The Age of the Bicycle?

Nice article from the Los Angeles Review of Books about that, and though I once spent a very enjoyable couple of years without a car, living downtown, working in midtown and commuting almost exclusively by bike, I know, as do most rational people, that, except for towns like Davis and countries like Sweden and Denmark, there will never be such an age, unless, and until, they can structure bikes that can carry my—and all those who also shop for families and do not want to do so daily—shopping from Costco the ten miles I need to get it home.

An excerpt.

THIS SUMMER’S successful Citibike rollout is remarkable given it is New York City’s first real expansion of a major transportation infrastructure in decades that is not oriented around car usage (besides perhaps, the perpetually delayed and debt-incurring Second Avenue Subway expansion). It also demonstrates what is different about how cities work today: Citibike (as it is, after all, subsidized by Citibank) cost the city little upfront money and allows “users” to take any route they like within the service area and beyond (if they’re willing to pay for it). In contrast to the highly centralized, expensive, and “hard” form of infrastructure represented by the subway and the highway, Citibike might be the perfect form of infrastructure for the contemporary city in this, the iPhone era.

Cyclespace: Architecture & Urban Design in the Age of the Bicycle by Steven Fleming, an architecture professor in avid cyclist in Australia, illustrates a central paradox about biking in the urban context: it holds out the possibility, especially as more people choose to live in dense urban centers, to end our reliance on the automobile and make our cities more environmentally as well as socially sustainable. But many contend that despite biking’s recent embrace by big city mayors, it is actually a small fix at best, one that amounts to little more than the endorsement of a bourgeois hobby, and serves as a smokescreen, hiding more trenchant issues of mobility access, auto-dependence, and income inequality.

Fleming takes a two-pronged approach to addressing his topic: first, a pragmatic approach that recognizes the primacy of cars in what he calls “non-cycling countries” (basically all countries save Denmark and Norway) and, secondly, speculations about how we might build a “Biking Utopia” and a “bicyclitecture” that would improve upon the “carchitecture” it would seek to displace. The book is much more successful on the first front, in part because it is already happening: had it arrived 10, even five, years ago, Fleming’s argument for bike infrastructure in post-industrial areas would have been much more revelatory. Urban design has recently shifted towards adapting post-industrial infrastructure for biking and other uses — the High Line in New York being the famed example, but also the city’s extensive bike trails ringing the formerly industrial waterfronts.

Bikers are already utilizing these areas, along waterfronts and through former industrial areas, as a means of avoiding car-congested routes. Fleming argues for increased bike routes in these areas and suggests planners and architects propose private housing adjacent to these bike paths. By networking these areas together bikers expand their personal “cyclespace” maps across the city while at the same time avoiding the areas that would involve conflict with drivers, who continue to hold the most political influence. Fleming suggests that private development in bike-friendly areas could potentially offset the costs of creating more and better bike paths. His embrace of post-industrial infrastructural landscape is as politically opportunistic as it is pragmatic: in these abandoned spaces bikers can find large, wide open spaces with little traffic, meaning bikers can travel for long distances with minimal encumbrance. He issues a useful challenge to urban designers to consider the next frontier in propelling biking from a marginal to a more practical form of transit.

Although hardcore bike culture is fixated on achieving the dream bike rates of Amsterdam and Copenhagen (where around 40 percent of all trips are made by bike), Fleming sensibly points out that in the United States and elsewhere this might never be attainable. We should instead be concentrating on doubling trip rates – from less than five percent of all trips to somewhere closer to 10, a rate only Portland has been successful in attaining. This is where the bikeshare ought to have the most impact: the more bikes on the road, the safer other bikers will feel against the threat of cars, the more convenient pickup and dropoff, the more likely their use.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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