Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Bicycle Utopia of "Cycle Space"

There's been a steady trickle of books the past few years announcing or advocating a bicycle revolution.  The latest is "Cycle Space" by Steven Fleming, an Australian professor of architecture who confesses to being mad about cycling.

Unlike other such books that tend to offer reasoned commentary on the increasing numbers of those cycling and  the positives of riding a bike, this is an unrestrained manifesto placing the bicycle on a pedestal high above all other means of transportation.  Fleming is such a bicycle enthusiast he makes the declaration: "Of course bikes should be worshipped among tools of locomotion."  Fleming goes beyond simply urging urban planners not to forget the bicycle.  He demands that all cities be redesigned with the bicycle as the chief means of getting around.   Those cities that don't are blind to what he sees as the inevitable bicycle take-over.

This isn't another polite and prissy polemic taking satisfaction with a slight increase in bike lanes and people using them. Fleming isn't interested in merely the "theoretically possible" but the "ideally possible."  This is not a plea, but an articulate, uncompromising diatribe, envisioning no less than a cycling utopia where people will ride bikes as surely as they wear shoes, where whole populations will have added bicycles to their bodies like prostheses, and almost everyone will be moving by bike rather than by car.  His city of the future is one where three quarters of trips are by bicycle, one quarter on foot and cars are an oddity.

Fleming is so unmincing in his opinions, he knows that there are those, even in the bicycle community, who will want to make a bonfire of his book.  He had to go to the Netherlands to find someone who would publish it.   And he evidently figures his audience is mostly European, as whenever he cites the cost of something it is given in euros, not dollars.  He refers to the US as the United States of the Automobile, "the world's premier motoring nation," where drivers are the reigning defenders of public space.  But he isn't overly harsh on Americans.  Individual chapters are given to each of three American cities (Portland, New York and Chicago) for their progressive bicycling consciousness.

Fleming acknowledges that Amsterdam and Copenhagen are the pre-eminent cities in the world for cycling, meccas where one-third of all trips are made by bicycle.  He certainly applauds such huge numbers of cyclists, but he still finds it reprehensible that two-thirds of trips are made by car, bus or train.  He contends that if so many people are sensible enough to embrace the bicycle, that ought to be enough to convince everyone else to take to the bike, and can't understand why they don't.

Not only does he ridicule the folly of driving, he dares to criticize walking and the "walkable" movement as well.  He considers walking tiresome, boring and slow.  He regards someone on foot as a car person "who has just been let out for air."  Planners shouldn't waste their time making cities walkable.  They should solely focus their attention on making them bikeable.

"Why stroll when you can roll" is the title of the first of his eight chapters, each devoted to a different city and different one-word theme.  Amsterdam is practical, Copenhagen is design, New York political, Portland cool, Paris theatrical, Singapore free, Sydney prestigious and Chicago green.

He repeatedly cites, almost like a mantra, the three-pronged obvious reasons for the inevitable ascension of the bicycle.  It promotes health, it saves people money, and it improves the environment.  He further contends that bicycle commuting should be considered a leisure activity.  He is such a confirmed cyclist that he is fully convinced that anyone who gives it a try will be won over.  I'd like to think the same, but I know otherwise.  Thousands do it every year in Chicago and elsewhere during Bike to Work Day or Week, depending on the city, and claim how much fun and invigorating it is, but only a handful stick to it.

He is a purist through and through.  Even though he worked for a spell transporting people on a bicycle rickshaw, he regards them as an absurdity, thinking everyone should have their own bike.  He has raced as an amateur for years, but doesn't overestimate the athletic ability it takes to get around on a bike.  He makes the valid point that just about anyone, regardless of conditioning, can ride a bike across a city. Not only is he an idealist and an optimist, he is also a pragmatist and a realist. He regards riding a bike as a most matter-of-fact activity that everyone could and should do.  There is nothing brave or heroic about it.  He doesn't drift off into cutesy portrayals of bike commuters or mothers who bike their kids to school.

Fleming borrows from the gay community for the title of his book.  The gays coined the term "queerspace" for areas that they colonized and felt comfortable in.  Cyclists too can appropriate any area as their space. He furthers the comparison with gays, stating that both communities are often misunderstood and maligned and are forced to claim space not freely given.  He compares Critical Mass rides to Gay Pride Parades.

Though he is all for improving the infrastructure for cycling, even converting bike routes into wind and weather protected tubes, he maintains that cyclists can find cycle space anywhere.  It does not have to be provided for them.    "It cannot be dictated," he writes.  "Cycle space is a personal thing for each of us to define in our own way."  Even in Denmark and the Netherlands where it would seem that "bicycling infrastructure should magically appear wherever one points their nose, some cyclists shun officially sanctioned routes that don't suit their mood."

He does not deny that cyclists are an affront to many drivers' belief systems and that that there is a perception that only society's outcasts use bikes as a means of transportation. But he is confident that there will be a mass awakening and the masses will end their enslavement to their cars. Though we presently live in a world completely overcome by cars, he finds reason for hope in the increasing number of people who are embracing the bicycle and rejecting the automobile.  Though his utopia of reversing the percentages of cars to bikes on the road may seem a fanciful dream, it is a dream worth having.  It is assuring to know that there are such visionaries among us and that they can state their case so well.

1 comment:

@BehoovingMoving said...

thanks George! It's great to know my writing reached such a good reader.