Social media lets us map trends. One of the big trends of recent years, with implications for architecture and urban design, has been the appearance of bicycles underneath people who are not dressed for cycling, but who are dressed for wherever they’re going. Wow! Bikes being used the way we use buses or cars, not the way we use sporting equipment. And this is a fashion? Evidently, yes. It has been called cycle-chic. It has been traced to a blogger, now an urban consultant, in Copenhagen. And it is spreading via the world’s biggest, most prosperous cities.
We can guestimate why. These are cities that have had high rates of car use and large populations, a recipe that spells pollution and traffic congestion. They are cities with high proportions of singles, who like squeezing lots of quick social engagements into their day. These are people who often have trouble setting aside time for exercise, but who are nonetheless keen to stay trim and fit. It’s also a demographic that wants to be demonstratively green. Bicycle transport answers a lot of their needs.
I’m interested in the fashionableness of bicycle transport because I’m in a kind of a fashion racket myself: teaching students how to design fashionable buildings. While many fashions don’t influence architecture (thankfully most seventies buildings didn’t have flairs)…
…fashions in transport most certainly do. Transport impacts the way people arrive at and enter their buildings, how they experience buildings while moving, and the routes along which they want to find buildings sited.
Bicycle transport is the most important fashion for architecture and urban planning since the nineteen sixties when progressive thinkers were focused on the experience of walking in cities, or before that the twenties, when avant guard architects started photographing their buildings with these strange new machines, cars, in the foreground.
Driving may have been the progressive intellectual fashion of the 1920s and 30s, but it would take a few decades before cities were changed to suit cars. There was a lag too, between intellectuals like Guy Debord in France, Jane Jacobs in the US, or Gordon Cullen in the UK, writing books about walking and cities, and the actual creation of malls and waterfront districts, designed primarily for the pedestrian. The failure of driving marked the time to start theorising the role of walking in cities, and now the shortcomings of walking mark the time to theorise cycling.
Bikes are in vogue because driving condemns us to traffic jams and colour coded car parking stations, and walking is too limiting without the aid either of disorienting train trips, or being trapped in that rocking asylum, the bus.
Bikes are in vogue because driving has been a disaster (we know that) but also because walking is too limiting without the aid either of disorienting train trips, or being trapped in those rocking asylums called buses.
Bikes redeem cities that work neither for walking, or driving. They give us the mobility that driving affords, with the access that walking allows us. It’s interesting that these circumstances have led to to a bike craze, rather than a craze for motorised scooters.
I think that’s because motorised scooters don’t give people the access to two exiting new kinds of civc space: waterfront promenades on former docklands; and greenways along former rail lines. These designated pedestrian spaces came about because ports shirted to deeper water, and manufacturing went further afield, right when architects and planners were all agreeing that they wanted to create pedestrianised zones.
Because they were focused on walking, it didn’t even occur to planners and architects that they were making parallel cities, ideally suited to cycling. Stripes of land that all linked up in the industrial age, so that commodities could be moved around and turned into products, are becoming networks for the flow of yuppies on bikes, meeting up and manufacturing knowledge. With the opportunity to have more coffee dates and more chance encounters, and with all the money they might have spent on transportation still in their pockets, yuppies on bikes are a clear sign of a healthy knowledge economy. It’s just an elegant coincidence that the physical scars of the industrial revolution have left the makers of the knowledge economy an ideal network by which to navigate their cities by bike.
What is really exiting about the plain clothed bicycling fashion, for architects, is that it is centred around land that has brought us most of our work since the eighties.