Toward a Critical Regionalist approach to bike planning

Driving always struck me as a very expensive way to get fat. As for life as a car-free pedestrian, I gave it a shot, first when I lived in Singapore and later when I lived in New York. What pedestrian advocates will never tell you is that life as a walker invariably leads to one thing:  public transport. I’m not sure which was worse, the spectre of crime on the train in New York, or the smell of Chinese, Malay and Indian cooking all mixed together on Singapore’s MRT. Headphones only work for your ears.

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This leaves the rational person with only one option, and that is to cycle.

I wish I was one hundred and twenty. If I were that old today, that means I would have been a boy in the 1800s when bicycles first ruled the road, then got to enjoy sixty good years of roads having very few cars. If you forget about wars and just think about bikes, you’ve got to envy those one hundred and twenty year olds. Anyone younger had to ride during, or was born after, the crack down. Using nothing much more than bribes for the pollies, car and oil companies were able to crack down on people moving in cities for free. It used to be that capitalists, if they wanted you to work in their factories, built you sanitary housing so you would not have to travel, or else confined their operations to a rail network leaving the roads for you to ride on in safety. The deal since the fifties has been that you, the worker, will buy your own house as far away from your work as you can be pushed, then pay five million layers of profiteers for the right to go anywhere. After depreciation, petrol, interest on car loans, insurance, government red tape, taxes for road wear and tear, spare parts, repairs and garaging… well, how could you possibly afford a coronary bypass for that heart you haven’t been using! If you are that person, you would think my earlier talk of one hundred and twenty year olds was some kind of left-of-field joke. You’ll be lucky to live longer than eighty, on a cocktail of thinners. 

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As an habitual cyclist, I can easily imagine living to one hundred and twenty. I’m forty six now, and feel as nimble and fit as I did as a boy. So long as none of these porky suckers run over me in their cars, I should be tossing a ball with my great grand son when I’m in my hundreds.

My work as a bicycle advocate is really just about increasing my odds of reaching that age. Of course, I could just move to Holland or Denmark. But cutting myself off from twenty million Australians who share my quirky culture and humour, seems pretty extreme. My less extreme move, has been from the grey network of roads to the cracks that exist in car-focused cities through which us cyclists are able to squeeze.  Those cracks can be found everywhere: beside storm water canals, beneath  electricity towers, along narrow routes where trains used to run, through parks and reserves, and beside beaches, harbours and rivers.

Had I never gone and hung out in Denmark or the Netherlands, where the whole city is yours as a cyclist, I might have been content just eking out a Morlock existence here in Australia. But no, I have it in my head that car cities can change. We all know they should change. I’m saying they can change.

We’ve seen how cities that are too crowded for residents all to have parking (New York, Paris, Copenhagen, Amsterdam etc.), have populations who support bikes. This has given rise to the vain hope that cities that do have ample parking will just follow suit. Right will beat might. Reason will triumph over prejudice. Pigs will fly too. Jan Gehl reports can be downloaded from the websites of every second local government website in the world. 99.999% of the recommendations therein have been completely ignored. Why? Because if your city has ample parking built in, then Copenhagen might as well be on Mars.

On Monday I had 3618 hits to my blog, ten times the usual count for one day, all thanks to a clip I embedded in a post explaining what many would call a standard dutch intersection. On Vimeo, that same clip is getting up to 30,000 views daily. Why has this video gone viral, when this Dutch made video, that is virtually the same, has only been shared among people who care about bikes? Basically, the new one doesn’t talk about Holland. It’s cruel, like Elvis not mentioning Chuck Berry, and being thought of by white folk as the inventor of rock-n’-roll. But had it not been for Elvis, rock-n’-roll may not have taken off like it did.

That’s why I’m thinking this week about lessons for bike planning that can be taken from Critical Regionalism, a movement in architecture. It is a way of thinking that is global and progressive (not parochial or red-necked), but which at the same time is grounded in the cultural conditions of a particular region. Jan Gehl parachuting in with ideas about blue painted cycle tracks, impresses the average Joe about as much as I would be impressed if McDonalds wanted to replace the canteens at my kids’ schools. Bicycle transport itself, isn’t a problem. Everyone sees the advantage. What the masses don’t want, is bicycle transport at the expense of car transport, as the Dutch and the Danish have managed to do. A critical regionalist method of increasing bike transport, would begin by looking at how bicycling already works in a particular city.

Part of my research for Cycle Space was just hanging out on a bike in a number of cities: Singapore, Chicago, Portland, Sydney… I can’t even remember them all. Importantly, I was not led around. I didn’t want to devolve metal mapping to guides. I like going to cities and figuring out for myself how to commute, meet with friends and use that city by bike. You get a sense as to how cycling might progress from within. You see, for example, the importance of parading oneself in French culture, of displaying your wealth if you’re Chinese, of standing on principle if you live in New York, or proving to yourself that you’re made of good stuff if your granny was Calvinist and has imbued these values within you.

From these necessarily crude observations about the collective bicycling psyche, you move onto working with maps. How much of the grey network of streets can you cordon off for protected cycle tracks? Given the mayor was elected by voters who are committed to driving, the short answer is most likely: “not much!” A demonstration cycle track connecting destinations popular among students and yuppies might be your best start.

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Again and again though, I see local communities of true believers pinning their hopes to projects like these, that stick it to drivers, then becoming despondent if they don’t go ahead. But there are so many other fronts they can work on!

The most important is redevelopment land. A chapter in my book called “Brownfields to Bikefields” explains why derelict industrial land is vital to the future of bicycle transport. While bicycle advocates devote years to seeing a piece of one little street annexed for cycling, car lobbies are funding feasibility studies for entire old docklands and industrial sites. They want to ensure that when these are redeveloped, they are redeveloped on an automotive mobility platform.

Interestingly, the kinds of sites I am talking about are already there in most cyclists’ cognitive maps of their cities. They’re off to the side of the shortcuts we find along former rail corridors, waterfronts and the likes. If only bicycle advocates saw these sites the way developers do, maybe not with big dollar signs hovering above them, but as territories to claim. From our point of view, they are territories where right has a chance to beat might, where reason has a chance of triumphing over prejudice, and where maybe pigs won’t be able to fly, but where old people and children and everyone in between has a chance to organise their lives around bicycle transport.

I feel very privileged to have been offered a plenary talk at this years Velo-City. Of course I will go there to hear stories of triumph from cities led by dictators or unusual mayors with 51% of their voters not being car addicts. I have a feeling though that my selection as a key speaker is part of broadening of Velo-City’s agenda, consistent with the decision to host Velo-City in such an awful nation for cycling as mine. The time has come for intrinsic solutions particular to dispiriting contexts. In archi-speak, that is a Critical Regionalist approach.

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.
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2 Responses to Toward a Critical Regionalist approach to bike planning

  1. Colin says:

    So on the one hand you’re promoting an intersection design that promotes bike transport at the expense of car transport by removing the possibility of slip lanes for drivers, removing the ability for trucks and buses to navigate the tight corner radii, requiring very slow driver cornering speeds due to the tight corner radii, and last but no means least, requires removal of two lanes of either car-travel or car-parking on every major street.

    And on the other hand you’re saying that promoting bicycle transport at the expense of car transport is a losing game, and we should look to brownfields as a tabula rasa where drivers have not yet dominated the landscape.

    Which is it?

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