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.
Imagine a long street lined with maisonette apartments, each with a small front courtyard for bikes. Now in your minds eye coil that street it into a spiral. Each apartment will be slightly higher than the next as you spiral upward, riding your bike, on an aerial street that ends at a bar on the roof. If you had to walk the full length of such a street you would take the lift as a shortcut. But in “bike-time”, it’s a two minute trip from the ground to the roof.
Thank you Seattle. Any city that welcomes a weary traveller off of the plane with a train, and lets them mix-mode, deserves some kind of Dr. Behooving big hug, or kiss, or even frottage—though the light rail wasn’t quite full enough for all that.
I’m here for the world’s first academic symposium focused on bicycle urbanism and am looking forward to bringing you amazing reports—once I do something about this incredible jet lag. This is Dr. Behooving signing out from Seattle.
I accept the world’s mockery of Australia and its misguided bike helmet laws. There is no doubt we have overreacted to one specific danger of cycling, without looking at the big picture. However, if we look at another specific danger, that of cyclists hitting pedestrians, Australia can claim the wiser response—along with Italy, Japan, and any other country that takes a slightly more laissez-faire view of this problem.
First let me say, there are many contexts where the need for segregation is without doubt:
on a shopping street with cars down the middle (here a cycle track protects pedestrians as they step out of shop doors, and gives cyclists clear passage)
on busy bridges and trails (as pictured above)
and on arterial routes shared by cars and bikes and pedestrians.
But a cycle track through Times Square? A bit of urban design jargon will help make my point. Bridges, trails and arterial routes are examples of paths. Times Square is a node, approaching the size of a district. Other examples of nodes include historic town centres, parks, piazzas, and neighbourhoods that people call home. It gets confusing when nodes are linear—in other words, places people arrive that, but don’t actually stop. Examples include waterfront promenades, piers, or—dare I say—Brooklyn Bridge.
Cycle tracks belong along pathways, not nodes. Nodes (which let’s not forget, can be elongated) are destinations and have lots of people just hanging around, zigzagging, stopping, walking backwards, etc.. The message a bike lane sends us when it doesn’t stop upon reaching a node, is to maintain our speed. Precisely when we aught to be swallowing that pill we are so ready to give drivers, a bike lane tells us to blithely ignore the people around us and hit them or honk them if they step on our turf. A shared pedestrian treatment would tell us to slow down and graciously weave our way through, politely ringing our bike bells.
Though I wish Australia had a few more segregated lanes along paths, I’m glad we don’t have them through nodes. And I’m glad linear nodes, like the boardwalk past my town’s marina, require me to slow down and have manners. There are quite enough places where I have nothing to distract me from pedalling.
If my city’s park by the river or its port with cafes were covered with markings telling people they had to have a bike, or no bike, to be allowed to go here, or go there, the graciousness I encounter each morning wouldn’t last long. I’m haunted by the voice of an American woman I once saw riding across the Brooklyn Bridge, bleating at tourists in a voice like The Nanny’s: “bark lane, bark lane, you’re standing in a bark lane people, bark lane.” All she had to do was slow down, but a lane marking told her to bark.
It is the weekend, when from the comfort of my Barcelona Chair, sipping pinot noir, your beloved Dr Behooving develops a certain proclivity for generalisations. Shall we say then that driving and walking are broken as modes, and that the train and the bus are absolute hell, unless you’re a pickpocket. I’m glad we agree. And that just leaves cycling.
So enough of this pandering to pedestrians now. In a billion years time, our descendants will have evolved into centaurs in any case—centaurs with wheels—so why not start building for that day right now?
This nonsense of slowing down as we come to the sharp corners of buildings, it has persisted too long! Architects have known how to round off the corners of buildings since, well, the Coliseum, so I have no idea really why right angle corners on buildings persist as the norm. Let’s take a cue, shall we, from the right honorable Rob Maver, a student of mine (as I am a student of his) who suggests we simply round off our ground floors and reserve the hard angles we insist we must have for our furniture, for upper levels of buildings, away from the street.
I’m sorry, I know I have been depriving both you and Google’s spiders of text on the web to trawl for no reason, but I have simply been too busy to think about blog posts. For starters, my new Tacx software has arrived, with artificial intelligence competitors ready to race at my whim. And compared to triathletes, and indeed a few roadies I’ve know in my time, these A.I. scallywags really aren’t bad.
I have also been busily preparing papers and talks for this symposium in Seattle and this night about bikes in New York. If I could stop thinking for a moment about what it will be like when we are centaurs with wheels, I might be able to focus on preparing something to say that my audiences will thank me for, and tell me, “thank you for that very practical advice.” But I actually think designing cities and buildings for centaurs with wheels is very practical, more practical than any of the schemes you’ll hear others promoting for taking back lane space from cars. Okay, so I’m generalising, and with this second glass of wine in my hand, generally believe I am right. And I think Rob’s on the right track as well.
You would have heard that theory that we are just avatars in one of our descendants’ millions of computer models of the ye-olde days, that they visit as tourists. Clearly I have been programmed to give them a perfect image of gentlemanhood when steeped within bicycling subcultures.
My new jumper and beanie from culturecycle.org
It is just past dinner time and already I’m agonising about to wear for my commute tomorrow. This morning I chose my racing shoes, Rapha jeans and shirt, and my jumper and beanie from Culture Cycle, the later bedazzling those drivers on my way home tonight. I’m not sure why our descendants had to include such an oversupply of drivers in this particular model in which we reside. Perhaps to have fun with in first-person shooter games.
When I don’t feel I’ve received the attention I deserve for my knitwear and highly collectible Colnago from 1984 with new leather grip tape and pantogram chainrings, I ask colleagues and students to photograph me, on the pretence that I need a few photos for a blog post.
Seriously though, if you are not carefully honing a range of outfits with an equally formidable range of dream bikes, then seriously, you may as well hide your commute in a car. With Winter now upon us, it is time to take a look in the mirror, and just sharpen the pencil.
As one of the few cities I’ve ever lived in long enough to require a non-tourist Visa, or enrol my children in school, I have a sense about how things could play out in New York, when their citi-bike scheme has had time to shake down.
I’ll be there in a month to welcome an envoy of riders from New London Architecture with a talk at a special event at the American Institute of Architects Centre in Greenwich Village.
As exciting as that promises to be, given I wrote the book on biking for architects, I’m equally thrilled that I will be in New York during citi-bike’s first tumultuous month. This is a big deal—bigger than Bloomberg’s cycle tracks, or his transformation of Times Square. Those are fixtures, visible from the tiniest percentage of the whole city. These blue bikes are mobile so will be seen everywhere—including places where bike haters will object to them being. It is inevitable they will start salmoning against traffic on New York’s one-way streets, or, to avoid cars, start taking to sidewalks.
Across New York we are about to hear the nonsense screams of bike haters, and rule-lovers alike, directed at citi-bike riders. If the alternative is looping the block to backtrack a few yards because a sign reads “one-way”, I’m sure most city-bike riders will choose the abuse. I know I certainly would. I’ve recently helped supervise a permeability mapping study of another city, that revealed how damaging one-way streets are for bike transport, especially when bikes are banned from the sidewalk.
At the same time as citi-bike riders are being yelled at, they themselves will be yelling, all along the length of New York’s sacred cycle tracks. Those tracks are about to have thousands more riders acting for them as people-ploughs, sweeping pedestrians from bike-only turf.
And boy, can cyclists be effective at sweeping! If you accidentally step into motorised traffic, drivers will brake if they can, and probably look rather panicked. I accidentally stepped backwards with my bike onto the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway two years back, and was roared at by cyclists who would sooner have broken all of our collarbones than dream about braking.
Janette Sadik-Khan in the wrong city
In some ways I’m a little surprised New York has taken so much advice about cycling from Copenhagen, with its network of designated bike tracks. The vibe of New York is not really all that Scandinavian. I mean, where is New York’s Little Denmark?
They do have a Little Italy though. And what does every corner shop sell? Pizza! There are hardly so many joints that sell Danish pastries. And who do you New Yorkers remind you of when they wave their arms while they’re talking? They remind me of Italians. Meanwhile, the closest thing the Danes have to gesticulation is the precise code of hand signals they use when they’re cycling. Otherwise, they’re struggling to move their arms on the dance floor. Just ask Mikael (pictured above) about the night I waved my arms on a dance floor in Denmark, and not a single thrill seeker could be flushed from the crowd to join with some 80s rap moves, that I can guarantee have thrilled ladies in every other country I’ve been to.
So I’m asking, what hope does the lane-abiding, hand signalling, box-turning, bike culture of Lutheranism’s ultimate welfare state, have in New York? Perhaps Protestant bike culture could have taken hold while the city’s cyclists all owned their own bikes, and prided themselves on knowing how to make time on the gridiron. But now that every New Yorker has access to wheels, the city’s Italian genetics seem set to shine through, with Italian-style cycling. (So glad my Danish friend’s book has been released just in time in Italian.)
Bikes are integral to the functioning of central Ferrara, Milan, Modena, Ravenna, and increasing Florence as the vehicular exclusion zone expands from the centre. Urban cyclists in Italy have no need for bike lanes drawn on their cobbles, or left turning bike boxes. Neither do delivery van drivers expect to find car lanes. And pedestrians certainly don’t care if there are sidewalks. In areas with population densities comparable to many parts of Manhattan’s, the imposition of order would hinder, not help, the viscosity of mixed modal traffic. One style of cobble extends from the doorsteps on one side of the street to the other.
You quickly learn to cycle with the occasional squeeze of the brakes, or a gracious tinkle of your bike bell. As for frightening pedestrians or being yelled at by them: the idea is totally foreign. Removing everyone’s sense of entitlement to public space, means everyone shares.
I’m not saying anything the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman didn’t say too. Jane Jacobs also remarked on the gracious way cars would share streets with kids playing ball games back in the fifties. So I wonder how it could happen that I’m the only one saying this kind of thing now, as New York prepares for unprecedented bickering over who can go where, when and how.
The well-meaning rule makers—like whoever at Slate wrote the “10-point resolution to end the decades-long conflict between walkers and bikers”— remind me of Cartman from Southpark when his bossiness left him with no-one to play with, except his soft toys.
How did America come to this conclusion that bikes need their own lanes, even when there is no traffic from which they need shielding? Two things occurred. Urban theorists of the sixties—Lynch, Cullen, those guys—spoke and wrote of pedestrians as though they were sacred cows. That would have been fine, had it not been for the Vehicular Cyclists, led by John Forrester, succeeding in having bikes classified along with motorised vehicles. In countries like Italy, cyclists retained their pedestrian status.
While ever it was only a few New Yorkers who owned their bikes who were doing all of that city’s riding, that charade was allowed to continue. Now that anyone can grab a bike for a buck, the natural order that Italians kept hold of, seems destined to return to New York.
Then what? In no particular order, I think the one-way street system will eventually topple; the whole width of trial streets (maybe Bleecker) will be cobbled and have bollards to stop cars from entering; on-street parking will be phased out; and in some utopian future, Americans will let people ride bikes inside buildings.
Two problems with Le Corbusier’s idea of towers in a park: 1. the parks became car parks, and 2. walking in parks is so bloody boring! I mean, seriously, once your kite has been ruined and your helium balloon has gone down, where is the fun? Only two parks spring to mind that bring me joy, and those are Central Park in New York and Centennial Park Sydney, both because they are set up for lapping or crossing by bike.
If Corbusian towers all hovered above parks like Central or Centennial Parks, that gathered up the main cycle routes in their cities, and coiled them into a velodrome, then perhaps I’d be swayed. Actually I’m describing the park beneath my student Amy Pedder’s proposal for Launceston. In briefest summary, it is a Corbusian slab-block looking upon a bicycle park. Note the cross-over apartments in the section below:
Note too the bike canopies made from photovoltaic panels. If as a species we stopped spending public money on driving, but invested in active transportation instead, it would only be a few decades before all the world’s bike routes had canopies that doubled as power plants.
My students and I are just going to keep putting ideas like these out there, and leave it to people to decide how they would rather live.