Reorienting Transit Disoriented Development (Part 2)

I argued in Part 1 of this essay that even the greenest of buildings waste energy if they rely on cars for transportation, and reminded how eCars—even if they were powered by renewable sources—would nonetheless do social and ecological damage. That said, we can’t simply ban development that is not within walking distance of frequent public transport. There are bound to be exceptions.

Trial Bay House, TAS, HBV Architects

Buildings that provide an escape from the city serve a perennial human desire. They are also perennial favourites of architectural writers and awards panels, for the inspiration they can provide. Mario Botta, Glenn Murcutt, Peter Zumthor, and even Mies van der Rohe, delight us with their architectural responses to landscapes.

Kapelle Santa Maria degli Angeli, Mario Botta

It is worth noting though, that the emotive power of buildings like these can be underlined by restricting car access. The experience of visiting Mario Botta’s Santa Maria degli Angeli Chapel in Switzerland is dramatised by the cable car journey from the valley below—or the long walk, if you get there after the cable car shuts for the day.

We should note too that the banality of accessing landscapes with cars, is a modern affliction. A century ago, people had a range of low impact modes for leaving cities, involving horses, trains, walking, waterways and bicycle riding. William Gilpin’s idea of The Picturesque, which is at the heart of anglocentric sensibilities concerning architecture and landscape, was formulated as he slowly wound his way through the countryside in a boat.

The invention of the chain driven “safety bicycle” in the late 1800s triggered the world’s first bicycling craze. Newly macadamised roads out of cities attracted so many middle class cyclists, that in many places special lodgings were built to capture their trade. Many of those old roads into cities have since been widened for 6 lanes of cars and would be considered treacherous places for cycling, today.

But that doesn’t mean people aren’t cycling these days, or even that they’re taking their loves in the hands, horn-locking with cars. If we ignore media beat-ups concerning flash-points of conflict with cars (Beach Road Melbourne, or the Bourke Street or Park Slope Bike lanes in Sydney and New York), and look to off-road routes along Melbourne’s waterfront and former rail easements, for instance, or Sydney’s parks, or the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, we see cycling is thriving. It’s just thriving in places where drivers don’t see it, and where the media can’t find a story.

The old rail and waterway routes that connected port and manufacturing cities to resources brought in from the country, are in many cites evolving into networks of green arteries that cyclists can use to get out of the city.

In my first book on cycling, due for release in October with the Netherlands Architecture Institute Publishers, I write about a brownfield-to-bikefield phenomenon, and discuss ways this can give us big picture appreciation of urban renewal. In my own city, Newcastle, I used it to identify a possible active transport loop following creeks, that would connect the loose ends of bike routes stretching out to the suburbs. It passes ovals and schools, all coloured green in the image above. It also intersects disused and contaminated industrial sites, that could be redeveloped with less parking, as though the bike route were a light rail route, if we open our minds to the fact that bicycles are actually transport.

Hopworks Bike Bar on a bike friendly Nth Williams Ave. in Portland OR

The space most of us seek when we’re cycling is as far removed from that which we know as car drivers, as we can achieve. In the broadest sense, it is a space with its own nascent economy, of bicycle tourism and cycling fashions, for instance. It also has nascent development trends. Bike routes in Portland are attracting bike themed bars and cafes. Buildings lining The Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis have main entries onto the greenway, instead of the street. In a rare acknowledgement of bicycling as actual transport, land flanking The Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis was rezoned in 2007, to permit higher densities and developments with fewer car spaces.

The principle of Bicycle Oriented Development (BOD) deserves formal recognition, and actually has some advantages over the well established principle of Transit Oriented Development (TOD). To start with, much of the software for BODs—i.e., the bikes people will use for their travel—has already been purchased. From household travel survey data, we can estimate Australians own 6 billion dollars worth of operational cycling equipment, ostensibly mothballed while they governments slowly finish the hardware, meaning: more bike paths and protected bike lanes.

Cyclists are insinuated in the street life of the city in like manner to pedestrians, yet can be spread out in like manner to cars. That means our streets are safer the more we fill them with bikes. Cycling beats transit by having are flexible, rhizome order: you go where you want, when you want, and find ways around if the way you were planning is blocked. For governments it’s great, because it can be invested in one bit at time, and each bit will have an effect. You can’t do that with a train line.

But we do need governments to act far more quickly on bike paths than they have been so so. Problems like childhood obesity, the long term effects of sedentary lifestyles, peak oil, congestion, and of course global warming, lend a sense of urgency to implementation of bike transit plans. With protected bike lanes in cities and planned routes in the countryside, the Dutch have raised their bike modal share to roughly one third of all trips. In Australia—even its flat parts—only 1% of our trips are by bike, largely because safe networks of bike paths haven’t been built.

It is time to think back to the Bauhaus and Villa Savoye, and recognise Architects’ capacity to inspire society with a new vision of the good life, that relies on a new mode of travel.

Part 3 of this essay will look at a range of recent architectural projects—some built and some not—that envision a near future far more invested in cycling. We’ll also look at architects who show their interest in cycling by designing unique bikes, a phenomenon that reminds us of Le Corbusier’s time spent designing the Voiture Minimum. Le Corbusier also promoted driving by photographing his Voisin in front of his houses, a practice that also has a modern day equivalent among certain pro-cycling architects.

Eben Weiss, Bike Snob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling, Chronicle Books, 2010.

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