Summary of bicycle urbanism design lab experiments in recent months

For the past year I have been leading teams of MA and PhD students at the University of Tasmania, Australia, in a range of pure research, and research-by-design projects. One of the questions we have been asking is “what might a purpose-built bicycling city actually look like?” Would it have streets, alleys, or free flowing ground planes? Would a bicycle urbanism give rise to new building types, the way car-centric urbanism gave rise to new types?

Marina_City_marina_by_Matthew_Bisanz

And what about urban morphologies? Would a city built from scratch where the main focus was cycling (not walking or driving), have slab blocks, perimeter blocks, towers or hybrids? Visionaries including Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright and Norman Bel Geddes collectively spent decades nutting out the component parts of an automotive urbanism—the cloverleaf highway intersection, the internal-access garage, the free-standing buildings surrounded by parking, etc.. We’ve been trying to do something similar, only more quickly and without the help of a global movement of architects focused on these problems at the same time. Nevertheless, we are making headway.

One design premise to grow from our inquiries, is that, in a bicycle district, shops might not have to be gathered tightly in rows in order to concentrate and catch passing trade. If you think about it, potential customers, if they are on bikes, would be moving five times faster than potential customers passing on foot. Your shop could have no shops around it, yet still have people frequently passing. A handy corollary to this is that master plans focused on bikes do not need to gather shops into main streets, leaving the other streets lonely. Activity, and passive surveillance, can be evenly spread across a whole district.

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Another premise is that the entrances to buildings, along with the entrances to those shops I’ve just mentioned, could be raised on fairly high mounds—between 1 and 3 meters. The aim would be to reduce cyclists’ speeds as they draw near to busy nodes without making them brake. Likewise they could leave busy nodes without having to pedal, simply by rolling away from a crest. Pedestrians and slow cyclists could choose to move from crest to crest using fly-over bridges that in turn might support rain canopies to protect the fast moving cyclists below.

Render-Slip-Block-SITE-copy

When you try to envision a purpose built bicycle urbanism, you start to wonder why cyclists in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen haven’t lobbied for decades for rain and shade covers over their bike routes. I’m sure it suits a few of the last remaining Calvinists or Lutherans there to feel like God’s chosen when they press on through a blizzard. I think more about my wife when our children were small. I can’t blame her for wanting a roof over her head in bad weather, and therefore choosing to drive. Would she have been happy to cycle if we had raised our kids in Amsterdam or Copenhagen? I doubt it. I suspect she would have cursed being made to ride in the rain, and wished either for car parking so she could drive, or else rain covers over the bike routes. I’m always struck by the relatively low 15% bike modal share in Rotterdam, despite that city having better bike infrastructure than Copenhagen with a 40% bike modal share. The difference is Rotterdam—like most cities—has multi storey garages in town. People use them, to save getting wet. From this I deduce that bike infrastructure alone will not make cycling mainstream in most cities. You have to either blow up the car parks, or cover the bike routes. Clearly, covering the bike routes would meet less resistance.

Amy Pedder's vision of bike routes covered with solar panels.

Amy Pedder’s vision of bike routes covered with solar panels.

Since we are already designing interiors to accommodate prams, wheelchairs and mobility scooters, I think we might as well design for cycling inside as well. Think of it: parents could shop at ride-through supermarkets with their babies asleep in a box bike, then take their groceries all the way to their pantries in those same box bikes, all before baby wakes up. The box bike, or bakfiets in Dutch, is too much of a godsend to be left outside like a horse the way bikes traditionally have been in Holland.

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Thinking this way led me to a new concept in apartment design that would be worthy of patenting, if locking it up were consistent with any of my greater aims. It’s a slab block with a lift at one end, opening onto double-loaded aerial streets that aren’t level, but which slope downwards until reaching the ground. Residents can take the lift to their floor then ride down, or conversely ride up for the exercise. The 1 in 20 gradient of the ramps means each sloping level is 20 times longer than its highest point off the ground. While that means very long blocks, it is possible for them to be twisted or coiled, or given articulation to lessen their visual impact. They’re not too long functionally, with the ride to the bottom from most apartments being shorter in length than most city blocks.

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With a slip-block the cost of maintaining a lift is distributed between many apartments. Given the cost of lift maintenance, that is great for housing affordability. Lifts could even be pay-for-use, given they’re not technically needed.  Cyclists, parents with strollers, and even people in wheelchairs have the option of pushing or motoring their way up the gently sloped aerial streets to their apartments.

Render-Slip-Block-SITE

Another advantage is multiple slip-blocks can be built in parallel rows pointing North/South for the sun to reach both sides in the Winter, yet without those rows reminding us all of the Gulag. By alternating them high-to-low then low-to-high, the high ends get views over the low ends of the wedges. For the sake of comparison, the example above shows the blocks spaced to match the width of Park Avenue in New York.

park-avenue-2

I wrote Cycle Space in 2012. That book was concerned with the way as cyclists we cognitively produce space for ourselves in the liminal, uncontested realms of our cities. I could only speak briefly about ways we physically produce cycle space, with territorial markers such as bike parking stations, or with de facto bicycle oriented development projects. Since then I’ve been focused on ways we might start building for ourselves in earnest, if we weren’t so concerned about making old horse-and-cart space bike friendly and instead focused on redevelopment districts. Seen in the light of city growth, brownfields and greyfields a far more important frontier than our gentrifying old city centres. I suppose I can only blame myself if I’ve failed to excite fellow believers in cycling with these sites’ potential.

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.
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12 Responses to Summary of bicycle urbanism design lab experiments in recent months

  1. matthew says:

    Although I totally agree with your aims and love most of your ideas, when I look at the model of the multiple slip-blocks I am reminded of one of my favourite criticisms of architects- if the architect wouldn’t be happy living or working in the least attractive space in the building they have created, then they have done something wrong.

    Which isn’t to say I want to live in some twee arts and crafts rural pretence, but who would want to live on the bottom floor, in the middle of the block, looking up at a wall of flats?

    As for Rotterdam, lets not pretend it’s merely rain making people take the car, it’s laziness. Most people, not the majority who read this blog, but most others drive instead of cycling or walking because they can’t be bothered. The only way to change their minds is to make them pay the true cost of the convenience (as you have mentioned before) or suffer directly the filth and noise of it.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Matthew. Don’t worry, we’re working on the worst located apartments and providing them outlooks. You’ve reminded me just how old those models are. I’m going to go and pull that photo down!
      There is 40 meters between each block, which I believe is the width of Park Avenue in New York. But it will be nicer than Park Avenue, because it will only have thin strips of paving and the rest can be trees.
      I agree in principle that drivers, like all polluters, should have to pay the real costs. I just fear democracy will have to end first.

  2. crank says:

    I’m almost ashamed to admit, that I kind of have a thing for those crazy, cylindrical apartment/parking buildings in Chicago – somehow mesmerizing. The cars have quite a beautiful view! Is that an example of carchitecture, or also inspiration for cylindrical apartment buildings one could ride up and down?

    How great could Apple’s new mothership be for riding around to meetings?
    http://media.treehugger.com/assets/images/2013/10/apple-hq-above.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scale.jpg
    I used to work in a building in NYC with a very large footprint. I got sick of the time taken to walk across the floor repeatedly from meeting to meeting, and actually bought a pair of ‘Heelys’ to zoom around on! Sadly they don’t work well on carpet.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks, we might add the Apple building to our shortlist for the RideInside book! I wonder if Heelys are banned anywhere?

  3. Cliff Lyons says:

    Interesting study. Would this cycle utopia be a nice ‘place’ in which to live however? I very much doubt it. Where designs are focused on one type of user, it is usually to the exclusion of others. Cites, places and spaces lose their vitality, the ability to adapt to change and ultimately their soul.

    • Steven says:

      Hi Cliff, what city dweller isn’t either a cyclist, pedestrian or user of mobility scooters? They’re all catered for here better than anywhere else in the world. If you’re talking about drivers, they can fuck off. I should add that scooter riders, horse riders, in-line skaters, and everyone other than drivers will be accommodated most handsomely. Oh, and there will be no public transport. I really can’t see the point.

    • Colin says:

      I don’t think pedestrians are well catered for here. Shops 5 times further apart, raised on 1-3 metre high mounds to clamber up – it sounds awful if you’re on foot.

      And even cyclists are on foot a lot. Take eating for example – you can’t eat on a bike, and eating is one of those fundamental things that people do at least 3 times a day, and one of the big trip generators. Entering and exiting a cafe requires being on foot, and the friction involved in transferring between bike and walking means that once walking people will want to continue walking, at least for a while. Most people enjoy walking, at least a bit, and you’re designing it out.

      I get that your main idea is to imagine cycling as the primary mode of transport, even over walking, and while I think that’s an interesting thought experiment I can’t see it as ever catching on. Walking really is primary,

    • Steven says:

      I think variety would be key. Thankfully, the odd shapes of real sites thrust variety upon us as designers quite quickly. We would struggle to find real world applications for a few channel shaped streets, let alone have an opportunity to blanket a city in the manner indicated in these drawings. The drawings present the extreme proposition, from which we work backwards. Design concepts are always better when tempered by circumstances. But without concepts, you get more of the same—and we don’t want that, do we!
      You do seem to be missing one detail. Pedestrians don’t have to clamber up. They never have to go down in the first place. They have (along with slow cyclists) a diagonal network of bridges spanning between the crests of the mounds. Sure, the shops are all 60m apart, but that is the case with any brownfield redevelopment district.
      Thanks!

  4. Don says:

    Occupants on the bottom floor would get to look out at a constant flow of pretty girls/boys on bikes. I can think of worse places to live…

    • Steven says:

      the whole width of the street could also be planted with trees, for the bird watchers I guess.

    • crank says:

      I think valuing higher floors is a bit of an indicator – we want to get away from the traffic (ironically, you hear it more). I know in some places, lower floors are valued more. Penthouses (while nice) are a bit elitist, I highly rate properties with public amenities on the top floors/roof. On these slip-block buildings I can see lovely rooftop woodlands, parks, and community gardens, for which your bakfiets really is your wheelbarrow! Hell, let’s build a MTB track on one!

  5. Bec S says:

    I, for one, welcome our new BOD designed cities and will be the first buying off the plan when they get DA approval.

    Steven, also, whenever you write about the ‘spaces between things’ I am reminded of the novel, the “Raw Shark Texts”. If you haven’t read it, highly recommended – it revolves around a genius concept of ‘unspace’ that connects up all parts of the urban world. And sharks/

    http://www.amazon.com/Raw-Shark-Texts-Novel/dp/1847671748/ref=la_B0034OGUWQ_1_1_title_1_pap?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1395703275&sr=1-1

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