Bicycle Architecture Biennale in Amsterdam: Cool, but it's not just about the architecture, or "building" infrastructure, people need programming to transition to the bike
A few stories...
At a transportation public meeting this week in my neighborhood, I was talking to one of the bike planners there about our recognition that it's not that we don't know what to do or what to build, but that elected officials aren't very committed to sustainable mobility, transit, etc., and without their commitment it's hard to do what needs to be done.
We both shared stories about being lectured by citizens about the value of sustainable mobility and I told him that when that happened to me, I stopped the person and I hope gently told him that I knew that already, and that he needed to be lecturing his elected officials.
It wasn't til I worked briefly in county government that I truly understood how constrained government staffers are. They work within the confines of policy and practice set by elected officials--both legislative and executive.
So then I told him the story of a caravan going to a talk in Baltimore, and how one of the people said "you know, we just have to ask the Dutch transportation engineers how they are able to do what they do."
I said to the guy "they aren't any different, pretty much, from transportation planners here. The difference is that they have been instructed, in no uncertain terms and without exception, to prioritize biking, walking, and transit overall."
New cycle superhighway in Greater Copenhagen, 2012. Cycle Embassy Denmark.
That's what's missing. People think that yep, adding bike, pedestrian, and maybe transit infrastructure is a good thing. But it's not a priority. And it's almost always subservient to focusing on facilitating automobile movement and expanding automobile infrastructure. And if "it costs too much" -- even though rebuilding some busy highway intersections starts costing upwards of $750 million -- it's not a problem to eliminate the bike, pedestrian, and transit improvements "to save money" and focus on the parts of the project for the automobile.
And at a graduation party yesterday (for fifth graders no less, we only had such parties after graduating high school) I was talking to a DC resident who asked if I thought that it is the millennials who are driving the take up of biking.
I said I didn't think so in one respect--the planning and infrastructure development has been going on for awhile. But yes in terms of being more focused on their smartphones and less on driving, and being more willing in their life stage/life cycle to bike, car share, use taxis/ride hailing, or scooters, than was the case for previous cohorts.
Or I when I was doing work in the bike sharing space, this one guy kept trying to "sell" his bike sharing bike design, which won awards, and I kept making the point that the bike isn't the most important element, it's the design of a complete system, in which the bike is only one component, along with the marketing and promotion of it both to governments and to the end user.
Bicycle Architecture Biennale in Amsterdam is a cool idea. From the Arch Daily article "Bicycle Architecture Biennale explores how cycling will shape future cities":
Next Architects has curated the second annual Bicycle Architecture Biennale as a showcase of buildings that transform cities through cycling. Opening in Amsterdam, the BAB shows the work of international designers from around the world and explores urban design through social, economic and environmental projects. It was conceived by BYCS as a way to inspire people to imagine new possibilities for human-centric cities.
I don't think that the most important issue in cycling for transportation is "architecting" new types of infrastructure.
Instead I believe the key issues are:
1. Getting elected officials and stakeholders to accept that in certain types of places, biking, walking, and transit and what I call the "Sustainable Mobility Platform" needs to be prioritized over the car.
E.g., to solve congestion Mayor De Blasio thinks that trips by delivery and service vehicles should be reduced. Yes, they should be managed, but such trips support hundreds and thousands of households, whereas a car operated by a single person is for one trip.
2. Resetting funding and work priorities accordingly.
3. Letting these places be prominent outliers in a mobility system otherwise dominated by the car.
This is important. Most elected officials, especially Republicans in Congress, work very hard to crush and eliminate transportation outliers.
Just think if we had a handful of cities around the US (1) comparable to Copenhagen and Netherlands cities for biking; (2) like Zurich and Melbourne and Brussels for streetcars as an element of the mobility system, Toronto too; (3) a midsized city with a great subway system that people could understand could be relevant to their own communities; (4) great regional railroad systems that operate like the German S-bahn system of suburban railroad services--New York and Chicago are premier, and Boston and Philadelphia are quite good; (5) at least a couple true high speed rail corridors; (6) a state where the passenger railroad network is so good that you could get around the state pretty easily by train; etc.
Yes, there are cities like New York and Boston, San Francisco, and somewhat, DC, where transit is used by a preponderance of users, but still the car is prioritized.
4. Almost more important than infrastructure--because we are building plenty of great cycletracks across DC and other cities that are only minimally used--we need to start focusing on actively and energetically providing support to people to make the transition from driving to biking.
To be fair, in some respects this might be true of the Bicycle Architecture Biennale
Most of the projects they highlight aren't extraordinary. If you look at the gallery of images for the projects, mostly they are best practice, but not outlandish It's just most places aren't doing interesting stuff, like a coffee shop as part of a bike parking hub.
Or the Heathrow bicycle hub for employees--they aren't listed--is an outlier not just because it is busy and useful, but because most airports aren't focusing on bicycle transportation as one element of a complete transportation program.
If it were a car parking garage with a café in the ground floor, would that be considered an extraordinary example of architecture and design?
Same with lots of car parking at train stations. That's not extraordinary, but providing bike parking is?
Cities aren't doing interesting stuff because they don't know how, it's because the political interest and support is lacking. And because in the great scheme of things, not enough people are biking for transportation, which would require a shift in the paradigm.
For a paradigm shift, we need lots of bicyclists.
Note that we must concede there are differences in the thoroughness of developing cycling infrastructure in places like Denmark compared to the US.
Imagine building a highway in the US and there not being any gas stations.
Planning for automobility is very thorough in the US. For other modes, not so much.