Bicycle-tech: architecture, planning, clothing and customs

Whatever happened to raincoats? On rainy days when I was in school, all the kids turned up in yellow. All our houses had hooks in the laundries or inside the front doors, loaded with yellow plastic raincoats for all of the family. Another must-have in everyone’s wardrobe was a huge pair of Wellies or gum boots, often a few sizes too big, so they could be worn over regular shoes.

Everybody owned rainwear. I don’t mean rainproof adventure wear for spending the whole day in the rain. I suggest putting stuff on top of your regular clothes for getting to work, school, or the bus in the shower.

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It wasn’t until I found my kid’s raincoats in the boot of our car that I realized they hadn’t worn them since we gave up living car-free with our move to Tasmania. They have been in the car since our last trip to the snow when my kids also made do with regular shoes. Why don’t my children have their gumboots? Come to think of it, why don’t I or my wife? Could it be none of us ever walk in the rain?

That can’t be true. We spent a whole day last year hiking around Cradle Mountain, with it raining non-stop. But if my memory serves me correctly, we managed that with our sturdiest shoes and newfangled waterproof socks. We don’t have Wellies or raincoats for walking to work or school in the rain. Like any modern household, we have our fair share of adventure apparel. I asked around my office what most people call their raincoats bought from a hiking shop. Fits pretty snug and only comes down to their belt. Ditto for rain boots: all made for wearing all day in the rain, with MC Hammer pants worn over utility pants made especially for hiking.

The car is hardly an elegant piece of technology. It makes as much sound and heat as it makes the motion. It has a different engine to its users’ bodies, giving each an extra half tonne and a 2-meter wide girth to maneuver if we drive in the city. What is elegant is the range of clothing, architecture, and planning solutions we have designed around this machine. Since cars became mainstream just 6 decades ago, we have come up with countless surrounding design items. A few salient ones: apartment blocks ballooned at the base to provide 2 car spaces per unit, plus ramps; the mega-mall wrapped in car parking and off-ramps from freeways; the freeway; the internal access double garage built into the house; town plans with no need for town centers; and wardrobes that would have left our ancestors with hypothermia just getting to work. The slow design evolution is the loss of raincoats and Wellies from many of our wardrobes because we drive to work and school on wet days. One choice at a time, we are designing our cities, buildings, clothing, and all of our habits, to best suit our cars.

There are cities where I hope this continues to see where trends lead. I imagine driverless taxis double as offices on nuclear-powered electric nuclear-power edging far greater capacity from available road space. A traffic engineer’s wet dream! Let that happen in cities where nobody wants to meet face to face.

Then there will be touristic, yesteryear places, where people will want to wear wellies and raincoats and ride slow old Dutch bikes out of a sense of nostalgia. They will bake their bread and spin wool but compensate for those inefficiencies with inherited wealth or other less visible earnings.

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I’m interested in something entirely new. Innovations we can borrow from sports cycling mean we have locomotion machines at our disposal with untapped potential. Advances in aerodynamics, rubber compounds, bicycle transmissions, lighter and stiffer frames, stronger brakes, and even tiny electric assist motors mean bikes today are incomparable with the ones that Dutch and Danish cities were retrofitted to suit. As the Dutch did, keeping cars on the road and adding cycle tracks off to the side only made sense, while bikes were slower than cars. But eBikes and new generation commuter bikes are faster than cars in the city. They can go at 30kph, and if urban districts were designed especially for them, bikes could keep going at 30kph, with no risk of snagging each other in jams. Perhaps one day, computer-controlled cars will be able to match that. But computer-controlled cars are decades away.

A form of locomotion currently exists, promising superior mobility, sustainability, and public health benefits. It enhances chance interaction, discretionary stopping, and passive surveillance of public space. Yet nowhere has an integrated city planning system, architecture, clothing, and customs been given a chance to evolve around current bicycle tech.

Streets as old as those of ancient Pompeii, right through to the streets of New York, were designed around two modes: walking and horse-drawn carriages. With neither mode capable of much over 6kph, narrow streets and blind corners were not an issue. The challenge was making the city compact.

Cities built from scratch for the car, such as Houston, have no size constraints, so long roa run smoothly. But if you have ever suffered much time in Texas (i once suffered 4 days), you would know the slightest interruption to traffic flow can bring 6 lanes of traffic to a standstill for hours.

I have lived in 2 transit-oriented cities—Singapore and New York—and spent significant time in the Netherlands, where high-speed trains are so frequent the whole country works as one transit city. The Dutch studied people’s feelings about public transport. They are universally bad:

We can see from that graph that bikes bring the most joy, fear, anger, sadness, and least aversion. Is there anything I have missed? Or is it time to design cities, buildings, clothing, and customs around bicycles and let cars and trains take a back seat?

I have been courted for a few years by a city planner in China who heard me talk about cycling at an urban design conference. He has designed over 200 cities, a figure I’m personally not so surprised by. I was responsible for designing and constructing 1500 apartments per year during Singapore’s tiger economy and had colleagues with greater workloads again. You draw it, they build it, and people move in. Rapid urban growth is just that: rapid. My friend tells me a time is approaching when China will be ready to trial new city plans with buildings facing onto greenways and vehicular servicing put underground.

As exciting as that sounds, there is a chance to do even better in western cities. China’s manufacturing growth is leaving western cities with voids, interconnected by derelict rail lines and waterways, where we can trial planning ideas that most Chinese, and a lot of westerners too, would find unappealing. But it only takes a small percentage of visionaries to pioneer a new way of living (consider the early adopters of cars in the 20s) to inspire more significant numbers to change.

Some of the most important visionaries at the dawn of the era of cars were the architects, who started guessing how civilization would shake down around this new wonder machine of mobility. It’s a shame vision like Frank Lloyd Wright’s didn’t anticipate America’s 30% obesity rate, 2-hour commutes, and war efforts to secure oil, but never mind. It is a great reminder of the prophetic power of architectural vision.

Considered guesses as to how urban districts might look, with bicycle transport as the first principle—the way walking made Pompeii, cars made Houston, or boats made Venice are missing from bicycling advocacy. My next blog post will present a bloody fine guess made by 4 students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching, Alex Adams, Ryan Gates, Dominic Wells, and Sam McQueeney. Their masterstroke is pinching slab blocks to provide shortcuts for bikes and ramped access to higher levels by bike. Here is a foretaste:

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