Primitive condition for cyclists in every nation.

1273255559I spoke about bicycle transport to a Lions Club meeting this week. It is nice to know you don’t have to go all the way to North Korea to experience strange costumes and salutations. We have them right here in our midsts, gathering in community halls on any weeknight.

But of course weirdness happens in bike planning meetings as well. We have our own jargon and costumes. That makes The Lions and Bike User Groups (BUGs) about equal. Except I doubt too many BUGs would invite a guest with no interest in cycling to speak from their point of view, as the Lions invited me to speak recently. They listened attentively. They asked genuine questions. They even bought me a roast dinner!

Okay, we're weirdos too

Okay, we’re weirdos too

Speaking to a community group with no particular interest in cycling, helped me realise something as well, that talking about bike infrastructure to non-cycling Australians is like talking about electricity infrastructure to the Nepalese (who count themselves lucky if the lights come on for a few hours a day), or asking New Guinean highlanders to back you in your push for fibre optic broadband connections to every longhouse, or trying to sell toilets in Port-au-Prince (a Haitian city without any sewers). It is impossible to even have a public debate about bike infrastructure, in a country where people gave up hoping for safe cycling routes before many people living can even remember. We have gotten used to having no bike infrastructure, the way Haitians have gotten used to dying from cholera.

But is there anywhere I could go and have a sensible conversation about bike infrastructure? (When I say “infrastructure”, I mean something a city depends on, that could not be interrupted without every business having to close until that infrastructure has been restored.)

tumblr_mc96osMGcU1rvz35i1It might be possible have such a conversation, in hypothetical terms, in New York, where there have been instances (like this) of snow being cleared from cycle tracks even more promptly than roads. Still though, I worry that New York’s cycle tracks have been built from the same motives as the High Line, in other words with a focus on liveability, as opposed to core business. Bloomberg calls it his “virtuous cycle” of civic investment (explained beautifully here).

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We see lots of photos of cyclists pressing through blizzards in Copenhagen, where half of all commuters can’t suddenly switch mode just because of the weather. But where are the roofs to protect cyclists, as bus and train riders have roofs to protect them? Buses and trains are like bicycle transport’s evil step sisters. We get to be Cinderella.

SA704319-724355There is nowhere in the world where I can go and have an intelligent conversation about bike infrastructure, as I imagine bike infrastructure could and should be. Last year in the Netherlands people thought I was joking when I said major bike routes aught to be covered. I was given that old tired line about there being no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. I said, you don’t expect drivers of convertibles to ride around with the top down, wearing a raincoat.

I’m like you. I enjoy riding in the rain. But let’s face it, you and I are unusual. In any city where people have the option of cycling or driving (Rotterdam, Portland, Berlin, and Milan, for example) the vast majority go for the modes that keep them dry. The only cities where bikes outnumber the others are those where transit is limited and there is very little car parking.

I was very impressed by one lady at the Lion’s club meeting (a Lioness, I suppose), who told me she discovered cycling when growing up in South Africa. Trade sanctions on oil meant most South Africans cycled. Her suggestion was that Australia be even more offensive to the international community that we already are (I presume she was alluding to our treatment of refugees, or maybe our indigenous population). Isolation would get us all cycling again.

As much as I adore an absurd proposition, I have grown disinterested in any idea to incentivise cycling by discouraging driving: political pie in the sky nonsense. I’m interested in creative suggestions to incentivise cycling, without hurting driving. Even in Denmark and Holland there are regions where almost everyone drives, because they can drive, and where the inconveniences that surround cycling mean it has the smallest slice of the transport mode share. Meanwhile, in Australian and American cities, we can see bicycle planners have an impossible task if this mode is ever to be viewed as essential to the life of a city, and not just a bonus, like a few hours of light in Nepal, or somewhere to shit in Port-au-Prince.

primitive conditions for cyclists

It’s time we stopped glorifying cycling in the snow and the rain. To most impartial observers, an uncovered bike route is about as seductive as an uncovered sewer.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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8 Responses to Primitive condition for cyclists in every nation.

  1. Graham Roe says:

    Sorry I’m with your dutch friends, covered bike paths is a bad idea. I’d give up cycling if it was inside a parking garage, ugly. But out side beside meadows and trees, beautiful. Just keep the asphault jungle at bay.

    If you want a roof over your head, design yourself a covered bicycle.

    • Steven says:

      The life of genius is lonely.

    • Steven says:

      I wouldn’t expect a keen cyclist to understand why most people drive.

    • crank says:

      Totally on board. While living in NYC (yep, West side greenway awesomely cleared of snow as a priority! :-) I would often subway on bad days – wet & sticky road muck doesn’t suit folding bikes so well. The 1 train is never very busy to downtown.

      Now in Melbourne, I will always ride in the rain, partly because I’m unusual (and have the right clothing) but mainly because trams are hot, humid, smelly, crowded and…. just _blargh_ on rainy days. Even radical ideas like this would cost a lot less than major road constructions, but imagine how many people it could engage to keep cycling regardless of weather? It makes me think of the escalator system in Hong Kong. That is some remarkable pedestrian infrastructure. I could always make the office tidy and dry regardless of what was going on up above. Suppose you could easily maintain 60% or more of traffic on bike at all times. Space would be much better provisioned on a human scale (better use of area per human) – major carriageways could easily accommodate covered paths.

      Even incremental changes would be interesting to assess, for instance, having covered ‘bike boxes’ at traffic lights – that’s when I most dislike rain: when stationary. Far more costly, but imagine tunneling underground bike routes when building future subways. Imagine how fast you could get across the city if you had (a) no traffic lights, and (b) could just ride through everything :) No weather except for possible last 100m. Killer rats might be a negative, though.

  2. Bec S says:

    I like bikes enough to try to rally 100+ design professionals and citizens to talk about them more, but haaate riding in the rain. Mind you, a nice cosy tram for those rainy days could suffice. Or being allowed to stay home and skype in for meetings. Not sure about long covered paths – is that recalling perhaps a bit of “googie” aesthetic..? http://www.spaceagecity.com/googie/

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