You can’t say utopia on the radio

Don’t you hate when a media outlet preps you with questions, you spend an hour or two writing responses on paper, preparing your mind for the big moment, then when the interview comes, it is about some other topic entirely? A producer for ABC Radio National Drive got in touch last week and asked what I would like to talk about in a forum. “Not helmet laws,” I told her. “Something more like brownfield development.”

Like most of us, I suppose, I can track web traffic, so know someone in her city spent the next morning clicking between dozens of my blog posts, which lately have centered on the catalytic benefits of developing a crystalline vision of a cycling utopia. Before I knew it, the proposed topic for discussion had shifted from “Can Australia ever be a bicycling nation?” to “Can Australia be a Bicycling Utopia?” and another panelist had been found, the CEO of Town Planning Australia, i.e., a moderate spokesperson to temper the free-agent author and blogger. In my excitement about being interviewed on my favorite radio station—the station I listen to even when I am overseas—I didn’t stop considering how this could go wrong.

One of my many public relations advisers (I have a few friends in that business) said I should quickly watch some of the new satire on town planning, Utopia. I had seen a little already, so I brushed over that suggestion. Bring on the interview, and I am stuck between two show fans using the word “utopia” in the sense it has acquired post-Arcosanti.

It is a real shame, for cities, the planet, our health, etc., that the romantic literary tradition scholars of urbanism know are central to our field of endeavour has been trivialized because of some flops and dictators. Finally, I know the word that was beeped over in this song I’ve puzzled over since I was a kid.

It wasn’t s#@!, f*&^ or c%$@. It was a utopia!

But as I see it, one utopian vision still has a hold and will not be deleted until something  as singular comes along to replace it in the cultural imaginary.

Having spent the past month reading through all the main texts, for and against the idea of utopia, from 1950 until the present, I really could have gone 12 rounds on this topic. But it wasn’t a scholarly conference. It was a radio show with the Australian name Drive and a segment title chosen for a wink and a snigger. I know I have to save my argument in support of utopias for a scholarly paper that no one will read or a chapter in my next book that I’m sure you will skip getting to the pictures.

So back to the interview: while muggins-me is all prepped to keep talking about the abstract town planning principles that would be possible if we took a fresh approach to brownfield redevelopment, the producer has politely changed tack. To save me any further disgrace, she has bailed on the topic of a Utopia and is feeding the announcer questions you would expect on commercial radio about road rage, lycra, how apparently narrow Australian roads are, what the tabloid press has been saying… I’m sure if the interview had gone on for another two minutes, I would have been asked what I thought about helmets.

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You can’t say utopia on the radio 3

You can listen to the interview here. You will catch me drifting off at one point—true; I was staring out the window thinking of a party I was missing. Far more interesting, I think, are the questions and prepared answers to the interview that was aborted:

Radio National (RN): How well is Australia currently accommodating cyclists?

Dr. B.: one twenty-fifth as well as the Netherlands. Our typical bike modal share is around 1% of all trips. Theirs is around 25% of all trips, even in hilly cities like Nijmegen. The difference is they separate bikes and cars—at least where there is through traffic. We have to find ways of separating bike and car traffic as well. 

RH: What are the benefits of accommodating cyclists?

Dr. B.: (To be clear, all of us are cyclists, we just don’t have a safe place to ride.) The standout benefit is to public health. A Harvard study that followed the lives of 18000 nurses over 16 years found that once people have become overweight, they tend not to walk fast enough to lose any weight. Meanwhile, everyone in the study who was riding a bike—even if that averaged out at just 5 minutes a day—was losing weight. Bicycling environments, not walking environments, answer this nation’s obesity crisis. 

RN: How does accommodate cyclists fit in with plans for PT and pedestrians?

Dr. B.: If we’re talking about remediating our sprawl, then protected bike lanes, bike parking at stations, and share bikes vastly increase the catchment area of every train station. What I’ve been doing, though, is imagining totally new kinds of redevelopment districts that would be wholly invested in cycling. These might have:

—undulating ground planes that rise where bikes have to slow down and dip where they want to speed up.

—spiraling apartment buildings (Imagine big multi-helical versions of the Guggenheim in New York) that take you up in a big lift with your cargo bike and let you ride down to your apartment, and from there, ride down to the street. 

RN: Where could we improve? 

Dr. B.: I think we’re letting our brownfields go to waste. We’re working from a 1930s playbook: basement garaging and access to roads. We know that just gives us sedentariness, isolation, and congestion, when what I am proposing would give us exercise in our day, thousands of dollars every year in expendable income, and greater mobility.  

RN: What other countries could we draw inspiration from, and how?

Dr. B.: The Dutch wrote the book on traffic engineering, but they don’t account for hills or millions of driveway crossings like we have in Australia. Two other places to look are the US and Italy. The Italians simply pedestrianize their downtowns and let pedestrians and slow cyclists enjoy La Dolce Vita together. America has the same thing as us going on with their rail corridors and post-industrial waterfronts. In the US, urban trails on these routes catalyze what can only be described as bicycle-oriented development. Examples are the Atlanta Belt-Line, Minneapolis Midtown Greenway, Hudson Greenway, and Detroit.

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