A guest post by architect and researcher Rafael Upcroft:
My father calls me a hedonist and to a certain degree I agree with him. His view stems from observing my life philosophy in action, which is: maximise the times in life where the most enjoyable path coincides with the path of least resistance. It is probably not a surprise to learn then that my interests lie in designing the potential for enjoyment into everyday environments. My passion however, is cycling and it grieves me to see so many missed design opportunities for enjoyment on my everyday commute.
The most obvious missed opportunity, because I am continuously aware of it throughout every commute, is the lack of engagement with the ground plane. I concede that this ‘oversight’ is reasonable in busy cities where there are many dangers and external visual stimuli, as in Copenhagen…
…but for longer interurban commutes with more than 1km between points of interest, such as those that I encounter on a daily basis in Australia, it is far less palatable.
Conventional transit wisdom dictates that the ground plane should be ironed as flat as possible to create a path of least resistance between destination points for commuters. But what if a path form that allowed the rider to generate speed with less energy use were more enjoyable, and no more arduous than a conventional flat path? What if there was a form that resonated with my life philosophy, a form that could meld the most enjoyable path with the path of least resistance? With further research such a form could exist and be incorporated into future bike paths.
My starting point and inspiration is the unassuming ‘pump track’. For the uninitiated, this format of bike track is designed to enable a rider to build speed purely by ‘pumping’ the body up and down without pedalling. It works in a similar manner to generating speed with a skateboard in a bowl or when surfing on a wave. The idea is that when a cyclist ascends a ‘roller’ (the raised portions of the pump track) they reduce their weight by springing upwards and when they descend the other side they increase their weight by pushing the bike down with their legs. This results in a resultant weight that is greater going down the roller than up, causing the rider to increase their speed. Mountain Bikers have recently discovered the benefits of practicing on pump tracks as it helps them maintain and generate speed with less energy usage on cross country as well as down-hill courses.
Transferring desirable pump track geometry directly to a transit path will not necessarily yield a more enjoyable path as transit bikes have different handling and the riders are not as accustomed to rollers as mountain bikers and BMX riders. However, I am interested in understanding whether certain frequencies and amplitudes of smooth sine wave shaped path forms (akin to those on a pump track) could be more enjoyable without being more arduous than flat transit paths for a range of cyclists. Testing such a query is difficult, especially in the real world. It is not possible to capture a cyclist engaged in transit, expose them to a range of different path forms, and then definitively surmise that changes in their enjoyment and exertion levels are due to the path form and not some other external factor like the weather.
Many gaming laboratories and research institutes have been developing bicycle simulators for both fun (see mountain bike simulator below) and research into cyclists’ perceptions and negotiations of intersections (see NHTV simulator below). A virtual environment not only provides the opportunity for repeatable experiments for a range of participants but it also permits the isolation of path form from other stimuli and will provide me with the ability to manipulate and play with the frequency and amplitude of path forms. The virtual environment will also accommodate testing of a range of diverse bikes such as cargo bikes and road bikes with different handling characteristics and wheelbases.
Watch this space for updates on my research, which will be focusing on playing around with path forms over the coming months.