I’ve been in the intellectual hot tub for the past couple of days with Marxist geographer David Harvey. One of his key observations, expressed in this lecture, is that America spent its post-WW2 surplus on cars and highways. I think of Pericles building the Parthenon with the twin aims of holding the city state together after a similar victory in war, while at the same time bringing power back to himself. Genius. Post-WW2 politicians and capitalists with an interest in car and oil companies, kept Americans occupied spending a surplus, but in a way that would forever ensure they would have to buy petrol and cars. Genius as well. The only losers, Harvey points out, are the masses who have gotten themselves trapped working, spending and sitting in cars burning whatever they spent to fill up their tanks.
Cities have been spatially laid out to be traps, masquerading as places that give us all choice. The opposite would be a city where people had time to rebel and the means to gather with likeminded revolutionaries. Politically, cycling is dangerous, because it is free and it helps fringe groups gather and plot revolutions. (I’m having visions of all of those bikes at Occupy Wall Street!)
Now I don’t think for a moment that capitalists profiting from car sales and oil, or the politicians whose campaigns they fund, ever sat down and decided that the space of the city would need to be laid out in a way that inherently leads to the slaughter of cyclists. Wiping out cycling (that Susan B. Anthony had said did “more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”, and that I say emancipates men just the same), would have started out as an incidental, if fortuitous, outcome. Only later would the systematic criminal neglect have become conscious. As far as I can gather, cycling, that was the backbone of urban mobility in the interwar years, has been wiped out anywhere that capitalism has been given free reign. America? Yes. The UK? Yes. Australia? Yes. China? Yes, recently. Denmark and the Netherlands? Not entirely, thanks to socialism historically faring much better in both of those countries, although bike planning has assiduously favoured short trips to stations, and thus had its wings clipped.
The Situationists in Paris believed that empowering pedestrians would empower populations, and in a city as dense as Paris in the 50s, that might have been true, to a point. But now that cities have all been spread out, anyone walking is disempowered right from the start, because of the excessive walking distance between themselves and whatever number of people (hundreds, maybe thousands) who would like to get together to overthrow their capitalist overlords. It would take all the like minded revolutionaries days to meet up if they were walking to one spot from the suburbs. As for the drivers, they are burdened by stultifying labour just to pay for their driving, so wouldn’t be thinking this way. That just leaves squares near major train stations as places to gather and protest, but as my own entry into Syntagma Square Athens two years ago made clear to me, those places are easily cordoned off and controlled.
David Harvey dreams of urban space being organised in ways that give power to people. He can’t say what a Marxist/Socialist city might look like, if we built one today. I think I can though. (This is why I’m loving my time in this hot tub). For the past month I’ve been developing a way of organising space that empowers the mode of transport that is the most liberating.
In my design, nodes for stopping are elevated so that movement on a bike from one node to any other is brought up to speed using gravity. The channels in which cyclists move are too narrow for cars, that in any case would be kept out of bike districts with bollards. Pedestrians are given a lattice of elevated bridge crossings to keep them out of the way of cyclists on the low-level network of channels. The idea is to organise space in a way that unleashes the rhizome order that I believe is inherent to cycling, by giving every cyclist an uninterrupted beeline to any destination. No riot squad, not even an army, could interrupt cyclists’ mobility.
Many blog readers have tried to tell me with comments that I’m mad believing capitalist property developers will ever fund bicycle oriented developments, hinting, I suspect, to mosts capitalists’ own vested interest in keeping things much as they are. I counter with examples like new apartment developments lining the Minneapolis midtown greenway, or Bjarke Ingels’s 8-House with bike ramp access. I put it out of my own mind that all these examples have ample car parking. The vast majority of trips in and out would be by car, as is the case anywhere cycling is catered for, while driving is too.
So where does this leave me? Conducting a thought experiment for the amusement of one Marxist geographer who can’t actually say how space would be organised if the aim was to empower people? Maybe that’s it.