Highlights from the Velo-City Cycling Visionaries Award (Urban Design)

For the past 3 years I have made it my business to keep watch for visionary architectural proposals that might advance cycling. Once every 2 or 3 months a conspicuously architectural bike shed will come along, or a computer render of a bike club with a velodrome on the roof, or something similar. But in the past month, there has been a huge spike.

Velo-City, the annual conference where politicians and city officials report on measures that have increased cycling in their own cities, is in the process of choosing 5 Cycling Visionaries to attend Velo-City for free. The self-nomination process has just closed, and now public voting begins.

I have a vested interest in the Urban Design category, having nominated my book Cycle Space for that award.  When I did that a few months ago I was backing myself as a favourite. “Yay,” I was thinking, “I get to go to Vienna”. Hundertwasser, Coop Himmelblau, Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos… how could I have reached 45 and not yet been to Vienna! 

But alas, my bubble has been burst. A rush of last minute entries has all but convinced me I might have to wait until 2014, before I bask in the intellectual hot tub that is Velo City. In 2014, it will be held close enough to where I live that I may be able to wrangle the funding to go; as academics it isn’t so easy getting funding to fly around the world for conferences with no peer reviewed publication.

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While a few of the entries are so derivative I’ll know there’s no god if they win, some others are genuinely visionary and worthy of this award. Ride-to-Gather is my own personal favourite, for the way it drags out the full potential of floating bike paths on harbours. This is an idea I mention in passing in my city portrait on Sydney in Cycle Space, and that another Velo-City contender imagines might happen in Venice. Linus Cheng though takes the idea further again, in the context of Hong Kong.

Bikes competing with gondolas on Venetian canals

Bikes competing with gondolas on Venetian canals

Many neighbourhoods in Hong Kong have access to one of the many parks that touch the shore line. If the city were to build a hub on the water, and use floating bike paths like spokes to reach all those harbour-side parks, they would instantly give cycling the edge over driving or transit in this densest of cities.

Floating bike trail in Portland

Floating bike trail in Portland

One day harbour cities will thank the god of physics that cars were so heavy they had to be kept on the land. Waterways have been left blissfully unencumbered for sustainable modes, such as ferries, and—so long as they can lift or swing for ferries to pass—networks of bike paths built on pontoons. When I was in Portland two years ago researching my book, I realised the painted road markings that Roger Geller advertises as Portland’s key innovations, have less impact than trails built where drivers don’t care, i.e., on water. So good luck Linus. I don’t mind at all if you go and I don’t.

bicycle commute centre 1

megastructure banham

Neither would I be upset if August Liau wins with “Auto” Mobile Beijing.  The idea here is to fill the waste spaces between Beijing’s elevated cloverleaf freeways with mega structures geared to bicycle transport. If Reyner Banham (the bike loving architectural critic) were alive still, he would be rushing out a reprint of Megastructures, just to put Liau’s scheme on the front cover. It shows more than any other building type could, that transport infrastructure and buildings don’t have to be separated out. Bikes are as mobile as trains or cars, but clean and quiet enough to put inside our buildings. If transport can go inside, suddenly a building can go on forever, without a break. And if any country could pull that off, it would be the one who built The Great Wall.

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bicycle commuter centre

Another I like is “The Root as a Barrier Breaker“. I’m not sure if it’s the designer Keren Shiker’s intention, but I see this as the fun park of road underpasses. Consider how It requires less ramping to get under a road than over one. And putting aside any fears of graffiti and broken bottles, consider how convenient it is that gravity helps cyclists speed up as they enter a tunnel and naturally slow down as they emerge. How much greater our pleasure if passing under a road became a choose-your-own-weighlessness adventure of skidding and loop-the-looping in circular pipes. Turn the volume down on the excitement from 10 to 1, and your grandma might even get a thrill if she picked the least radical line.

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Another entry called “Velotel” addresses a bee that has been in my bonnet for as long as architects have been designing “eco resorts”. Who cares if an eco resort turns its sewerage into edible fudge and supplies green power to native animals’ dens, if all the tourists have come via car? (I refer you to one of my many whiny blog posts on the topic of driving to country retreats). Here though, is a chain of hotels found along bike routes, with facilities that invite you to come by bike and not car.

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In the urban design category, there are 55 entries in total. That’s enough to keep me stocked with schemes to critique on my blog for the next couple of months, by which time I hope so many architects have gotten aboard this vital bandwagon that I can no longer keep track.

Forget my selfish wish that you vote for me. Go check them all out for yourself. If you didn’t submit an entry this year, I hope you choose to enter something fantastic in 2014—don’t worry, I’ll be happy for you to beat me :)

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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