The epistemology of bike path design

Given our penchant for Chomskyan sophistries, and for trying our darndest to understand Derrida and Deleuze and these people, we architects have grown to be way too intellectually fashionable for structuralist thinking, of the kind that says: “copy Holland, it’s best”, or; “follow these simple rules,” or; “thou shalt and thou must.” Lost? Go get a degree in architecture, and all this will make sense.

Architects tried designing like engineers. It didn’t work. The meals we served up were nutritious, but bland. There was no sense of mystery or wonder, no meaning for the viewer to unravel, no stories to be told about buildings, that would help people love them. While ever we said function was the only yardstick by which our buildings could be evaluated as successes, their inevitable functional shortcomings, would lead all to despair that our buildings were failures. Functionalist design theory, as applied to bicycle infrastructure design, risks a similar fate. We don’t mind that freeways are boring. But we would prefer it, if cycling had its moments of joy.

Now I don’t really mind if roads engineers design most of the world’s bike paths, but commuting by bike would be far more appealing, would it not, if their brand of functionalist tedium were relieved by a few jumps, or if that’s not your speed, maybe some giant bowls, or at the very least opportunities to promenade and be seen. Let’s punctuate sensible bike paths, with moments of whimsy. The engineering firms vying to build all the bike paths, that we all can see coming, sound like my father telling me I should only ever hold my tomahawk by the end of the handle.  “But dad, I’m being Gene Simmons!”

Architects have learned that, as often as not, there is no absolute right or wrong. However, there is always the danger of being boring. I propose engineer designed bicycle infrastructure be evaluated in terms of how well it functions, and architects’, how well it pleases.


  1. Colin says:

    I may know nothing about architecture (or even engineering), but this sounds like a straw-man argument. Where are these supposedly “functional” buildings that architects designed? Were they really functional, or dysfunctional products of the wack assumptions of the designers, whether engineers or architects? Isn’t changing the rules more of a scalable solution than having individual superman architects breaking them?

    But yeah, I agree with the main point really – pleasure and whimsy should be incorporated into cycleway design in a way that it really can’t (and shouldn’t!) be incorporated into the design of roads for cars. I especially like the idea of berms on corners, and basically turning as much of the world into a skatepark as possible. Why the fuck not?

    And BTW, I keep thinking of your idea of having “destinations” slightly elevated so that you naturally slow when arriving and naturally accelerate when leaving. It’s very elegant.

    • Steven says:

      I’m glad you liked that one!
      Architects were earnest about function. Too earnest. When one of their lauded public housing estates, Pruit Igoe, went under the wrecking ball, those who they had been talking down to, with their axioms, and untouchable logic, all joined in saying, “see, you weren’t so clever.” From where I stand, it seems like bike path consultants are setting themselves up for a similar fall. Better they argue that their infrastructure (of at least some of it), will be fun, interesting, or poetic, than earnestly claim to be RIGHT. That really is raising a straw man. Anyway, thanks for persisting in posting here, after my recent episode of snideness. Sorry about that.

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