All over the world more people are using bicycles for commuting, shopping, school trips and other things they might previously have used a car or public transport to do. Leading this is a governmental push for bike infrastructure, principally as a response to traffic congestion but also to morbid illness, the lifestyle demands of the urban elite, and global warming.
What does that matter to architects? Well, you only have to look at the parking stations and freestanding houses of the post WW2 era, or the office towers that followed the construction of Grand Central Station in New York, to see that whenever a city’s mobility platform is altered, building work follows.
You can get a quick snapshot of the bike shops, bike parking solutions, linear parks, and infrastructure projects that architects have so far been asked to design for bike transport from Gavin Blyth’s book Velo-City: Architecture for Bikes, or before that my own book.
These days I’m more interested in the kinds of projects that clients haven’t thought to request. The only things they have been requesting thus far are solutions to problems: places to stash bikes when they see bikes piled up around stations; ways to get bricks and mortar shop customers to pay top dollar for bikes when bikes are much cheaper online; ways to get cyclists out of the way of automobiles, for example with flyovers and bicycle viaducts. While many are nice, all in some sense are just band-aid solutions.
A building is a band-aid when it doesn’t contribute to a grand scheme. Every shopping centre surrounded by parking, every tower built over basement car parking and every house in the suburbs with a double garage contributes to a particular grand scheme (albeit completely outmoded). Frank Lloyd Wright called it Broadacre. Norman Bel Geddes and General Motors called it their Futurama exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Today we might call it L.A. or Dallas-Fort Worth. It is the idea that we should take advantage of freeways and cars to spread out while avoiding the inherent problem of vehicular congestion by not creating centres that we’re likely to all try to get to at once.
Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is another grand scheme—though I like to call it by its original name, the Garden City of Tomorrow. The row houses that gathered around London’s new train stations in the late eighteen hundreds contribute to that grand scheme, as do modern apartment blocks with less than the normal quota of off-street car parking spaces by virtue of their proximity to railway stations or tram lines.
There seem to be three grand schemes that cycling can be seen as a part of. First, there’s the Dutch model. To understand it you have to think of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and the Hague as four major boroughs of the one city; a city with farms separating the boroughs.
In such a spread out “city” or conurbation as the Netherlands (the region I’m referring to is actually called Randstad) the daily commute can be quite a mission. Consider a university student living in Amsterdam but attending lectures in Utrecht. Their journey would start with a bike ride from their home to Amsterdam’s central station. Step two: lock the bike somewhere and go wait for a train. Steps three and four: ride the train and collect the bike you keep chained near the station in Utrecht. Step five: ride to the university on the outskirts of Utrecht, lock your bike and walk in.
As you might imagine, it is a model that requires the construction of a lot of bike parking space around major train stations, something the Netherlands has only started to properly address in the past decade. Bike parking at homes and destinations is not such an issue. The compactness and flatness of what I’m calling their “boroughs” (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, etc.), lets the Dutch ride heavy clunkers that can be chained up outside because no one, really, would ever steal them.
What we’re looking at in the Netherlands is a transit oriented conurbation with lessons for large transit oriented cities like Tokyo, London or Singapore. In these contexts the bike can be seen as a kind of a horse and we should remember too that the streets and the buildings were built in the time of the horse also.
How much work is there for architects to do in these contexts? Not a whole lot. There will be some work beautifying pedestrian bridges, putting bike basements under the stations and providing attractive bike parking around gathering places like theatres. We can also be the ones explaining the grand scheme and its history to people who just see the consequences under their noses.
I’ve just described a context where the bike is a non-shitting horse or a fast way to walk. In cities that ballooned in the age of the car, when the Broadacre vision was the grand scheme, we have little choice but to think of the bike as a slow and vulnerable alternative to the motorised vehicle, one mostly chosen by people who are conscious of their health and/or global warming. In car-land you will hear them referring to the bike as a kind of “vehicle”. You will see them taking rider training courses to learn the doomed art of vehicular cycling. If they can afford to, many will spend as much on a bike as they would on a car.
Architects can assist cyclists in car cities by providing secure parking for their beautiful bikes, showers for when they arrive at work sweaty, and some visionary planning joining backstreets to parklands to waterways and some rail trails to keep cyclists safe from car traffic. What we can’t do is give cyclists access to all of the jobs in car centric city if it has a population measured in millions. I’m talking about cities that can stretch over fifty kilometres in every direction. Cities in that population category—if they are car-centric—leave most cyclists stranded in their own little quarters.
Among cities with many millions of people (and remember these are the ones that people are most attracted to to earn money) New York is a notable exception. It is compact. It is dense enough that millions of people can live within bicycling range of millions of jobs. It hints at a third and final grand scheme that I’m on the case to invent.
Even if you include Central Park and low rise sections like Greenwich Village, Manhattan houses 30,000 people per square kilometre. A hypothetical city that dense, of a bikeable size (say, 15km across) could house the whole population of Singapore, Randstad or Dallas-Forth Worth. If the citizens of this hypothetical city could ride as the crow flies the average distance between any two randomly selected points—in other words any home and any job—would be 6.79km (check here for the maths). At 15kph that’s a 27 minute ride. If you consider that I have just assumed people would not have to give preference to jobs on their own side of town but would be just as happy to work anywhere in the city, then I have just quoted an average commute time that smashes other big cities out of the water!
So could New York be a template for a new kind of bike centric city? Almost. But it would need at least two main modifications.
First, the building stock would need to be far more accommodating of bikes. Apartments with six flights of stairs or minuscule lifts force people to leave their bikes on the street, which would be fine if we weren’t talking about 30,000 people per square kilometre. Bikes are parked two deep on the street in little old Amsterdam, with just 6,000 people per square kilometre. They would be parked 12 deep in New York if everyone there had one or two bikes and tried to store them in the same manner.
Bike-share helps, but it is no silver bullet. You can’t carry much shopping or ride a CitiBike if you are a child.
The ideal solution to the home bike parking dilemma in such a dense city would be to build long rows of terrace houses, but to arrange them as coils winding 10 or 15 stories into the sky. I’ve been preoccupied conceiving such buildings for the past 18 months. Here is my collection of bike friendly housing block types:
I can also point to BIG’s 8-House in Copenhagen as an example of such a building that has already been built. Here’s my 40,000 view youtube clip where I ride down it:
The other main problem with New York as a model for a city of millions of people all buzzing quickly to work on their bikes, is New York’s impermeable street grid. The idea seems to have been to funnel pedestrians down the smallest number of avenues running North/South to guarantee the viability of the Avenues’ shops.
The shopkeepers would be the first to lose though if New Yorkers all swapped walking for cycling. The only shop keepers who would catch the bike riders’ attention as they sped by would be the ones with the corner locations. But then the cyclists would lose out as well. That impermeable grid would make them ride a lot further than the crow flies. A better kind of grid would be Barcelona’s…
…or better still the utterly permeable ground plane Le Corbusier imagined would follow from raising all buildings up on piloti.
With forecasts that the world’s population is set to double, questions about how to best weave bikes into horse-land, train-land or car-land pale in significance. The real question is whether a third grand scheme would be better for the billions who are about to need urban housing, or if the schemes we’ve inherited from the beginning of the twentieth-century are good enough. Considering the stakes (refugee crises, famine, and the climate spinning out of control), and bearing in mind that the oldest of our grand schemes only dates to around 1900, it would seem stupid to pass over the bike as a basis for city planning and architecture before we have sat down and imagined what such a city could do, and what it might look like.
That is what architects need to know about cycling, that with the right kind of buildings and cities around it, cycling could provide the grand scheme for most of the world’s urban space, the space that we need to have built by the end of this century.