Bike planning lessons from Umberto Eco and Charles Jencks

Semiotics was a theory-fad among architects when I was a student. It did yield one useful lesson though: the lesson of the toilet bowl. It starts with Umberto Eco who said some objects are so well designed as to actually denote the one use for which they were designed. Think of a cup, and how it is also a symbol for drinking. Think of a stair, and how it is also a symbol for ascension through buildings. Think of a Greek amphitheatre and how it is also a symbol for congregation.

One of the great conceits of Functionalist architectural theory was that referents (actual artefacts like cups, stairs and theatres) could also be symbols of shared concepts like drinking, ascension and congregating. The semiological triangle would have no width at the bottom, since the symbol and referent would be the same thing.

semiological triangle

If we use an example close to our hearts as bike advocates, a cycle track would symbolise bicycle transport. Anywhere people saw such a thing, they would only see something to bike on.


You can see the problem here. In car centric cities people see cycle tracks as somewhere to park. In scooter cities people see a new motorbike lane. In pedestrian cities such as New York, people see express footpaths. The so-called lesson of the toilet bowl comes from Charles Jencks’s observation that some Southern Italians were using toilet bowls to wash grapes, and that villagers in Northern Greece used toilet bowls as fire places. An object that to our minds may epitomise the doctrine that “form follows function”, had the perfect form for two functions we could not have imagined.

Architectural semiotics would have us see the elements of our built environments as words in a language, that could mean something different in other contexts. So just as our word for kissing means pissing in Swedish, or the Swedish word for speed in English means fart, a Dutch cycle track could easily mean “motorbike shortcut” in Bangkok or Paris.

You may disagree, but in my observations while travelling, one kind of built space that is universally understood is a park. A green space in the concrete jungle is a place to escape the motorised mayhem, and it symbolises escape from the mayhem as well. A park is both a symbol and referent for the concept of park. That is a fancy way of saying that linear parks are far less likely to be misused in cites where cycling is not widely recognised by those who would misuse a cycle track.

If you map out all the linear voids in your city, along waterways for example, or where industry has vacated, you will most likely see space for an almost uninterrupted network of linear parks. Road-side cycle tracks could then be thought of as capillaries connecting the last few hundred meters. This is a far cry from the supposed “ideal” of cyclists having the same cognitive maps of their cities that others have if they are habituated to travelling by car, but who says we want to see the world the way they do?


  1. If you think a green park is universally understood as a place not to be overrun by cars, then studying Auckland may challenge your assumptions.
    I’d suggest that cyclists who share the same cognitive map as drivers, might perhaps do so not out of deference to motoring, but out of a common cause: both actually subscribe to the same spatial layout of city that buildings create (often predating the arrival of cars on the face of the planet). If buildings are artifacts of human relationships, it stands to reason that most humans would be so interested in them as to orient their cognitive maps around them. So yes, I may want to see the world as my fellow citizens do — isn’t that called “society”?
    My only caveat is that I would like us all to mutate our shared understanding of our cities’ urban form, to better suit the non-use of cars.

    • Steven says:

      You have just made Kevin Lynch’s point, as well as he ever did. At heart I’m a segregationist, and a fatalist. Driverless cars will own the street soon, pushing the minority (us) who care about active transport into heterotopic gated/intensional communities, hopefully all connected by linear parks.

  2. 7homask says:

    you and i may see a park as a natural car free connection between 2 points, even if it’s a longer distance than on-road travel. but rest assured, our political masters who are in thrall to the car and oil industries, merely see parks as roads that haven’t been built yet.

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