For the past year, I have been leading teams of MA and Ph.D. students at the University of Tasmania, Australia, in a range of pure research and research-by-design projects. One of the questions we have been asking is, “what might a purpose-built bicycling city actually look like?” Would it have streets, alleys, or free-flowing ground planes? Would bicycle urbanism give rise to new building types, the way car-centric urbanism gave rise to new types?
And what about urban morphologies? Would a city built from scratch where the main focus was cycling (not walking or driving), have slab blocks, perimeter blocks, towers, or hybrids? Visionaries including Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Norman Bel Geddes collectively spent decades nutting out the component parts of an automotive urbanism—the cloverleaf highway intersection, the internal-access garage, the free-standing buildings surrounded by parking, etc.. We’ve been trying to do something similar, only more quickly and without the help of a global movement of architects focused on these problems simultaneously. Nevertheless, we are making headway.
One design premise to grow from our inquiries is that shops in a bicycle district might not have to be gathered tightly in rows to concentrate and catch passing trade. If you think about it, potential customers, if they are on bikes, would be moving five times faster than potential customers passing on foot. Your shop could have no shops around it, yet still have people frequently passing. A handy corollary to this is that master plans focused on bikes do not need to gather shops into main streets, leaving the other streets lonely. Activity, and passive surveillance, can be evenly spread across a whole district.
Another premise is that the entrances to buildings, along with the entrances to those shops I’ve just mentioned, could be raised on fairly high mounds—between 1 and 3 meters. The aim would be to reduce cyclists’ speeds as they draw near busy nodes without making them brake. Likewise, they could leave busy nodes without pedaling, simply by rolling away from a crest. Pedestrians and slow cyclists could choose to move from crest to crest using fly-over bridges that might support rain canopies to protect the fast-moving cyclists below.
When you try to envision purpose-built bicycle urbanism, you start to wonder why cyclists in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen haven’t lobbied for decades for rain and shade covers over their bike routes. I’m sure it suits a few of the last remaining Calvinists or Lutherans there to feel like God’s chosen when they press on through a blizzard. I think more about my wife when our children were small. I can’t blame her for wanting a roof over her head in bad weather and therefore choosing to drive.
Would she have been happy to cycle if we had raised our kids in Amsterdam or Copenhagen? I doubt it. I suspect she would have cursed being made for riding in the rain and wished either for car parking so she could drive or else rain covers over the bike routes. I’m always struck by the relatively low 15% bike modal share in Rotterdam, despite that city having better bike infrastructure than Copenhagen with a 40% bike modal share.
The difference is Rotterdam—like most cities—has multi-story garages in town. People use them to save getting wet. From this, I deduce that bike infrastructure alone will not make cycling mainstream in most cities. You must blow up the car parks or cover the bike routes. Clearly, covering the bike routes would meet less resistance.
Since we are already designing interiors to accommodate prams, wheelchairs, and mobility scooters, I think we might also design for cycling inside. Think of it: parents could shop at ride-through supermarkets with their babies asleep in a box bike, then take their groceries all the way to their pantries in those same box bikes, all before the baby wakes up. The box bike, or bakfiets in Dutch, is too much of a godsend to be left outside like a horse the way bikes traditionally have been in Holland.
Thinking this way led me to a new concept in apartment design that would be worthy of patenting if locking it up were consistent with any of my greater aims. It’s a slab block with a lift at one end, opening onto double-loaded aerial streets that aren’t level but slope downwards until reaching the ground. Residents can take the lift to their floor, then ride down, or conversely ride up for the exercise.
The 1 in 20 gradient of the ramps means each sloping level is 20 times longer than its highest point off the ground. While that means very long blocks, it is possible for them to be twisted or coiled or given articulation to lessen their visual impact. They’re not too long functionally, with the ride to the bottom from most apartments being shorter in length than most city blocks.
With a slip-block, the cost of maintaining a lift is distributed between many apartments. Given the cost of lift maintenance, that is great for housing affordability. Lifts could even be pay-for-use, given they’re not technically needed. Cyclists, parents with strollers, and even people in wheelchairs have the option of pushing or motoring their way up the gently sloped aerial streets to their apartments.
Another advantage is that multiple slip-blocks can be built in parallel rows pointing North/South for the sun to reach both sides in the Winter, without those rows reminding us of the Gulag. By alternating them high-to-low and then low-to-high, the high ends get views over the low ends of the wedges. For the sake of comparison, the example above shows the blocks spaced to match the width of Park Avenue in New York.
I wrote Cycle Space in 2012. That book was concerned with how, as cyclists, we cognitively produce space for ourselves in our cities’ liminal, uncontested realms. I could only speak briefly about ways we physically produce cycle space, with territorial markers such as bike parking stations or with de facto bicycle oriented development projects.
Since then, I’ve been focused on ways we might start building for ourselves in earnest, if we weren’t so concerned about making old horse-and-cart space bike friendly and instead focused on redevelopment districts. Seen in the light of city growth, brownfields and greyfields is a far more important frontier than our gentrifying old city centers. I suppose I can only blame myself if I’ve failed to excite fellow believers in cycling with these sites’ potential.