Month: October 2013

I Just Want a Route

The next few – hundred – posts will undoubtedly be about issues related to the Bike Futures Conference that I attended last week, as there was a phenomenal amount of knowledge and insight that came from it.

My main impetus for going in the first instance was to see Paul Steely White talk (the CEO of Transportation Alternatives), as he featured so heavily in The Human Scale – the doco that made me want to get into planning in the first instance and really showed the connection between happiness and the built environment. He was an absolute delight. Charming, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, I couldn’t help but wonder what he made of the hosts that are Bicycle Network. They don’t really have that passion and the political will to do what TA have done in NYC, which is frustrating as I believe they could. Their focus tends to be greatly on organised bike rides, and riding ‘events’ where you pay a great deal of money, rather than advocating on behalf of everyday, commuter cyclists. If this is not the case, then why is it that this is my opinion? What is missing from their advertising or their marketing that leads me to believe this?

Transportation Alternatives logo

Transportation Alternatives logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not surprisingly, there was a significant number of representatives from local Councils, and a couple of people from my own. Also unsurprisingly, I sallied up to them and chatted to them about biking in the area as the night before the conference began, I was perusing the bike map for the area and I realised that there is not a single stretch of road that is genuinely safe for cyclists to ride into the city on. As I live in the East of Melbourne’s CBD, it would make sense that most people would need a route that goes from East to West in this area. There is a treacherous stretch of road that I use daily to get to work – Burwood Road. It is, I learnt from a council member, the busiest arterial road in the council.

I suggested that they implement a similar system as is on Nicholson street currently, whereby they could close one of the lanes of traffic and make that a bike path, and then, with the remaining three lanes of traffic, alternate the direction of these lanes with lights overhead indicating the changes. So, in the morning, you could have two lanes for traffic going into the city and then the reverse for when the rush hour means two lanes are needed for vehicles leaving the city. I could told that this would cost about 3 million dollars to do this, and that there are all sorts of problems because it is a VicRoads road, not a road owned by council.

My argument is this – what sort of money is going to be needed to be spent on health by this council if people just sit in their SUV’s and cars and don’t become more physically fit? And, even if they are getting enough exercise, I don’t understand why we can’t just have one road – just one! – that is a safe passage for people riding into the city. There is so much evidence that supports people using bikes as a legitimate form of transport, if the infrastructure is built that allows them to do this. My councillor informed that a vast sum of money had been spent on the Gardiner’s bike trail. That’s great, brilliant, wonderful and all, but I don’t live within close proximity of the trail so I’m not going to use it. Why should I be shunted in the gutter of Burwood Road, just because I don’t live near the river which is where the path has been upgraded? I just one road. Just one safe, alternative to get to work each day.

You could say, I just want a route.

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Urban Design: A Literature Review

A great little overview of some of the literature in Urban Design. Sure, it’s not biking related but, as we know, if you get the design right, people will feel invited to bike and walk. Planning, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Design and Traffic Engineering have to work as the most intimate army ever for this to work well.

PlaNYourCity

Whilst a grad student, I learned that the opinions on what urban design is, vary greatly between planners, architects, and landscape architects. It’s only fair to admit that most urban designers in the United States today are trained as architects. Some of them might argue that urban design is essentially a large-scale architectural exercise, where architects not just design buildings, but also neighborhoods and cities as an ensemble of buildings, held together by public space and infrastructure. A planner, on the other hand, might say that urban design sits firmly in the planner’s domain, and that the endeavor is practiced through comprehensive planning, zoning and other regulations that deal with form, such as height restrictions, setback regulations, and design guidelines.

Part of the mystique surrounding urban design, is the fact that it isn’t a regulated profession. To become a planner, a landscape architect or an architect, you have to graduate…

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Reclaiming More Than the Night

Of all the blogs, articles, memes, FB pages, Twitter accounts, Pinterest boards and YouTube vids (you get the picture), there is an almost embarrassing quantity of info to wade through regarding biking, design and urban planning (which, believe it or not, is kind of the focus of this blog). A recent article on gender and safety in public spaces appeared on the not unpopular website, Landscape Architects Network, and some of the findings are disturbing to say the least –

“According to the Guardian, four out of 10 women had reported being sexually harassed in London during the past year; research done in Canada shows that more than 80 percent of women had experienced male harassment in public spaces.”

– Reclaiming Our Cities: Gender, Justice and Safety Design, D. Zein (the whole article can be read here)

There’s a problem here, clearly. And sadly, it isn’t uncommon.

I think about the way that I move in my city, or in my neighbourhood. The lanes I avoid, the paths I know that are well lit and the roads that I know will have passing traffic on. I don’t feel that I am able to tread as swiftly as others, due to my gender. I know that others face challenges and safety may be a similar challenge for them. This may be due to age, physical ability for example, and I don’t discount the significance of this. But what it comes back to time, and time again is how many people are around and do those people allow me a sense of safety?

A bunch of blokes smoking outside of a pub, drunk and loud under harsh, fluro lighting are probably not going to help me feel safe. Groups in twos or threes sitting outside a cafe, eating chatting under more subtle lighting however? That would make me feel safe. This is an incredibly simplistic argument and I know that, but sometimes its these very basic points that seem lost on planners and designers.

There is a public toilet that was installed on Glenferrie Road about a year ago. I understand, given its close proximity to nightclubs and pubs in the area, that it would have been put there in an effort to curb people urinating in public. Great, fantastic. However…

There is no way in a hundred, billion years that I would use that facility if I needed to pee. It is literally an automated nightmare of a box that is all a bit, well, just weird. The fact that I don’t even understand what it is that makes me uncomfortable is interesting. But I do know that it is something about safety. Something about vulnerability and that vulnerability (well, my nakedness in this case) being an automated door away from the public. Does that make me feel safe? No.

Sadly, on the same website, there is an article on the benefits of cycling and how planning for proper cycling infrastructure is essential to get people on bikes. Written by a woman, it is an article that is a true inspiration in how things can be different and transport can be changed. The picture that accompanied the article is a large group of naked women, sitting on their bikes at what one assumes is a start line (view it here, if you must). What on earth does this image have to do with the article? Nothing. Does it reinforce notions of women being there to be ‘viewed’ in public space? Yes. Is it hypocritical of Landscape Architects Network to have an image like this along with articles on women’s safety in public spaces? You better believe it.

We own these streets too.

With all the Intimacy of a Lover

The local Government of Victoria is instigating a new initiative for bike paths along Glenferrie Road, in Hawthorn – an almost daily journey for me. Whilst anything to do with improvements to cycling infrastructure is celebrated in my little head, I find no reason to be popping champagne bottles over this proposal.

In short, the plan is to slice half the on road bike lane in half, the half closest to moving traffic, not parked cars, and paint that half green in an effort to stop cyclists being ‘doored’.

One of the complaints that has come from the proposal is that motorists will think cyclists are only entitled to half a bike lane and so may start to park in the other half.

My issue is that cyclists use common sense (most of the time) because, well, they don’t want to die, and so hug the right hand side of the bike lane with all the intimacy of a lover as it is safer to be riding an inch from a moving tram than half a meter from a parked car. Crazy.

A solution instead might be that we get rid of parked cars altogether on Glenferrie Road or move the cars over so that cyclists are riding right up against the pavement rather than a parked car.

Slicing a bike lane in half, painting it and saying ‘that’ll do’ is not sufficient. If this becomes a spring board for genuine improvements in infrastructure then I would like to see those plans before getting too excited.

The full article is here

As I can’t help myself, I had to comment on The Age’s website where the article was. I’m nothing if not full of opinions…

I ride everywhere and I hug the right of the bike path as it is. I don’t need paint on the road to tell me to do this. Seriously, we need more Copenhagen bike lanes. Make it an inconvenience to drive, improve infrastructure for cyclists and more people will ride. NYC has had a 223% increase in cyclists since they built better infrastructure for peole to feel safe when riding. Seriously, build it and they will come.

Commenter: the_innocent_bikestander

Spaced Out

Space is a word that is flung around in planning and architecture with wild abandon and when used in some disciplines, it can take on a variety of meanings in different contexts. Having worked in mental health, the term ‘safe space’ was used to provide clients with the knowledge that they were in a physical area where they would not be harmed. We each have our understanding of what our personal space is, and genuinely feel affronted if someone does not respect this. Indeed, we speak of our personal space being ‘violated’. Most interestingly, the required distance someone should keep from us is not spoken and agreed upon every time we meet someone for the first time. Rather, it is bound by cultural norms and expectations.

When it comes to public space, all of these elements come into play in a fascinating and very subtle manner. As has been noted by individuals more experienced than I, public space is truly democratic space. It matters not your age, gender, income, political or sexual persuasion. Public space is a leveller.

If we all share it, and we all use it, why is it that we can’t all have a similarly weighted opinion of it? A recent competition on Flinders Street train station here in Melbourne perhaps best exemplified this point. Of the shortlisted entrants, the public were invited to vote for the one they felt best deserving of the coverted prize. There were to be two prizes – the ‘People’s Choice’ and the one they would actually build (in short then, this could be reduced to ‘The One the People Didn’t Choose and Therefore Don’t Want’).

The one the people chose was – I think – beautiful. Housed beneath a rooftop garden that comprised lawn, trees and nature, the original building of the station was complemented by it’s new surroundings. It was a design that invited people to sit, stroll and wander. It invited them to stay.

Needless to say, it didn’t win the prize for the design that would actually be built.

The winning prize was a stark, vaccuous, white, garish thing that didn’t blend with the environment and offered nothing soft. It certainly didn’t invite staying. And yet, and yet…this is the station to be built – this, ‘The One the People Didn’t Choose and Therefore Don’t Want’. I suspect that what happened was 6 or 7 middle aged men sat in a room and decided that from an architectural point of view this was the best. Well, most people aren’t architects.  In fact, according to the CEO of CoDESIGN Studio, only 1.4% of the population are Designers, Planners or Architects. Does this then mean that only 1.4% of the population is somehow ‘allowed’ to comment on public space?

Only 1.4% of people have formal knowledge (and by that I mean qualifications) in an area that is experienced by all, yet people intuitively know when they feel good in a space, in public. They don’t need to know the specific language that is required to know that sensation What’s perhaps most baffling – and worse – is
if the People’s Choice is never to actually be chosen, then why give the people options in the first place?

You Have to Start Somewhere

So, here’s my little blog.

Like most blogs, I suspect it will become a rant, but I’m hoping that what this blog will really be will be an informative page about bike riding and planning in an urban environment and how the two currently work, how they don’t and how they could. I visualise a rich world, where people cycle and slow down, because they can, because the infrastructure is provided regardless of whether you are an 80 year old or an 8 year old. I believe it was Jan Gehl (my hero) who said that if roads can only be ridden on a push bike by brave young people, it doesn’t work.

I agree.

There is much to do. We have a climate that is retaliating. We have an obesity problem and other co-morbidity issues in most Western countries that are spiralling out of control. We have an addiction to sugar and fat in proportions that is almost comical (it would be funny if it wasn’t actually killing us), and our addiction to the car is similarly not a pretty one. We need to change and we can change.

But to survive, we must change.

The genesis of my enthusiasm is tied to this little film:

Watch it, and you may just want to do things differently too.