I’ve just returned from a month-long tour of historic centres in Italy, and as usual have been more impressed with the airports I passed through than the cities I was heading to visit. Confirmation that I am not the only one who likes airports more than old cities came yesterday when I saw the crowds of people hanging around the arrivals area at the airport in Rome. These are people who, like myself, decided they would rather spend the whole of their last day in Italy waiting for the check-in counter to open to take their luggage, than hang around at the Spanish Steps or Piazza Navona. The reason is obvious: the public realm of the airport is undercover, climate controlled and the underclasses are banished. Todays middle classes are just like ancient Rome’s privileged citizenry who preferred to spend their days in thermal bath complexes, protected from the rabble by gates, and protected from the elements by giant masonry roofs.
The public realm of the future will be privately owned, controlled, and for the “haves” rather than members of the labouring underclass, just as it has always been. Chirpy public spaces in Greenwich Village and Copenhagen create an illusion that there can be a public agora where the upper middle classes rub shoulders with the proletariate scum, by making sure there are no plebs to begin with. If they were genuinely public they would be filled with the North African copy-watch peddlers who chase the middle classes back to the airport from Rome.
I’m making this point on a bike blog, so my intelligent readers might be perfectly clear in their minds that bicycle advocacy has been hijacked by romantics, who conveniently make themselves identifiable to us by calling themselves “urbanists” and saying they are not interested in cycling per se, but in “better cities”. Their primary aim is improving property values in urban cores, by reengineering the streets to give preference to wealthy locals on bikes, and squeezing out the plebs who come to these spaces by car or on motor scooters. They’ll win when they have created the kind of genteel* space you find at the airport in their inner city neighbourhoods that they are trying to gentrify.
In my current frame of mind (jetlagged and battered by 3 weeks in the Schengen visa zone) I really could not give a hoot about the fate of the underclasses who we keep on standby with $2 umbrellas and/or parasols to sell us the moment we need one. So I’m not about undermine the romantics’ agenda. I would rather expand it. It is all well and good to see bikes being made part of the urban core gentrification agenda, but what about the other kinds heterotopian settings where middle class people gather in controlled settings, protected from bad weather and plebs? These include shopping malls, marinas, private beaches, museums, sport and leisure complexes, and nature reserves curated to deter plebs by banning things to their taste, like trail bikes, car-camping and dogs. Our health and wellbeing as privileged middle class snobs would be better if the places we frequent could be destinations for active transport as well.
How better to achieve that, than to connect these places with heterotopia-style bike routes? The blunt means would be to charge entrance fees to use bike routes, followed by security cameras and private guards to patrol them. The subtler way would be to load these routes with attractions appealing to bourgeois tastes (e.g. community gardens), while banning the use of scooters that appeal to the underclasses whose priorities are… (I’m looking for a polite word) let’s say, more “immediate”.