The Future of Bicycle Urbanism

The pendulum swing to urban decay then renewal isn’t unique to the industrial city. Fortified cities from feudal times went through the same cycle. Think of Venice. As early as the 1500s people were leaving for the Po Valley where, if they could, they built villas.
Venice’s fortunes returned with tourists. First they were arriving in their hundreds on their grand tours. Now it’s in their thousands by train, coach and cruise ship.

The importance of this to the wider world was that cities contained by defences, once they were brimming with wealth and easy to visit, gave late twentieth-century urban designers an inspiring and alternative model to the city of highways and villas, a.k.a.: the car city. The hope among some was that brownfields would become sites for modern interpretations of Venice and that urban sprawl could be stopped.


What happened was the medieval walled town would become the model for the car-city’s shopping malls. My own professor when I was a student, Barry Maitland, measured walled cities for his PhD then published text books for designers of shopping centres. I’ll have to ask him what he thinks of Vallagio Mall in Doha Qatar.

These days it is non-fortified cities from the industrial era that are being gentrified. Like Venice their overnight populations are equally split between rich folk and tourists while at street level you mostly find gift shops. Think of Amsterdam Centraal and Lower Manhattan.
In the wider scheme of things the fate of the hundred million or so middle class (mostly white) people who are able to be housed in whatever the first world had built before turning to villas doesn’t matter much more than the fate of Venetians. It is the influence their urban environments will have on future development that we should be more concerned with.
While we can’t predict the future, or do much more than write books and give talks to steer it in any direction, we can take note of big trends. Two are germane. One is the phased removal of cars from 19th-century districts and their replacement with bikes.
The other is the growing size of shopping malls that are looking more like 19th-century cities and that aren’t just for shopping. It is becoming increasingly common to find lift lobbies within them to residential towers above.
Dubai-MallIn the future the shopping mall could be the city. A shopping mall 15km in diameter with residential towers above could house as many as 6,000,000 people. Well before we get to that point, we will put walking aside as a mode and replace it with biking, skating and PRT. Any of these could transport a person between randomly selected points in a 15km diameter mall in less than half an hour on average.
 s053Bicycling itself would be a huge winner—and this is a bike blog. The privately owned and managed space of the mega-mega mall would never have private automobiles for the same reason airports don’t have them: they block circulation. Only a government, that doesn’t own a city but manages it on behalf of its bribers, would sabotage circulation for the sake of a privileged few. In some ways mega-mega malls might be more sustainable too. Direct competition between them for residents would force them to offer the best cost of living.
There is no saying either that privately owned public places will be as bland and homogenous as they have been to date. When they’re the size of whole cities there may well be room for those who aren’t so disruptive, like buskers and beggars. I suggest it would only be dog owners, smokers, drummers and drivers who we banish to life in the suburbs and they can all jolly well go and get fucked.


  1. Luke says:

    Long time no speak. I’m a bit overwhelmed by the latest barrage, but try to get to Santiago (Chile) some time. There seemed (to me) to be a weird cooperation between cyclists and pedestrians, whereby semi-sporting cyclists cooperate easily with pedestrians. Young people on smart mountain bikes, wearing shorts but not full Lycra, slow down for peds in car free streets. All very amiable. No idea why. (Young population?)

    • Steven says:

      Hey Luke. Sorry for the barrage. I was cutting and pasting and shifting things about to restructure my website. You might be the only subscriber who didn’t switch me off as a result.
      I haven’t been to South America at all, but am hoping to get to Sao Paulo soon on a consultancy job. But you know I’m afraid of the Catholics 🙂

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