public space

Park it here! Oh, on second thoughts…

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Bikes not allowed. Upside down wheelchairs however, are permitted.

The poor old City of Melbourne Council, scratching about to make improvements for cyclists where it can, albeit in a transport system that puts cycling on the lowest rung of the transport ladder.

One of the best ways to encourage cycling is to have public transport that encourages it. An example might be taking your bike on a bus or train as part of your journey. Another initiative that has proven positive is secure parking for bikes at train stations, or large transport hubs, ostensibly encouraging people to cycle to the station and then move onto public transport rather than drive to the station. Both responses (bikes on PT or secure parking for bikes at stations) have proven successful according to evidence that has informed Melbourne’s Bicycle Plan, 2012.

Yesterday, at South Yarra station though, I saw on the platform the above photo, indicating that I was not permitted to take my bike on the train in the first carriage. There are several things wrong with this. Firstly, there was no indication as to where I could put my bike on the train; secondly that it’s long been my belief that the first carriage is where cyclists are meant to put their bike (the first carriage usually being the most empty and therefore less disruptive for other passengers); thirdly that there is no parking at all at South Yarra station for bikes (even though 170 people ride there every day and then catch the train – imagine if they were all driving cars!); and lastly, if the argument that is provided is true and that the first carriage is now reserved for those in wheelchairs, do you not think they could have put the wheelchair signs around the right way, i.e. facing the person in the wheelchair waiting to get on the train? And anyway, is the demand for wheelchair space on the first carriage so overwhelming that bikes can’t fit in there as well? I’ve not seen such evidence.

The ‘Parkiteer’ (park it here) secure bike parking cages in Victoria have proven to be successful, even though you have to pay for it. Advertised as free*, if you squint you can see the asterisk next to the last ‘e’. In order to use the Parkiteer cage, you need to register and put down a $50 deposit after which point you will be posted an access card (which may take over a week to arrive). Compare that system to the all swinging, all dancing bike parking in Utrecht. It’s completely indoors and there’s no need to register to use it. Oh, and it’s free. Even with the restrictions posed by Parkiteer parking however, the cages have proven to be so successful that Bicycle Network are no longer issuing access cards for the cages at certain stations, as they are at capacity.

Sorry? What?

Let’s unpack this a little and take Hoppers Crossing station as an example, as this is one of the stations where the Parkiteer bike cage is completely full. My outrage, in short, is this: there are 566 car parking spaces next to the station. This aerial view puts it in proper perspective. Given that by removing one car space you can provide parking for up to 20 bikes, doesn’t it seem like a no brainer to do this? Further, given that each car park costs approximately $500 to operate per annum, is this really the best value for money (and that figure doesn’t even include the negative externalities such as noise pollution, environmental degradation associated health costs and so on)?

Again, in short, how serious are we?

If we really wanted to encourage cycling we would retrofit train carriages to allow (not merely allow, but actively encourage) people to use their bikes as part of their journey. We would find spaces for people to park their bikes at stations for those not wishing to travel with them, and not merely say ‘Sorry, the bike parking facilities are full, you’ll have to put your name on a waiting list’ (this is indeed currently the case). We wouldn’t make people faff about with registrations and deposits to use Parkiteer cages, it would be free and open to all. Again, it would be a demonstration of intent, of genuinely encouraging people to ride. I’m not naive enough to think that everyone is going to stop driving and ride a bike to the station, nor do I believe that everyone would be in a position to do that. But many would if it was made easier (of course having a more fully integrated PT service so that people didn’t actually have to drive to the station would be the stuff of dreams but, currently in Victoria, it may remain a flight of fancy for some time yet).

The outcry over full car parks around train stations is always a political football around election time, and Victoria saw this at the tail end of last year, especially with the Liberal Government’s promises to build more car parks, blind to the lunacy in such policies. I’m incredibly pleased they didn’t get in so that they won’t be able to see their absurd imaginings come to life.

The tagline of this blog is ‘It can be better’. One of the ways it can be better is to encourage people to ride more and make it easy for those who already do. Based on the evidence above, this is sadly not the case.

This post can be put in a visual sense by looking at the Parkiteer information on Bicycle Network’s website (notice the dates of the news items too). Oh the hilarity – it’s enough to make you weep.

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Books as Furniture and Bikes as Fashion

What was once a god bothering bike is bothersome no more

What was once a god bothering Billboard Bike is bothersome no more

Brilliant author, Nicholson Baker, wrote a fascinating essay for New Yorker entitled Books as Furniture. Focussing on the use of books in mail order catalogues, Baker argues books are used as signifiers of a lifestyle, intelligence or value system that certain catalogues attempt to exemplify in their products. People are increasingly doing this with bikes.

I don’t have to tell you about the increased popularity in cycling, whoever you are. The stats are always amazing, and statements are often heard like “There’s been a bajillion per cent increase in cycling in the last 6 months”, or alike (for more thorough stats though, you may wish to see this for Australia, this for the UK and this for the USA – although the latter really focuses on commuter rides).

Bikes have now become a way of signifying a lifestyle or value system, as Baker noted with regard to books. Bikes are fashionable. They are trendy. They have become more than merely modes of transport. If you own a bike, and where you ride it (to uni, work, only on weekends), you are telling people about your lifestyle. And then there is commentary on the type of bike you own which further tells people about you. Is it a fixie? A mountain? A hybrid? A step through? A carbon fibre, lighter than air number worth enough to make most people weep? Your answer says a great deal, even to those who don’t own a bike.

Advertisers have worked this out. On the excellent Waking up in Geelong blog, Marcus Wong provides a humorous account of the ‘Billboard Bike’ (I might have just coined a phrase! Probably not, but hey) fashion that is, as he puts it, currently plaguing Melbourne’s CBD. Advertising for restaurants, clothing shops, wedding gowns and gold sellers (?!) and god (again, ?!) are now being advertised on bikes in a myriad of ways, the bike then being locked to a post or bike rack nearby to the vendor. Personally, I dislike it as it takes up valuable bike parking (always at a premium in Melbourne), but I do think it’s interesting that businesses have latched on to this, especially those that drape these Billboard Bikes with fake flowers and so on, further enhancing the look of a bike. This is especially the case with ‘vintage’ looks, and particularly ‘vintage’ clothing. If you are selling such wares, it is virtually law to have a step through bike outside the front of your shop laden down with fake flowers and possibly floral inspired flags.

However, it’s not only physical manifestations of bikes that have become a tool for the seller, images of bikes have bled into advertising also.

And this is the point of today’s little missive (but I grant you, that was a lofty intro). Swinburne university in Hawthorn, Melbourne, is actually walking the walk and talking the talk when it comes to bike stuff. Here’s an advertisement in the grounds:

Swinburne uni banner with obligatory picture of bike on the left

Swinburne uni banner with obligatory picture of bike on the left

Now, riding along, simply seeing that, I would normally think ‘Another great example of bikes being used to advertise a certain lifestyle. Yawnsville.’ However, riding my deadly treadlie through the uni today to get home, I spied this situation:

Maintenance guy, Joe, before I met him

Maintenance guy, Joe, before I met him

A ‘Fix Your Bike and Pump Your Tyres’ (FYBAPYT – pronounced Fibberpit. I think I just coined a word) pole! As Joe amicably demonstrated, the service doesn’t just pertain to bikes. You could probably take a wheelbarrow down too.

Joe, after I'd met him

Joe, after I’d met him

Joe told me that this was an initiative by Swinburne, not the local Council. I asked if there were others on campus and he pointed up the hill and said ‘Yeah, there’s another one at the end of the walkway on the right’. I thanked him and rode off to discover the next FYBAPYT.

Sure enough, about 100 meters along, there it was:

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Behold! Another FYBAPYT!

Up close and personal, the FYBAPYT is a bike users’ dream, with everything that you could need to, well, Fix Your Bike and Pump Your Tyres:

The tool choices are almost alarming!

The tool choices are almost alarming!

Check out the gauge action

Check out the gauge action!

And what was between the two FYBAPYT stations? This:

Genius! A water refill station, in an obvious, accessible place!

Genius! A water refill station, in an obvious, accessible place!

Seriously, this is great stuff by Swinburne. It’s not just an awkward bubbler with a slightly mouldy, greenish hue around it as is so commonplace at most uni’s, but a clean as a whistle, brand new water station for you to refill your water bottle from a tap on the side or have a drink from the bubbler at the front.

For all my cynicism and criticism that can often fill posts with regard to biking, it’s critical to give credit where it’s due. I feel Swinburne has earned the right to use bikes in their advertising as they are not doing it for a cheap shot and an easy win or seeing it as a flash in the pan fashion that will look good in the uni prospectus. Rather, they have backed up their commitment to cycling, beyond a pretty poster. This stuff takes brave governance and leaders who are happy with a change in the status quo and goodness there should be more of it. I can’t help but wonder how nice the – biking – world would be if all those shops and businesses that use bikes to advertise their wares advocated for better conditions for cyclists.

Allowing Planning to be Praised Pupil, not Dejected Dullard

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A recent article in The Guardian beseeches us to make town planning as cool as architecture, for the sake of our cities.

The author, Tom Campbell, makes a compelling argument, pointing to the desperate need for better planning given the current state of affairs. Whilst he focuses on England, the same arguments for the need for this paradigm shift could be applied to many, many countries and certainly here in Melbourne, Australia where barely a day passes without editorial content spilling out of local papers on urban planning and how badly we’re currently tracking.

But this is an interesting point, and brings me to mine. Aside from the fact that everyone seems to have an idea of what Melbourne (or indeed, other cities) should be doing, planners themselves are forbidden from doing what they do best: namely, plan. If the same professional disregard was afforded to medical practitioners, our health would be even more woeful than what our bursting bellies and belts already tell us it is. Similarly, if we neglected the advice from scientists regarding climate change…oh wait, I live in Australia. Bad example. Move on. The point here is that – for the most part – we respect people in positions that we know nothing about, even when we claim we do, and let them get on with their job, safe in the knowledge that they have studied and worked in a field for longer than us and therefore are infinitely better equipped to solve problem X, or at least better placed to discuss it.

Not so with planning. Planning has become the most forlorn child in the career classroom. Always relegated to the back of class, it sits there dressed in forever beige, bruised and bereft, despondent and desperate, eyeing it’s more fashionable friends of design and architecture, vying for teachers attention. But what is so desperate about this pitiful image is that planning could be incredible if it was allowed to be. Brimming with brilliance and bright ideas planning it has been beaten into submission but that does not mean its ideas are any less fantastic, any less valid.

What seems to happen in planning is that people enter the profession and find themselves not only not being brave, but not allowing to be. A friend of mine recently joined a large planning firm where he had to find fault with a perfectly good submission for a medium rise development. I asked him if he had sold out. His embarrassed, awkward smile spoke louder than any words that followed. Sadly, he has become that child at the back of the class.

It’s not up to us, as planners, to make planning ‘cool’ again as the article implores us to. It’s up to politicians and better forms of governance to allow us to do our job. Planning is already cool. Planning has the ability to get you to work on time, or not. It enables you to ride a bike to school, or not. It ensures you have green space near you, or not. It provides security, safety, better amenity. Or not. But what planning has become is a diluted, impoverished version of itself. People, you’re not seeing what its potential actually is.

I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like in if planners were actually encouraged and allowed to do their job. It would save people from having to tweak the edges and muck about with quick fixes. A recent post on Planetizen entitled ‘How to Crowdfund a Bike Lane’, is an excellent example of this. Heralded as a positive outcome, I can’t help but ask ‘What have we become that we virtually have to hand around the hat and take donations for built infrastructure to make our cities safe and the sort of places we want them to be? Why have we failed so much and ignored solid advice about how to plan place and space?’ I’m all for participatory planning and a keen advocate for it, but planning like this is just, well, sad.

Again, tirelessly, I say: if things were working and everything was awesome and the environment and our physical health was optimal I’d say ‘As you were – keep prohibiting us from proper planning’. Sadly, we’re not in such an enviable position. But we could be if you just let us get on with our job.

Still in doubt? Then ask yourself this: why would planners want to make the world worse? After all, we live here too.

 

I Might Just Sit This One Out

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Everyone likes a bit of a sit down, don’t they? The above captures a lass doing that in the busy Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne as she lolls about on a piece of public art.

A moment of reflection, a brief pause, a small comma in an otherwise lengthy sentence (okay, you get the drift). The point is, we like seats, and we like public seats. I’m not going to dwell on the whole ‘we like looking at people and being with people and that is why we go to public parks and sit aside from just to find respite’ thing here, suffice to say that that is true – albeit long winded.

What I do want to focus on however is planners and designers who decide where seats will go, and why. In my own wonderings around and about, I have witnessed all manner of seating in frankly obscure places, leading me to believe that seats can be as pointless as carrying an extra tube but not knowing how to fix a flat. In short, it’s just for show.

A seat in a pointless place says ‘We, as a Council, care and we offer comfort and respite and look here – a seat for you to spend some time on’. That’s what this seat looks like:

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If you were sitting on the seat, you would have the lovely Yarra river behind you, a smooth, easy bike and pedestrian path, er, behind you, and some really lovely old bluestone brickwork, um, behind you. And what would your view be?

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This: six lanes of traffic. Ahhh, the serenity.

Further along the Yarra river bike path (which I really can’t fault), is this utterly odd arrangement of seating:

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It is honestly as though it was arranged for bickering siblings or bored couples. What’s such a pity is that the view from both seats is splendid:

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I can’t help but wonder if the people who installed it merely read their directions incorrectly and they are meant to in a ‘V’ shape, but both looking out to the river, and indeed, each other.

Here’s a lovely nighttime snap of a lonely bench with 6 lanes of traffic in front of it. What is more perverse is that this is on the edge of one of Melbourne’s most splendid parks – the Fitzroy Gardens. Would you rather face traffic or people and trees?

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I know I am saving the best for last here, but this is too delicious. In the university ‘courtyard’ (and I use the term advisedly), near to where I live, there is this inviting, wonderful public bench amidst this hallowed seat of learning:

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Seriously, would anyone want to sit here? Would anyone want to even walk through here?

The world is not a perfect place, I know, but truly, could we not spend a little more time thinking about the placement of these public seats? Is it really so difficult to think about what you, as a person, would like to look at in the real world rather than what looks good on a plan?

Amongst all this bafflement, it was nice to notice the ducks on the way home and remember that when I ride my bike, I’m always sitting comfortably and the scenery is a moveable feast.

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Face to the Fjord: A look at Oslo on the release of their new PSPL

A great blog here by the good folk at Gehl Architects. Do they ever do anything terrible?! Enjoy.

Cities for People

Oslo_feature Gehl Architects’ Public Space Public Life study of Oslo was made public today, March 24, 2014.
This ‘special feature #1′ aims to incite dialogue around the challenges and opportunities facing the public realm in Oslo and other cities.

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By Bonnie Fortune, freelance journalist
Facts and findings are based on Gehl Architects’ report
‘Bylivsundersøkelse Oslo sentrum’

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“Oslo is a small city where everyone knows one another,” says landscape architect and project leader for Levende Oslo (Lively Oslo), Yngvar Hegrenes. Norway’s capital city on the Olso fjord recently commissioned a Public Space-Public Life (PSPL) survey that took over two years to complete, despite the city’s compact size. Hegrenes is responsible for commissioning the survey, stating that Oslo was interested in taking a fresh look at their city center with input from knowledgeable outside sources. Hegrenes worked closely with the Oslo municipality, community business owners and organizations, and Gehl Architects to complete the…

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Piecemeal planning: impracticality for pedestrians

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No matter how much you might want people to walk somewhere, they will walk where they feel right.

There’s a little path that runs from the bottom of a road, near where I work, up the side of a park to the top of a hill. This path, in the 6 years I have worked nearby, has not been completely paved. You can see (if you squint) that the picture on the left does actually have a slab of concrete but it then ends and the pedestrian is left with a treck to the top with bare dirt. At the time of taking these snaps (about, oh, I don’t know, an hour ago), we are at the tail end of summer so things are looking a little less muddy than they will in 6 months’ time. Come July however, that is a pretty nasty path to walk up (or down).

So why, I hear you ask, why do these brave pedestrians make this perilous sojurn, risking mud on their clothing and a nasty spill? Here’s your answer:

bus stop

Low and behold! A bus stop! Who knew?!

In my world – in my ideal, wonderfully bike, pedestrian and public transport friendly world – there would be an accessible (and paved) path leading from where people live (the top of the hill) to where people catch the bus (the bottom of the hill).

You might look at this and ask “Goodness, this is one path, who cares?”, but I think it is a small demonstration of not only piecemeal planning but not looking at how people move, naturally, and designing places for them with this in mind, instead of looking over a plan and thinking ‘Mmm, straight lines look good from up here so we’ll use them at street level’. Well, we’re not birds.

Certainly, there is a road (with a footpath on the side of it) that could be walked up to reach the top of the hill, but that would involve at least another 5 minutes of exercise. What would you choose to do? Walk down the feetmade (as opposed to handmade) path through a park and get another 5 minutes in bed, or walk down the road?

Recognising people’s behaviour and how they move in public space has to be more considered in planning. Otherwise you end up putting in partway paths for pedestrians, with impractical applications.

Seven Year Olds and Seagulls

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Cycling along the other day, I caught this delightful little pic (yeah, I know it’s little). It’s of a young girl, maybe 6 or 7 years of age who was just skipping, running and generally being active with the seagulls on a hill. Her parents/guardians were on top of the hill, however they’re out of this frame. It was a beautiful day and I thought to myself: that little girl feels good. She’s in the city and she’s feeling good. She obviously feels safe, and from what I can tell she is doing something that is fun whist being active.

For her, this city is working.

Imagine if that’s what we did: designed cities for seven year olds and seagulls.

Not all Nights Need to be White

Oftentimes, even without a night that is white, Melbourne still gets it right. The City of Melbourne does a simply amazing job in welcoming people, inviting them to stay in the spaces between buildings. After securing my bike, I had wander through the city and this is what I witnessed:pub1

That truly is a bloke just reading a book at one end of a long wall and a bloke at the other end strumming a guitar and then a random few people chatting, staying and just ‘being’ in between these two urbanites. Nice.

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Meanwhile, further up the same street, a seriously good busker, Jack Man Friday draws a not insignificant crowd as he entertains young and old alike (and yes, you do need a permit to busk in Melbourne and have an audition – basically if a busker is legally busking in Melbourne, the quality is beyond question).

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And then, further still – a couple of folks play chess as onlookers, well, look on.

It may be presumptuous of me to say, but I suspect that these two may never have met were it not for the novelty sized chess game. Connections are made, albeit fleetingly, but that is the role of a city that works well and space that is utilised affectively. It allows for these connections. It facilitates them. It invites them and welcomes them when they arrive.

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People stop and stay to smell and touch as they discover this pop up herb garden outside of the Town Hall (this was actually seen two weeks ago, but it just proves my point that this happens in Melbourne often).

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And lastly, people lounge outside of the State Library on beanbags provided by the Library (as is the chess). It could be argued that there is nothing really to ‘do’ here, but that is the point. People stay, because people are there. People go where people go because, well, we like people. We like being with them. We don’t want to talk to them (necessarily), but we like being near them and knowing they are there. People are interesting. People watching is legitimate.

I look at how I use the city on a day like this one and know that I will be taking the long route to wherever I need to go just to be in the city for longer.

This is a city that invites me to stay, and I welcome the invitation every time.

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.