The past decade has seen bikes coming back to old city centres where cars were never going to fit anyway. This creates a false impression that a “bicycling city” is necessarily a dense city, when in fact what we’re looking at are cities that are too dense for everyone there to have a car. It’s rather like defining a horse as a zebra without any stripes.
You know I agonise over the idea of purpose-built bicycling cities. I work with the assumption that none have ever come into being, so must be conceptualised from first principles. The one nagging doubt in my mind, is that garden cities may have been conceived with bikes in mind, even though bikes were never mentioned.
You see, Ebenezer Howard wrote Garden Cities of Tomorrow[i] during the 1890s bicycle boom. Given the time, and his own middle class status, my guess is that he was a cyclist. Has anyone ever made that connection? If not, I know why: it is because Howard leaves no clues in his text. So while he writes about trains moving people from node to node, he is conspicuously silent regarding the problem he is creating for people on foot. Moving them from high to medium density settings would make them walk further. Bikes are the unmentioned ingredient of his plan, like the water in soup.
Within a few decades, garden cities were being built, and yes, the medium in which populations were suspended and were floating around was two-wheeled and pedal powered. Last month Martin Miller sent me a link to the following film. Zoom forward to 5:30 for the first really interesting bit:
Though the crowd scenes are staged, you still get the impression. Garden city densities and bicycle transport were natural compliments. The only problem with garden cities is their streets were wide enough to be ruined for cycling when cars came along.
There have been some other moments in history when cycling has dominated urban mobility and thus informed urban design thinking. In each, medium-density urban morphologies, corresponding to the middling speed of bike transport, have been the result. In the case of the Dutch New Town of Houten, that was planned around bike routes, we find a similar predominance of medium density cluster housing to that which was built in early Canberra. In the case of recent bicycle-oriented development along former rail corridors that have been turned into bike trails (for example in Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta and Cambridge U.K.) medium-density multi-unit developments have likewise resulted.
Whatever our opinions of medium-density blancmange coloured cities, they are what we’ll all be living in soon. Half way through this lecture Edward Soja explains the phenomenon. Suburbia is filling up. Since a lot of that backfilling is happening on former industrial sites, interconnected by former bulk-haulage routes that can be made into cycleways, there is an opportunity to think of bikes as the water, or medium, in which the new development floats. Bikes can be the unmentioned ingredient.
I really enjoyed the third quarter of Soja’s lecture. It’s so much better listening to him speak than wading through all the quotes from Foucault and Lefebvre in his book Thirdspace. The message for me, and I think a lot of bicycling advocates, is that old distinctions between the city and the suburbs are becoming more artificial. I personally like the idea that a new medium-density apartment development, on a former industrial site flanking a rail-trail, could be every bit as dynamic one day as the hip urban village where trust-fund brats are pushing up rents.