Lessons for bike planning from Italo Calvino

Forget Copenhagen. I can draw you a picture of a real bicycling city, where riding in the weather is an option but most people would ride under roofs (like those of an airport) and they would ride on dry polished tiles with no friction. An undulating ground plane would help people speed up and slow down as they moved away from and back toward activity nodes. If they were walking or just wanted to ride their bikes slowly they would be able to move from node to node via bridges separated from the gravity-forced bicycling zones down below. I could draw you a city where every kind of building would be more sensible to ride in than walk in.

Below is a picture of how life might look from the gravity-fed bike plane below those pedestrians bridges, drawn by a student of mine, Charlotte Morton. Multi-helical spiralling apartment buildings are suspended above, but cyclists aren’t bothered by these. They are able to shoot under them at regular intervals as they make their way in a beeline to any point in the city without ever having to slow down or stop. The only place they would slow down is on top of those mounds where the cafes, shops and building entrances are to be found. No braking ever, you see!

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But how useful is this? About as useful as Copenhagen, I would suggest. If I were a mayor in charge of a nineteenth-century city like Copenhagen, that also had super-size perimeter blocks and therefore a limited number of streets to cope with all kinds of traffic at once, and if like Copenhagen my city hadn’t yet had parking shoehorned into every courtyard the way it has been in Australia, Copenhagen could be a ready-made pattern book. Lucky you Michael Bloomberg:

8th Avenue cycle track

It will be an equally fortunate leader who stumbles upon my model of a purpose-built bicycle city right when he has to house a million bike-lovers on a blank site. Come on Kim Jong! The children are crying for active transport.

萘辫沥篮, 家斥窜 措雀 曼籍

These singular visions can never be implemented with the kind of totalitarian clarity hinted at by the 4 second sound bites that we use to relay them. Of what use can they be then? What use is Mikael Colville-Andersen’s now famous idea (in bike circles, anyhow) of “Copenhaginizing” every city, or my idea of “purpose-building for bikes” on brownfields interconnected by disused rail corridors, or the London Cycling Campaign‘s  simple idea that if you “Love London [you will] Go-Dutch”? None are going to be rolled out like internet cables, or fluoride in water. A truly “best-practice” network of cycle tracks from Copenhagen won’t be best practice anymore when they land in car-centric city. For starters, car cities have dozens of busy driveway crossings on every block—that’s like an intersection every 5 seconds. As for the good chaps from the London Cycling Campaign, they will never have the voting majority needed to implement the liability laws that underpin Dutch cycling culture. As for me, I’ll never have a dictator.

The value of simple ideas, is they are heard. And if they are heard, they get to go into the mix of competing ideas, all with different weightings, depending on the politics, customs, geography and history of the city they’re heard in. We shouldn’t say the best ideas are the ones that shoot to the top of priorities listings, or that the worst ideas are those that sit at the bottom. Sometimes the worst ones shoot to the top, like the idea of London’s public works architects in the 60s to shift all building entrances to the level of “pedways“, or the idea that’s still at the top, that we need lots of freeways and parking. The measure of a great idea is how politely it coexists with, and works upon, all the other agendas there in the mix. Within those parameters, Copenhagenizing, Going-Dutch and Purpose Building for Bikes are 3 great ideas: clear, succinct, and implementable in proportion the weighting they’re given.

Invisible-Cities-by-Italo-Calvino-1972_

A great book to remind us that cities are stages for competing ideas is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I finally read it after believing I knew what it said for a year, based on a friend’s summary. Though her summary was right, it was great to get lost in the book and see for myself. It is a novel (I suppose—though there isn’t a plot) that falls into a monotonous but soothing rhythm, of seeing cities from one point of view, than another, on every page. Each point of view gets a new city name, as though each is a city all by itself. One is just plumbing. One is just corruption. One is just signage. One is just footings. I can’t tell you all 55 because, I’ll freely admit, I skipped about half. Assuming I didn’t skip one that was all about cycling, I would like to propose a 56th city, one all about cycling.

The tunnel vision implied accords well with my own way of habituating the cities I’ve lived in, or travel to often. Whether I’m here in Australia where hardly anyone uses a bike for their transport, or on one of my fairly frequent jaunts to Amsterdam or Rotterdam where lots of people ride bikes, in my mind it’s all much the same. I have a bike, so exist in a bicycling city. To be honest, I see more cars in those Dutch cities than I see in Australia. The bicycling cities within Australian cities are better hidden. They’re more “Invisible” — thank you Calvino. But that doesn’t make the bicycle cities less real, or less enjoyable. More restrictive, maybe, but then there’s nothing much on Main Street or in other suburbs that I want to see anyway. I’m quite happy with the parks and run-down industrial districts with their surprises that I encounter here on my cycle-space layer. It doesn’t make all that much difference to me that I only pass 5 or 10 other cyclists heading to work, where someone in Amsterdam might pass a few thousand. I’m happy that I see fewer cars, and no one on mopeds.

(This is an aside, but I’m dying to say, that it is legal to ride on the footpath in Tasmania. Given that is the custom, and since footpaths are virtually empty because everyone drives, I live in a city with 500km of separate bike infrastructure, not counting actual “cycleways”).

But back to Calvino. You read him and realise that a city has dozens of facets each true to its own logic and often constituting a whole world in itself. It’s a shame, I suppose, that a city of highways and drive-throughs is overlaid upon my fragile bicycling city here in Australia but it doesn’t effect me any more than the ecosystem of rats by the river, or the drug trade, or the dozens of churches.

The crisis of Modernist planning that came about in the sixties happened because their exponents thought they could cleanse every other idea with their own. There would have been no crisis at all if they had been content just to build a Modernist layer. Let’s Copenhagenize one street in every city, and let the idea spread from there if it’s a good one. Let’s go dutch with no helmets riding on footpaths. And let’s build for bikes at least once, because every building needs a concept of some sort.

2 Comments

  1. Colin says:

    Interesting that you talk about the different city layers coexisting with each other (though some are dominant), yet your brownfields-to-bikefields project is essentially not about layers but rather creating whole districts that are optimised for cyclists. A series of dense patches rather than a thin layer over the whole. Linked to each other, but cut off from everything else.

    To purposefully cut yourself off from the pulse of the society/economy seems likely to end in tumbleweeds (oops, mixed metaphor).

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