The Decepticons won, so what now?

Imagine you’re a Transformer, thinking about landing in some city on Earth. Assuming you have figured out where you will be getting your allspark, I guess the next thing you will need to know, is how you will be getting around. To that end, you will be wanting to see that city’s road map. The lines on a road map represent corridors of asphalt already teeming with machines that push each other to go faster and faster, not stopping for anything, lest they are hit from behind by following traffic. These are the corridors where you will best be able to flex your alien power and speed.

But let’s not forget, there are two kinds of Transformers: you might be an Autobot, whose nature is to do no harm to other creatures, or you could be an evil Decepticon, who steps on humans like ants. If you were one of the good guys, an Autobot, you might have a few reservations about using the roads, and taking the shape of a car.

That is because cars and the road network have not been designed to spare others from harm. The safer cars have become for their occupants, the more dangerous they have become for people around them. For example, designers realised car doors opening backwards could injure their customers when they blithely opened their doors without looking. So designers of cars settled on doors that knife innocent cyclists instead.

Car makers didn’t want their customers worrying about failing to stop, so they devised airbags; that way drivers could concentrate on entertainment systems placed in their dashboards, rather than driving. Before airbags, came crumple zones—that don’t crumple so well when they hit a pedestrian. If you were an Autobot looking at cars, and how they bully everything off of the road, you might think the planet Earth belonged to Decepticons.


Now we have established that our road networks belong to evil Decepticons (any questions so far?), let’s take the point of the view of the human ant, trying not to get stepped on. Without diminishing the damage cars do to cities, this ant-like condition was with us back when cities relied on horse-drawn transportation, and some basic solutions to this problem of being like ants, date from the days of horses as well. The most enduring solution comes from the early 1800s in Paris, when carriage drivers were bullying pedestrians and muddying their clothes. The solution in Paris was a network of mid-block covered arcades.

Parisians may have invented arcades, but in Singapore the idea is writ large: acres of the things, beneath the Marina Bay district, but especially beneath Orchard Road. It’s as though the people here have accepted the Decepticons’ occupation of the ground plane, and gone down below to escape. A popular postcard image of Singapore, the intersection between Orchard Road, and Scotts Road, is illegal to cross as a pedestrian. You have to pass underground, via the shopping arcades. The look on tourists’ faces especially, as they’re funnelled into arcades when they realise the underground is the only way they can cross the road, is the same look of panic you see on people’s faces when they can’t get out of Ikea.

It’s great that arcades and subways protect people from the tropical heat and the rain, but all this does come with a psychological penalty. The field of psychogeography would point out that orienting your life around subway stations, and the arcades that radiate from them, will give people a disorientating, and disempowering, mental map of their city (thanks Gus, for putting me onto Will Self, who makes psychogeography so much more interesting). I lived in Singapore in the mid-nineties when the MRT system, and the shopping arcades that act as gateways to stations, were half the size they are now. It took me almost a year to realise I could walk from where I lived near the bottom of Orchard Road, to Clark Quay, by simply crossing Fort Canning Reserve.

It took me so long to get my bearings because this was the map by which I understood the lie of the land:

Governments invest billions in mechanising cities, so naturally want their citizens to see subways and roads as essential to progress. And they are right, that walking alone isn’t enough. The highly specialised nature of work now, means no household can be within walking distance of all its members’ places of work and eduction. Even in the world’s most contained cities (Paris, New York, Hong Kong) most people need to cover more ground in a day than they can comfortably walk.

The first time I ever saw how the downtown districts of Singapore all hang together, was when I joined a dragon boat team. To go from Kallang to Robertson Quay in a boat, is to go by Singapore’s oldest “road” network. You realise this while you’re rowing, by the way the oldest buildings and monuments are all facing you as you make your way by the water.

But there is a more convenient way of navigating Singapore’s waterway routes, that doesn’t involve assembling a dragon boat team who will be commuting each morning in the same direction that you have to go, and that is by bike. Robertson Quay to Kallang takes twenty minutes, just cruising along the edge of the river, trying not to work up a sweat. And where by dragon boat, or river taxi, the floodgates would spell the end of your journey, there’s nothing preventing bike paths being extended the entire lengths of Singapore’s rivers and storm water drains. So here is an alternative bike map for Singapore—plagiarised from whoever produced Singapore’s “blue map” of waterways.

I work closely with bicycle advocacy groups, so know exactly what they would make of such a proposal. These are recreational routes, they would argue, more for cruising along of a Sunday, than getting to work on. They say this because they take their ideas from the past: specifically, how the Dutch and the Danish managed to blend bikes and cars on their road networks, starting in the mid nineteen seventies. You have to remember though, that bicycling was very common in Denmark and the Netherlands, even during their so-called dark days when cycling rates dropped. The ratio of bike to cars entering Copenhagen never dropped below one in five. Elsewhere that number has fallen to one in one hundred. Unlike our countries, Denmark never had so few cyclists that politicians could ignore their concerns. Neither did they ever have so few cyclists that drivers didn’t expect to see bikes at every turn.

Then we must consider that none of us are old enough to remember the interwar period, when our own countries, too, had mass bicycle transport. As drivers, we have lost all knowledge of sharing the road, and are killing people in the process of relearning those driving skills. I’m ashamed to say I have almost hit cyclists myself, when I tried once to drive in Copenhagen. I simply couldn’t figure out all the directions I had to look whenever I came to an intersection. By the end of 2012, 100 cyclists will have been killed in Britain, teaching drivers like you and I, how to look. That’s a very macabre use of human lives, that we tacitly accept, thinking it can’t happen to us, and thus indirectly blaming the victims. Those are victims of ideas I hear many bike advocates expressing: “driver behaviour will eventually change,” “we just need more cyclists out there”, etc..

Busy roads that for generations have been dominated by motorised traffic, are politically and technically impossible to reclaim for cycling, without putting cyclists in unconscionable danger. Furthermore, traffic is likely to become even more frightening in coming years, if you consider developments in the nuclear and gas energy sectors, and the trend toward  e-Cars being marketed as equally sporty as cars running on oil. Bicycling advocates who spend their lives fighting for bike space on busy roads, are fighting now just to save face. They can’t accept that Decepticons won. Nor can they step away from these battles they’re immersed in, long enough to see there are alternative networks for bicycle transport, that they would not even have to contest.

I’m hoping my book Cycle-Space will inspire architects and urban planners to take more of a big-picture role in transforming cities for bikes. By mapping features like waterways, parks, former industrial land, and rail corridors, people with design training will be able see alternatives for active transport that bicycling advocates, offering their free advice to local government, aren’t trained to look for.

While the design professions learn from the past (what once happened in Holland, let’s say), our strength lies in our capacity to envision creative solutions borne of present conditions. Those are: an automotive industry and arterial road networks heading toward even greater mechanism, with no more regard for cyclists or pedestrians than has even been shown in the past; growing sectors of the population becoming dissatisfied with the man/machine matrix and its effects on their physical and psychological health; and residual space in our cities, such as waterways in the case of Singapore, or former rail routes in post-industrial cities, that suggest routes for active transport.

Currently, volunteer bicycling advocates advise civil engineers of a few trouble spots, and we call that a bike plan. The bicycling advocates are a mix of old-school vehicular cyclists, and new-school converts to Dutch cycling style. The engineers have diplomas in drainage and gravel. The real function of bicycle advocacy is to provide philosophical criticism of architects’ schemes, and that way uphold cyclists’ rights. The job of engineers is to help architects find elegant technical solutions. There is a giant vacuum, that architects need to step in and fill.

2 Comments

  1. Edward says:

    An excellent post (again).

    You are correct that volunteer bicycling advocates can only achieve so much (often because they ask for so little). But the people they ask, the civil engineers and traffic engineers, seem often to be less skilled. Perhaps I am being unfair but judging by our built environment, I would guess that traffic engineers are incapable of conceiving any end other than the free movement of motor vehicles at all costs. People do not appear to be on their radar.

    A philosophical criticism by bicycle advocates of a new architectural scheme is only as good as the ability of the bicycle advocates to criticise philosophically. What they do not know cannot be used to inform their criticism. For example, a short while ago I watched a video of Bjarke Ingels explaining his 8 House and sat in wonder, wishing that I was able to see the effect in advance of architectural and urban planning decisions the way he seems to be able to. Regrettably though, the little I can contribute (when a local council or State Government consults) is a hash of borrowed ideas (to the extent that I understand them) from people like him, Jan Gehl, Freewheeler and many others. The resulting hash may of course be dangerous.

    I agree with you that there is that vacuum and architects are the ones to step in and fill it, as indeed they sometimes do. Does current architectural training mean they will be up to the task and, more importantly, will they be allowed to step in and fill it? Look at the trouble Kevin McCloud had building a few terraced houses in Swindon!

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Edward. The architectural profession is miles off. To my knowledge, I’m the first architectural educator trying to put cycling onto the architectural agenda. There are some good bike aware practitioners around—artgineering and west-8 in rotterdam, and BIG in copenhagen, for example—and no doubt thousands of young architects cycling to work. As a profession, we just need to gather up some approaches that work, politically for drivers and practically for cyclists. Then we need to sell big picture visions to advocates, and equip them to keep us honest. I’m sure we’ll get there 🙂

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