Shakedown Street: Creating an intermediate infrastructure.

A recent cartoon by New York Times cartoonist Bruce McCall parodies some of the recent squabbles over New York City's bicycle lanes.

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/12/19/opinion/20101219_mccall_opart.html?scp=1&sq=bike%20lanes%20cartoon&st=cse

On December 18, 2010, a cartoon by Bruce McCall appeared in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times. The cartoon, entitled “Shakedown Street,” made light of New York City’s bike lane controversy by offering a fanciful depiction of Mayor Bloomberg’s “vehicle-free paradise”: a seven lane road serving every purpose except for driving. The road makes separate provisions for traffic agents, dog-walkers, bicyclists, joggers, and even segways.

Size, Speed, and Dimension

Though McCall’s purpose is parody, he touches upon one of the most important, yet overlooked facets of the bicycle lane controversy. However much there appears to be a debate between car-drivers and bicyclists, at an elemental level, the debate is actually a controversy of size, speed, and dimension. Bicycle lanes, for all the controversy they have stirred up, represent at their core an attempt to better categorize and more efficiently separate two vehicles whose size, speed and dimension do not mesh. Broken down, the debate boils down to whether or not society is content for its transportation streetscape to be polarized into automobiles and pedestrians, or if we and our environment require another notch in the hierarchy- between the car and the pedestrian- with a separate infrastructure, set of rules, and right of way.

The Scooter and the Electric Wheelchair

For any visitor who hops onto a bicycle in Amsterdam, one of the most striking, yet under-recognized elements of Amsterdam’s cycling paths is that they are not only for bicycles. Scooters, electric wheelchairs, and the occasional tiny car makes use of these ways as well. Though many in the Netherlands see scooters (especially) and other “minority” users of the bicycle lanes as a nuisance (and they really are trouble for cyclists), their presence opens new avenues  of debate that may potentially stimulate a more multi-faceted conversation over what “bike lanes” are trying to accomplish and how their current concept may be re-staged to the public.

Tiny autos of this kind are allowed to use certain bicycle paths.

Though I would gladly call myself a booster for better bicycle facilities, I hesitate to accept the notion that bike lanes should be only for bikes. Bicycles, though beautiful, self-sufficient, elegant engines of self-liberation, are not suited to all climates and conditions. What society calls for at the street level is a more multi-faceted street- perhaps not so absurd as McCall’s seven lane road- but one that more adequately accommodates existing street functions, while speculating on innovative, efficient, and alternative modes of transit for the future.

An Intermediate Infrastructure

An “intermediate” infrastructure of this kind would certainly cause problems of its owns, in speed differences, conflicts, legal designations, and continuity. Still, the creation of separated ways for cyclists may have the effect (if properly fostered and designed) of creating a space for innovation in which vehicles between the automobile and the pedestrian are permitted a free and efficient passage. After all, in spite of the absurdity of its general appearance, the disappointment following its hype, and the failures of its business model, perhaps the most palpable reason that the Segway failed, was a lack of infrastructure. Moreover, if one looks at how existing bicycle lanes are used in New York City, one of the most uncharted (though illegal) user populations, is actually joggers. In New York, where park space can be minimal and street life enticing, the bike lane provides a floating greenway that entices runners to enchant in the theater of the city while avoiding dens of treadmill claustrophobia.

As New York City’s bicycling population and infrastructure continues to expand and offer more and better connections, perhaps one question that needs to be put forth is whether or not these facilities should accommodate more than bicycles. Perhaps the real answer to the bike lane controversy has nothing to do with bicycles at all, but boils down to the need to innovate and enhance personal transportation options- at both a vehicular and an infrastructural level in order to better and more comfortably create new means and ways of getting from point A to point B.

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Contemplating the street: The Private and The Public

A number of themes remain relevant throughout the history of the street, whatever the period. One of these has to do with a variety of private challenges to the public control of the street space and the corresponding public effort to preserve the integrity of the street channel, and keep it free of encroachments.

The key reality is that the street remains the stage of a constant struggle between private and public interests. And the moral is that when public control falters, private abuses become endemic. The public good requires that the street space be kept open, accessible to all, and equipped for its functions. By explicitly defining an outdoor space for general use, the community makes a commitment to this principle. The private urge is to appropriate this space for one’s own purposes.

-       Spiro Kostoff, The City Assembled

What is a street? Why does it exist? What is its purpose and its function? Where does it come from? The street is an invention whose existence should not be taken for granted. Many early human settlements did not have streets in the conventional sense. Life centered on familial courtyards or basic living structures intended for protection from the outside elements . People may have utilized common and convenient paths, but there existed no legal designation of this space as a way for the public use formally checked against private incursion. The word street comes from the Latin strata via sternere, which means “to pave.” What differentiated streets from convenient passageways was just that- paving- public spending to smooth a common way in the interest of access and public commerce.

Since returning to New York City from a three month fellowship studying cycling infrastructure throughout Europe, I have dwelled a great deal on the meaning and purpose of the street. I have asked myself why our streets function the way they do, what they might look like in the future, and what contests and conflicts they stage at this present juncture.

Conflict, in my present study, has been a constant preoccupation.  In the past months, a significant backlash against the bicycle path has accelerated in New York City. The response comes from the perceived “imposition” of bicycle-dedicated ways in various boroughs and communities, and more broadly disputes the city’s ambitious policy to make bicycling a more feasible, integrated, and “green” element of New York City’s transportation future–largely at the expense of car users. The city has caved into complaints over contentious bike lanes in Brooklyn and Staten Island, while recent City Council hearings have shown that a vocal community (including the gregarious borough president of Brooklyn) feels passionately enough against bicycling to question the DOT’s support for this infrastructure period.

In this post, I will put forth several comments on how the bike lane debate might be repositioned and restaged in the public forum in order to better put into perspective what not only cycling, but cycling infrastructure, means to the street. I hope that this discussion will open a more reasonable forum for debate and engage the potential for compromise, innovation, and civic enhancement.

Parking: Private Incursion or Public Service

If we accept Kostoff’s notion that the street is the ultimate stage of contest between the public and the private sphere, then we must begin by defining in this scenario who are the private and the public actors.

In the view of habitual outer borough car drivers, many accustomed to driving for their daily commutes or raised in an era when driving was not stigmatized as unsustainable but celebrated for the marvel of its convenience, their interests align with the public good. Because car users are more prevalent than bicyclists, because parking in New York City is already a nuisance, and because their daily commute matters more to them than the ideological bourgeoisie principles to refashion New York City as a sustainable paradise, provisions imposed on their streets to support bicycle users seem neither logical, legitimate, or an adequate reflection of the public interest. And they are correct.

A small (but growing) minority of the population bicycles regularly, and many that do, only bicycle seasonally. For a car user, taking away parking spaces on an entire side of one street can aggravate a daily routine and appear against the personal and public interest, especially when bike lanes appear underused. Moreover, when few bicyclists use the path, and the few that do are young, well-educated and upwardly mobile, the lane represents not only an encroachment on a community’s public convenience, but also a failure to support one way of life versus another (even a symbolic overture to future gentrifiers).

From the opposite perspective of course, those who defiantly undermine the development of a sophisticated, interconnected bicycling infrastructure in New York City cause an affront not only to the public access and flow of the city street, but incorrectly assume that parking spaces and commodious car streets are a given right, when in reality, each is a service provided and maintained by the city on behalf of the public. A parking space, in an ideal world, would be part of one’s property. If this space is not, and one chooses to own a car, then they are at the mercy of the city in using it. The car, in this view, may represent an antidote to public life, as well as a machine that insulates (and alienates) it users from the street life thriving in the outdoors. If the city decides to boldly and speculatively foster bicycling (as it did with cars, when it invested in a series of bridges and expressways to facilitate widespread car ownership and ease flow in and out of New York in an earlier era), they should not be tyrannized by the interests of a public collectively wedded to their personal interests. This collective abuse of the street space inhibits the potential multi-modal benefits made possible by bicycle usage, and damages New York City’s reputation as a place of vision and change.

In this view, he who drives his car from Brooklyn to Long Island City every morning is not only opposed to the public good, but is also out of step with the long-term sustainable and environmental goals which have been framed and developed for a healthier, happier New York City of the future. They would be also be right.

 

Our built landscape is a manifestation of our transportation habits. Transportation is the key to providing goods and services. Infrastructure- digital, physical, or otherwise- makes it possible. If we frame this problem as one of infrastructure, rather than vehicles, I believe we may make an appropriate distinction as to where the public ends and the private begins. In the United States, and indeed, in most developed places in the world, there exists a street and a sidewalk. Pedestrians use the sidewalk. Cars use the street. If one cannot afford or chooses not to own a car, as many in New York do, they must take public transportation- a bus, which also uses the street, or a train, which circumvents it to the best of its ability. Because most places in the United States were fully articulated as the car was coming into fashion and widespread use, many places in the United States are designed with its sole accommodation in mind. But in New York, where more people travel by train than by car, where densities between destinations often do not require the usage of a car, and civic life (as opposed to insular home life) thrives, driving a car is a choice.

An infrastructure for bicycles has the potential to open the door to a new series of innovations in the realm of transportation- intermediate vehicles meant for short trips in between the automobile and the pedestrian. And since New York is a place where change must thrive, where innovation should flourish and where the civic should not merely be maintained but celebrated and elaborated, the righter does not drive his car. And for Marty Markowitz, who has seen cycling flourish in Brooklyn and become a feasible, popular form of transportation, I beseech you to be smart, courageous and forward-looking, because the solution to this traffic problem is not elimination but opportunity- An opportunity to foster a new level in the transportation hierarchy. Not merely a space for bicycles versus a space for cars, but a space for innovation between walking and driving on the way to a happier, healthier, more livable city.

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Bicycling Maverick: Negotiating the American lifestyle

In my last post, I alluded to a New York Times article on the politics of junk food. The basic premise that the author espoused was that the present administration, in its efforts to curb the widespread indulgence of fatty foods and the plague of obesity, has unwisely taken a patronizing and presumptuous tone. In considering the war on junk food a “commonsensical” “political no-brainer,” they have affronted a deep seeded American way of life and took for granted that junky, processed food is not only highly visible, but often a given staple in the American household.

An excerpt:

“For in waging war on fat and sugar, what the administration is doing is taking on central aspects of the American lifestyle. Eating too much, indiscriminately, anywhere, at any time, in response to any and all stimuli, is as central to our freewheeling, mavericky way of being as car cupholders and drive-throughs. You can’t change specific eating behavior without addressing that way of life — without changing our culture of food. You need to present healthful eating as a new, desirable, freely chosen expression of the American way.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/magazine/28FOB-wwln-t.html?scp=3&sq=junk%20food&st=cse

The fascinating piece about this article and the lesson that must be extracted in the present debate over bicycling, is a matter of tactics. To convince Americans that junk food is bad for them and that it makes them overweight and unhealthy, advocates would need to stigmatize its consumption as disgusting and unsavory, an antisocial indulgence on par with the smoking of cigarettes. The key is to appeal to the nerve of popular conscience and to integrate these lessons into the mainstream rather than adopt a combative war on fat and fun.

Driving, of course, will not and should not be stigmatized in the same way as cigarettes or junk food. Though in excess it may have a regressive impact on one’s health, it serves an integral and essential role in daily life and commerce- one that ought never be dismissed.

Promoters and boosters of cycling in the US, however, could try adopting an approach more in tune with the American predilection for independence and immediacy as opposed to the bourgeoisie  instinct to reduce one’s footprint and live a self-sufficient and blameless lifestyle. The “I want to go where I want, when I want” principle stands more in line with the American Maverick instinct, while remaining true to actual beauty of the bicycle. These lessons could craft marketing campaigns for future bicycle share systems as well as initiatives focused on a younger generation for whom the bicycle could be used to attain independence at an earlier age.

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Amsterdam to New Amsterdam: A Return to New York and the Realities of the American landscape

Notes from above the Hudson Valley

Watching the landscape below me pass, I could feel the lump in my throat growing larger. Before me lay not the ancient pasturelands of Northern Ireland I had seen at the outset of my passage, nor the geometric polderlands of Holland. Instead, I saw, as my mentor and professor David Smiley once called it, a landscape of disparate fragments- America- somewhere above the Hudson River Valley.

Restless from hours of contemplating the journey behind me, I squinted to see the tiny backyards passing beneath me. Each house stood with its own individual swimming pool, a small fence, two cars, and somewhere deep inside, a sleeping dog, a cat, or a hamster. Ah, the American Dream. And so, the realities of the American landscape returned back to me: cul-de-sacs, strip malls, AppleBees, empty parking lots, and cloverleafs highway interchanges. I had written at length about this landscape during my last year of college, yet surveying it all after these months of travel, I realized how quickly I had taken it for granted.

Unlike Europe, whose cities from above look like complex organisms-neurons that split into dendrites that connect with other neurons and form a world whose natural beauty tells the story of civilization, America is an abstraction akin only to the electronic switchboard. And further west, where the aggregation of time fades more completely, this landscape resolves into a speculative grid more beautiful and disturbing than anything even the Romans might have dreamed of.

To Penn Station

After three months abroad in near-constant transit, I could only hope, after my plane touched down, to find my parents on the other side of the baggage claim window, smiling and eager to embrace me as in some cinematic, slow-motion camera sequence. But, traffic, rather appropriately, had thrown them off course near the Cross-Bronx Expressway, a parking lot drifting to New Jersey backed up two hours plus. Resigned, and wearing tired red eyes that had the customs agents sicking hound dogs on my luggage, I opted to take the train to Penn Station rather than wait in the depressing Newark Liberty terminal.

The train was a fair bit less comfortable and commodious than the Dutch and German models I had become so accustomed to- even a bit less so than those of the Czech Republic, sad to say- but I admired the cast of characters and gradually re-immersed myself- re-awoke really- to find myself in that never-so-elusive American-ness I had begun to romanticize in the months past.

Penn Station, for anyone who has never arrived in New York by train, is the busiest, most poorly designed, and chaotic railway station in America. The original station, a hulking Beaux-Arts masterpiece modeled on the Baths of Caracalla, was torn down in the 1960s, an oft-remembered travesty whose injustice jumpstarted New York’s preservation movement. But getting off that train into the busy terminal, my countenance weary of travel, my hair too curly and full of knots, I was all too glad to be shoved above ground into the commotion of New Yorkers bound for anywhere but here. With a bag draped over my shoulders close to dropping its contents from the bottom, I quickly was reminded that America is no Europe, and that New York, is indeed, hardly America. I watched myself enter the city, as always from above, making my way along a street I could see and plot on my mental map, directly into the heart of the city. But unlike the European cities I had accustomed myself to, where I had only to look for the outline of some old fortification walls or the nearest crevice leading into the medieval nucleus, the Manhattan grid offered only sidewalks teeming with outsiders (for all Americans, especially New Yorkers, are from somewhere else) and streets that gushing with yellow taxicabs like the waters of angry river.

And then I saw it- the forlorn Broadway bicycle path. But a year or two old, it was a already, weathered, faded, and obstructed. A bicyclist wearing a miner’s headlamp and a neon suit flitted past me between the taxicabs and I briefly imagined if I might have had a similar sensation of chaos in Cairo or Marrakesh. But I was happy to be home, and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

 

The Pursuit of Happiness

I remember now the words of an old Irishman I encountered at a near-empty hostel on the outskirts of Haarlem: “Americans want to go where they want, when they want,” he’d said, stuffing a piece of pound cake between his jaws, “Bicycles’ll never work in the US. People here, the Dutch, Germans, Danish…they like rules.”  He was a lonely, dirty, disgruntled curmudgeon and he left crumbs everywhere and smelled like a wet towel. But he was right. It is written in our constitution, etched in our minds, and given full expression in the lust and vigor of our proud American hearts: I do what I want, when I want, and nobody tells me what to do.

I’ve been catching up on news and politics for the past few days, and the situation seems, if not grim, at least entertaining and theatrical. Here is the question: How do convince people in the most individualistic society in the world to embrace change for the collective good?

I read an article on nutrition the other day that clarified the problem. Change, it advised, cannot be imposed through the agency of experts, intellectuals, and politicians who supposedly know better. To change the way that people eat, as well as dress, move, and talk, one cannot begin with the assumption that such unhealthy, processed foods are bad for you, but instead must effect a sea change by which eating these foods becomes viewed as disgusting, regressive, and antisocial.  The connection to bicycling, while tentative, is nevertheless there. People don’t stop doing things because a high minded elite says they are bad for them; they stop doing things to preserve themselves in the eyes of their peers and to conform (by their own merit) to what is acceptable, cool, progressive, and cutting edge.

 

Bicycling has the potential to reshape American cities and reintroduce a healthy, positive, and sustainable form of transportation into a civic life spoiled by a culture of fear and insulation- one whose prime hapless agent happens to be the automobile. But this change, if it is to be effected at all, must be ingratiated into the public conscience instead of imposed from a source that knows better, but fares worse. For ordinary Americans see and accept and know that America has been designed for cars, that the best way to get from point A to point B staying warm, comfortable, and listening to music is in a car- and that anything that happens to hamper that progression is not only antisocial but illogical. And they are right.

But what most Americans do not realize, and may never realize, is that the cost of this grand convenience has eroded his most natural rights and gifts. That to use an instrument- be it his body or his bicycle- that requires an input that is self-sufficient and without cost- to go where he wants to when he wants to, is a right surrendered, sacrificed and compromised by the willful tyranny of his favorite machine. And that as he has allowed this machine to become his legs, so too has it become his heart, his mind, and his culture. Whether the answer lies on the bicycle path, the sidewalk, or the street, what must not be forgotten is that just as children have the right to play, so too should man have the right to walk, or jog, or rollerblade, or if he sees it fit, to bike, without obstruction, without delay- and wherever he damn well pleases.

 

 

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Visualizing Bicycle Share Systems

Interesting link demonstrating creative ways to map and track the success of bicycle hire schemes worldwide.

http://infosthetics.com/archives/2010/10/comparing_all_the_bike_hire_schemes_around_the_world.html

 

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The Flâneur on two wheels: Velib! Bicycle Sharing and Infrastructure in the City of Light

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Few bicycling systems in the world have attracted more attention than the Paris’ groundbreaking Vélib, launched in 2007. And with good reason: with over 17,000 bicycles in circulation and a surprising degree of both permanent and provisional infrastructure, the Vélib is the crown jewel of European bicycle share systems, and has jumpstarted a minor transportation revolution in this city of crêpes and berets. But as fantastic and unprecedented as the Vélib may indeed be, the system is troubled by a number of distribution problems, and lacks the necessary scope of integral planning and infrastructure to make not only the Vélib, but bicycling in general a boundless success in Paris.

In this post, I will critique the Vélib on a handful of issues, both positive and negative. My focus will be infrastructure and ease of use, but it is important to recognize that a large part of the Vélib’s success has been facilitated by a committed, long-term thinking government and the financial support of advertising giant JCDeceaux. Without these two pillars, such a system could never have been carried out to such a degree.

1. Success breeds mediocrity

Arriving in Paris for the first time, I was immediately skeptical of the Vélib. There I was standing in front of a metro stop in an active, roundabout besieged by traffic, and a Vélib station was nowhere in sight. Only a moment later, I turned the corner to find a street lined with what must have been 50-60 bikes- a humbling introduction to Europe’s most sophisticated bicycle sharing program.

The Vélib’s greatest success, and the baseline measure for any bicycle share system, is that it achieves critical mass. Quite simply, the bikes are everywhere. Stations appear every couple of blocks and often stock far more bikes than one might expect. Vélib’s system of 17,000+ bicycles and 1,200+ stations makes finding a bike, returning a bike, and enjoying a bike easy and carefree. Or at least, it ought to.

The Vélib, it seems, represents a strange case of success breeding mediocrity. Because such a critical mass of bicycles are in circulation and people actually use them to get around for short trips and errands, the system is plagued by a number of unprecedented problems. First of all, there is the inflow/outflow dilemma. During the day, there are a lack of bicycles in the perimeter districts (especially hilly areas) and an overabundance of them in the center- which makes parking a stressful and inconvenient affair. Since the Vélib is only free for the first 30 minutes, if you happen to arrive at your intended destination to find your station and the nearest one totally full, the result can be frustrating and costly (well, not that costly). Truth be told, maps of Vélib stations are readily accessible and posted at most share stations, but the system is nevertheless undermined by the realities of the rush hour. True success could only be achieved if people in both the center and the periphery used the Vélib for all trips, long and short, constantly, or if bicycle redistribution were carried out so thoroughly that the the system could maintain its equilibrium- unlikely, though thought-provoking possibility. Secondly, as anyone who spends five minutes in Paris realizes rather quickly, walking is a great deal more pleasant than cycling in Paris, even if it takes an extra twenty minutes to go grocery shopping, and take in the streets, smell, and architecture at a more relaxed pace.

2. On the question of infrastructure…

What is in some ways more surprising than the breadth of the Vélib sharing system is the degree to which the city of Paris, has, within a relatively short span of time, established a tremendous amount of permanent and provisional cycling infrastructure. On-street painted bicycle lanes, asphalt-paved sidewalk lanes and separated, at-grade pathways make the frenzied center of Paris a more than adequate environment for bicycling.

As far as infrastructure goes, the city of Paris has employed several consistent strategies to accommodate cycling and make it a safer activity.

1. Permanent separated lanes

On several main boulevards and wider streets, Paris has built in permanent or provisional, separated cycle tracks. These are often paired with share stations at regular intervals and represent the crem-de-la-creme of the Vélib’s infrastructure.

2.  Painted lanes and logos

A mixed bag overall, the painted lanes with frequently stamped bicyclist logos in Paris reflect safe bicycling environments 50 percent of the time. Though frequent on street painted signage (most effective when green) and lanes are a constant reassurance to traffic-dodging cyclists, these lanes tend to lure cyclists into hairy traffic conflicts and are often a poor reflection of how safe and convenient a street actually is for cyclists. Paris would be smart to learn from its Alsacian cousin to the south, Strasbourg, where traffic calming measures (30 km zones, speed bumps) are far more advanced in coordination with cycling infrastructure and signage.

3. The Bike/Bus Lane

Nowhere more than Paris have I seen the bike/bus lane strategy employed. Basically, the city creates a dedicated bus lane (sometimes even in the center of the street, and often accessible to livery vehicles as well) and stamps a cyclist logo onto it. The idea being, of course, that in the process of facilitating public transport, the city also creates a safe, luxurious, and spacious route for cyclists. In reality, however, the city takes bicyclists out of the piranha tank and puts them in with the sharks. They are a less populous breed, but interactions can be daunting, uncomfortable, and deadly (though I am still more afraid of sharks than buses). In general, I found that these bike/bus lanes could benefit from a separate bicycle lane within the larger dedicated area in order to ease the potential space crunch and delineate space in the event of conflict.

4. The local/slow street

A more successful street prototype used in Paris than the combined bicycle/bus lane is the local or calmed/slow street which is accessible to both cars and bicycles, but is separated from fast traffic.  These streets effectively separate bicyclists from heavy traffic and ease traffic by giving cars looking for parking a separate and comfortable space to do so. This concept is a familiar one used quite frequently in the Netherlands and helps to create a calmer space for bicycles, as well as a buffer between pedestrian sidewalks and heavy traffic.

4. Intersections

Where the bicycling infrastructure of Paris, and most other systems for that matter, falters is at intersections. Some would argue that an intersection in a cycling system serves the same purpose as a joint in the human body. Without the adequate articulation of these keys pivot points, the skeleton loses its potential for connectivity and flexibility. Where cars, bicyclists and pedestrians come together and conflict (to quote a friend of mine)–”That is the Network.” As much as Paris has succeeded in reassuring bicyclists of their place on the road and as part of the traffic hierarchy of the city, at its intersections (for bicyclists and pedestrians alike), the system fractures.

Though Paris has employed a number of interesting solutions in the realm of infrastructure, including checkered green painting at troublesome intersections, left and right turns remain treacherous and, at many junctions, bicyclists struggle to fend for themselves and must be quite aggressive. Of course, there is hardly a case for comparison between Paris and Amsterdam or Copenhagen in terms of urban scale, but the city needs to bolster their infrastructure at these busy intersections and roundabouts- with signals, signage, and color- to make the Vélib a safe as well as successful system.

3. Wayfinding in a city built for parades

Paris, like many grand European capitals, is a city built for parades, not people or traffic. This famous urban form, an amalgam of axial boulevards that meet at oversized roundabouts crowned by statuary and  pilfered obelisks, makes traffic planning and the creation of a better bicycling infrastructure a tremendous challenge. Unlike gridded cities in the United States or student cities of the Netherlands and Germany, the challenge for a capital on the scale of London, Paris, or Berlin is not only to create a more livable city for bicycles and pedestrians alike, but also to use these systems in order to enhance wayfinding/legibility and to clarify the city’s districts, main paths, edges, and nodes.

Bicycle signage, as I have written at length about Amsterdam, has the potential to convey not only hierarchy and direction, but also structure. One of my greatest critiques of the Vélib, for example, is that although the bicycle stations are generally paired to Metro Stations, there is no Vélib sign to indicate when a metro station actually has one nearby, where to find it from the station, or even a small V sign beneath the prominent and recognizable M. Additionally, though the ubiquitous green of the bicycle paths and logos in Paris is appropriately suggestive and easy to recognize, I would be interested to see whether or not the system could be more effectively paired with the metro line numbers, destination names, and colors, or have their own system cues involving colors, letters, numbers, and pictures. Since certain streets already have Vélib stations at regular intervals, why not give such streets a distinctive accent, so that those looking for parking know that such a path is a reliable Vélib parking route.

Part of the issue (and of course the beauty), in my opinion, of a Vélib-type system is that unlike a subway, it allows users to move freely in all directions. As any Google map of Vélib stations will show, the system is the ultimate instrument of spontaneity and appropriately ascribes the situationist doctrine of derivé. But as much as this kind of freedom liberates, it also brings with it a strange, unknowable opacity that fails to suitably discern or guide not only how people bicycle through the city, but what might be the safest and least complex thoroughfares for them to use. After all, the Vélib offers a thirty minute ride, so in general, it is built for riders with a purpose (much to this aimless wanderer’s dsimay).

Some Concluding  Thoughts

The Vélib in Paris offers a sterling example of how a bicycle sharing system can change not only the perception of bicycling in a city, but also how bicyclists can move through and interact with an urban environment. As much as the Vélib should be emulated in capitals all over the world, the realities of bicycle sharing are limiting. In an ideal bicycling culture and environment, such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen, bicycle usage is widespread enough to render a share system redundant, relatively unnecessary or geared to tourists. As much as the Vélib has been successful, the regular Parisian bicyclist, whose pride for his/her old Peugeot is long-standing and mature, has hardly been afforded with more consistent parking at metro stations compared with the flashy Vélib. Bicycle sharing must in certain cases represent a transitional state that increases bicycling in the public imagination and encourages people to experiment with bicycle errands and commuting. Sharing concepts in general must also generate the interest of more niche markets and, as they are already, encompass a wider and more flexible range of vehicle types, including cars, mopeds, electric bicycles, segways, and cargo bikes.

As a final note, it must be mentioned that the Vélib, while successful and popular among the Parisian bourgeoisie, is not as widely accessible to the poor and immigrant classes, many of whom may not use a credit card, or may have never learned to ride a bicycle. This impedes the system from fully achieving its democratic aims and restricts usership to a less-than representative cross-section of the Parisian population. Vandalism and theft, moreover, some arguably in reaction to these inequities, are all too common.

(Below is a longer article dealing with social issues related to Velib):

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/31/world/europe/31bikes.html?_r=1

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A History of Cycling Paths in the Netherlands

The following video provides excellent information and archival video footage regarding the development of cycle paths in the Netherlands.

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