If you haven’t read my blog in a while (or ever), the last few posts explain my decision to work within the literary genre of Utopian writing. New paradigms in urban planning have always been precipitated by Utopian visions. It is unimaginable that such a thing as a purpose built bicycle city could even come into existence without some kind of a fantasy about an unattainable no-place/happy-place called Velotopia. While it would only ever be a touchstone notion, we will never know what we are working toward if we never properly nut out its details.
So far I’ve described it as a 15km diameter city with all encumbrances to bicycle transport cleared out of the way. The main premise underpinning this model is that a mum with her bub in a bakfiets, cruising at 15kph, can reach the centre from the outskirts of a 15km wide city in 30 minutes—time she could easily lose just faffing around parking lots or train stations in a city of the kind that we know already. She doesn’t need machines. She needs machines out of her way.
Like a cow in New Delhi, or someone sailing a yacht on a harbour, or an ignorant driver in just about any car-centric city, she can remain blissfully unaware of the design and regulatory efforts laid down by others to ensure her beeline journey by bike. Yet in Velotopia there are machines that have motors that move: ambulances to rush to her aid, fire engines to save her apartment, buses for when she can’t cycle, cement mixers and cranes to provide new buildings for her to occupy, garbage trucks removing her rubbish, and trucks to stock the big supermarket she regularly heads to for the cheapest prices on groceries. What design strokes have allowed her to remain oblivious to all these machines that could easily crush her? You’re probably imagining a parallel network of service roads.
Most of us have some experience of heterotopias that create the illusion of a non-vehicular environment. Main Street USA in Disneyland is an extreme example. Most visitors do, however, realise that a back-of-house network of utility corridors accommodates all manner of vehicles collecting the rubbish and stocking the shops to create the illusion of bliss for park visitors. (Here’s a video)
Ironically, it can be those among us who would be the most vociferous in decrying the fakery of Disneyland, who can also be the most prone to self deception when we place ourselves in another kind of heterotopic space, that of the cycleway network. Canonical examples are new towns like Houten in the Netherlands and Milton Keynes in the U.K, where the provision of cycleways is so thorough it can be hard to discern whether houses front cycleways and back onto roadways, or visa versa.
Post-industrial cities are accruing similar networks as their docklands are transformed into waterfront promenades and their rail corridors are turned into greenways. In Portland Oregon alternate streets are being traffic calmed and rebadged as “neighbourhood greenways” as another way of creating a bike-centric layer in a car-centric city.
Have we really transcended our dependence on motorised vehicles, and therefore stopped emitting carbon and stopped supporting conflicts in the gulf region, when we reorient our lives to networks like these? Or are we as dependent as any visitor to Disneyland upon movements of machines using networks of roads we have conveniently cropped from our view?
The problem with ancillary space in buildings and cities is how quickly it fills. There were questions around the apparent over generosity of service spaces in Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Building at the time it was built. By the time Kahn got his next laboratory to design for Jonas Salk, the hollow pipe towers and interstitial ceiling spaces in the Richards Medical Building were so choked with pipes—that the users had kept adding without taking old pipes away—that Kahn slotted whole levels of service pipe space between every level of lab space at the Salk Institute. These are now completely choked too.
A person living a bicycling lifestyle, oriented to a network of greenways, can easily fool themselves into thinking they are generating fewer vehicular movements than they were before they gave up their car, when in all likelihood they are now having more things delivered and more things taken away by machines. It is likely as well that some of the fortune they are saving by not owning a car is being spent on services that generate vehicular movements which they, as consumers, have no way of tracking. Just as we have to assume that goods manufactured for us elsewhere generate more waste and pollution than items we make for ourselves, it is reasonable to suspect inefficiencies on the grey side of the fence when we choose to live on the green side.
Speaking from my own selfish point of view as someone who enjoys keeping fit and saving money, I can’t say I’m bothered by all the vehicular movements on streets designated for cars. I can find a comprehensive enough network of non-vehicular corridors in just about any city to find a life there. And even if they never use it, I’m sure most people living in a city with some sort of network of greenways would appreciate knowing that network is there.
But is this why cities invest in bike infrastructure? Is it really just for the same reason they build public pools, so checklists of amenities may be ticked off by prospective new residents?
Bike infrastructure is not a quality of life amenity like public pools or local tennis courts. It is also meant to reduce air pollution and greenhouse emissions, the consumption of non-renewable fuels, and sedentariness across all sectors of the population. How do we know it’s not just a plaything for yuppies? How do we know, for example, that Houten’s 40% bike modal share (a measure of how people travel to work) doesn’t disguise dozens of motorised trips every day by each of the thousands of people working in lowly paid service jobs? Hypothetically, a ten-fold increase in delivery truck movements, and vehicles driven by cleaners, gardeners, tradesmen and so forth, would not change the mode-share at all, or make cycling any less pleasant since it happens on different streets.
In Velotopia, cranes, cement mixers, the trucks that stock supermarket, ambulances, fire engines, garbage trucks and buses occupy the same space as cyclists. For Velotopians, the occasional sighting of a motorised vehicle is a welcome relief from the relentless flow of nothing other than bikes. Because there is not a hidden grey layer for cars and vans, it is prohibited in Velotopia for tradespeople, couriers, or people in service industries to use motorised vans. They all use cargo bikes. Likewise, there are no motorised taxies, just pedicabs. Velotopia has no hidden layer for hiding car use, so car use has to be thoroughly bridled.