September 23rd, 2011

Architects and urban designers have no understanding of cycling

There is swathe of land from Holland to Sweden, where cycling is understood. Everywhere else, it is forgotten, and pushed to the margins. Homosexuals know how that feels, so they've learned to carve out residual space for themselves in many cities. Aaron Betsky wrote a book called Queer-Space, that describes an invisible layer in every big city, that you probably can't see, if you're not queer.

I've just written a book called Cycle-Space—at present with editors—that talks about the growth of cycling in similar terms. Today I'm at the 4th International Urban Design Conference, delivering a paper that grows out of that book. Here 
are the notes I'll refer to. The same ideas will appear in the refereed proceedings of the conference, a few weeks from now, with the usual attention to referencing etc.—though without the poetic licence I'm taking in my mode of delivery here at this conference. I'll provide a link to that paper when it is published.

For now, I want to make the point that the planning community in Australia/New-Zealand, does not understand cycling. Question time after one paper yesterday, turned into a brainstorming session, concerning creative new ways to screen multi level car parking stations. Only one person piped up and said, "Parking stations? Whose building car parking stations?" The crowd shut him up, and went back to saying they can be screened with unliveable units—yes, open your windows, and breathe in those fumes!

I doubt anyone at this conference would see it as a positive thing that the shared bicycle path here at Surfer's Paradise, where this conference is being held, is used for regular night markets. That pushes cyclists onto the road, where we know only 2 or 3 percent of the population feels comfortable, riding a bike. A good third of the population would happily use bikes for commuting, if they had spaces, like that promenade, made available to them. I'm talking about one or two hundred thousand people, living here on the Gold Coast, who would be cycling more, if cycling was not overlooked. They own working bikes, that they can't use, without being subjected to ridiculous dangers and inconveniences at every turn.

In Australia, I calculated, those bikes gathering cobwebs, are worth $5.5 billion dollars. That's a healthy, green, transit asset, going to waste. Anyone at this conference, who can't see a problem with a night market blocking a bike path, needs to wake up. Ten years from now, I'm sure they will have come out of this coma they're in. That's why I'm going to present this paper in a somewhat fanciful way, as though we've just woken up in a plausible future. 

Bicycles and the rhizome-type city

The world wide web, so theory has it, is hard to attack because it is diffuse. It has no big middle bit to strike out. A city with one business district, one water supply, one central railway interchange, one power plant, etc., will grind to a halt in the event that any one piece of it fails, be that by flood, fire, human error, an earthquake, a meteorite, an alien invasion, a visit by Paris Hilton, whatever. Planners and clued-up politicians are talking now about a rhizome-like order for cities, not the simple machine-like order accompanying heroic infrastructural projects of ages gone by. Instead of big dams, they think rainwater tanks. Instead of one heavy rail link, they think about many light rail links. Instead of one giant power plant, they think of solar panels on all of our roof tops. Forget THE city centre: think many town centres.
As bicycling advocates, we will be ringing all the right bells if we talk in these terms. Remind politicians that disruptions to oil or electricity supplies cannot bring a bicycle born population to a sudden halt. Remind them how cyclists got by, though motorists didn't, on the day of "carmageddon", when a freeway had to be closed for major works in Los Angeles. Have them know how many people in Tokyo got home after the 2011 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster: they bought every last bike from every last bike store, and rode home. Cycling is nimble. It finds ways around. It keeps working though systems around it shut down.