Relocating suburbia's victims into high density estates, with little or no public transport, had been decried as a recipe for alienation, suicide and high levels of crime, but the opposite turned out to be true. Because of their speed, cyclists were a ubiquitous presence, always putting eyes on the street. But unlike drivers, who would appear on the scene but drive past, cyclists were insinuated in events going on all around them. They provided the passive surveillance pedestrians do, yet to a whole district, not just the busiest streets. This lessened strictures on urban planning. Districts could have their own distinct urban morphologies. Even towers-in-the-park could be built, without giving rise to the kind of chaos that led to Pruitt–Igoe being demolished.
Extent of the new bicycling zone, in Newcastle, Australia.

Most cities now have two distinct zones, intertwined like a yin and a yang. Everywhere we see a new cycling city, interweaving with, but largely separated from, the networks of streets that for almost a century have been dominated by cars. And while there was rivalry, and talk of separate governments, the sense we have now, is that the new cities are acting as beacons.
Freetown Christiania, and what Copenhagen became, thanks to its inspiration. 

Just as the car-free hippie town of Christiania in Copenhagen, could be said to have inspired the demonstrations throughout the rest of that city in support of bike lanes, in the mid nineteen seventies, the presence of BODs is inspiring change in their host cities. Although my city's bike modal share, of 30%, is almost entirely attibutable to the new, parallel city, conditions are ripe now, in 2021, for the bikefacation of Main Street. When the bike share tops 51%, then we will say it is mainstream.

       What you have kindly taken your time to read, is the basis of a talk I'll be "touring" at various conferences in the coming weeks, to gather feedback, hopefully inspire planners, architects and urban designers, and surreptitiously promote a book I have coming out soon. I'm posting this essay here on my blog, because I get great immediate feedback via comments from readers. Trust me, I don't believe in future predictions. I just thought a fake prophesy would be a neat way to explain an alternative direction for bicycle advocacy, when efforts to date have been painfully slow in making headway. If you see problems, please let me know. If you see merit, please share this link where you can. I'm available as a consultant and public speaker, via the commercial arm of my university: My name is Steven Fleming, and I'm in the School of Architecture and Built Environment at The University of Newcastle, Australia.