What bicycle advocates can teach designers, and visa versa.

I think my readership is roughly evenly split. On the one hand there are bicycle advocates with an interest in the production of space. On the other, there are producers of space (architects, planners, engineers—let’s say they’re all called “designers”) who have a keen interest in bicycle transport. If I could generalise I would say the bicycle advocates assume they know everything there is to be known about designing buildings and cities from the one lecture they heard by Jan Gehl, while the designers think they know all about bicycle advocacy from the little they have personally observed while riding their bikes.

If I could convince the designers of just one thing, it would be that bicycle transport is not a marginal mode. It merely has the appearance of a special interest concern because the vast majority of people who own working bikes (there are 1.4 working bikes per Australian household)  are too scared to use them because of the way designers expect them to cycle in traffic. If you separate drivers and riders as they separate them in the Netherlands—by a whole block where they can—most people will cycle a lot of the time, unless they happen to live on a hilltop.

There are hundreds of little things designers could learn for themselves, for example where to place bike racks and the ideal dimensions for a lift carriage so bikes can be taken upstairs. They just need to use bikes for their transport, and not brush aside irritations they encounter as problems for which they themselves are to blame because they are cycling. Ever since I made cycling my field of specialisation as an architectural designer and theorist, I’ve been telling myself that I am a vitally important user of buildings and cities. Any time my built environment rubs the wrong way against me and my bike, no matter how slightly, I note another thing that needs fixing if cities are to be healthier, more prosperous and less polluting.

As for bicycle advocates, they need to start seeing empty land the way we do as architects. What you call your city, will one day be its quaint historic quarter, but little more. Tourists will come to see buildings from the early 2000s. But those aren’t the districts your grandchildren will know. With any luck they will be buying apartments on what you know as your city’s industrial wastelands. Hopefully they will not still be eating up farmlands on the edges of cites as living generations have done.

The photos at the end of this blog post are left-overs after a photo shoot I was a part of last week for Velotopia, the book I’m working right now to complete. They were taken with Charlotte Morton and Harriet Elliot, two final year students who are assisting with illustrations, yes, and a few arty photos. We’re surveying the kinds of sites that are largely invisible to mainstream Australians, and even most cyclists, but which I nonetheless hope Charlotte’s and Harriet’s generation will claim as the sites of future bike districts.

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