It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.  Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle. ~Ernest Hemingway

Ramblers Highway is a blog about understanding urban space through the eyes of the bicyclist. Surveying those cities in the Netherlands and Denmark with exemplary bicycling infrastructure, I attempt to understand not only what makes bicycling effective, but how that efficiency is transposed onto the overall image of the city itself.

In his seminal work, Image of the City, architect and planner Kevin Lynch discusses the notion of legibility in his reading of the urban environment. Legibility, or wayfinding as it is often interchanged with, refers to the potential for a stranger unacquainted with a particular environment to read its inherent structure. In New York, a tourist may use the street numbers and avenues of the Manhattan grid to find his way. In London, one may use the Thames as a primary point of reference; in Istanbul, the minarets of the city’s many mosques. Elsewhere, legibility may be found in a certain cohesion of color or materials, of shops or bustle. In some places, the city is anchored by the sea; elsewhere by train tracks, rivers, or parklands.

Lynch devised a basic system of paths, nodes, landmarks, districts, and edges to annotate the properties of legibility and diagram the city, but these few basics are often too limiting. Properties of light, smell, and sound often mark one city or district from another. (The possibilities are enchanting…A district that smells always of bluberry pie. A city of complete silence. Or one in which all the street lamps are green.)

One terrific example of legibility is the United States road system. Not only are US drivers guided by uniform, instantly recognizable signage, but these roads are organized in a numbered, colored, and official, organized hierarchy. As a result, someone passing from Brooklyn to New Jersey knows the difference between using the highway with no traffic lights or pedestrians, and the one way alley in Chinatown half covered in smashed bibbs of lettuce.

For the bicycle, this degree of legibility has not been adequately developed, in part because the lost car has historically been deemed more consequential than the lost bicyclist (generally a recreational bicyclist in the United States). With the advent of bicycling as a “green” form of transportation and the recent government support and funding that has bolstered small but growing communities of daily bicyclists, the issue of legibility must be reinvestigated.

The theory behind this project is that bicyclists need and deserve to have a legible and efficient transportation network that distinguishes and illuminates their place in the urban mesh apart from cars, trains, and pedestrians. Using the best examples of bicycling infrastructure in the world, in the Netherlands and Denmark, I plan to learn what elements render an urban bicycle system legible and accessible, to the stranger as well as the local.

For each city I visit, I intend to discern this legibility at three scales.

First. Details. Details may include anything from the color of the paint on a path to the signage that lets you know you are on it. Color, paving, lighting, signals, signs, and other architectural elements (street furniture) will be considered.

Second. Sequence. The configuration of any bicycling infrastructure must coalesce into a series of legible, accessible sequences that make it easy and profitable to bicycle regularly. How does a bicycle system deal with other forms of transportation, such as cars or trains? What architectures make these sequences pleasurable or thrilling? What hierarchies exist that distinguish a fast, car-free route from a slow, traffic-burdened one?

Third. The Parti. The parti of a bicycle system may be likened to the abstract image of a subway map, or a diagram or outline of a large city with only key landmarks and district names depicted. Discovering the parti will pose the ultimate challenge, as it is effectively the question my project seeks to answer. Can a bicycle system enhance the legibility, the parti, of a city? What role can the bicycle play as a generator of urban imageability, if any?

Please feel free to contribute to or comment on my findings and daily reflections.

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3 Responses to Exposition

  1. Hi, nice to read this entry, with the clear and more elaborate explanation of your project. I’m curious about the results. I feel we could learn from it also in the Netherlands.

    I have question: can you (briefly) explain the concept of ‘parti’ for me? My knowledge of your language is failing me there…

    • dev2103 says:

      Thank you for the comment.

      I apologize if my language was a bit convoluted.
      “Parti” is a term- typically used in architecture- which describes the essential concept of a project, usually a building. (This link may help: http://arcs210509.wordpress.com/2009/09/27/parti/.) Here, because I am attempting to understand the dynamics of bicycle movement using the city as an architectural whole or composition, I have borrowed this architectural term and extracted it to the urban scale. Therefore, just as a building’s essential characteristics may be understood diagrammatically, so may a city’s.

      As an example, I will use Manhattan. If understood as a kind of unified building (which Manhattan is certainly not!), one might posit that the basic parti of Manhattan is a large gridded island intersected by an irregular line or pathway (Broadway). Where the irregular line intersect the grid, meeting points/gathering places occur. The streets that cross these meeting points going in an east west direction become main avenues, which end at the rivers on each end of the city.
      A different interpretation might be that Manhattan is a city of two nuclei, downtown and midtown. Growth and movement occur in a north south direction and at the two nuclei great masses of skyscrapers cluster.
      Obviously, there are a range of interpretations/diagrams here. As it applies to the bicycle, however, I believe understanding a city’s parti can be the key to making it legible to its users. (As a side note, Manhattan’s try at bicycling paths attempted to take the parti into account by using Broadway as a main cycle route. This was misguided however, as the pathways were overwhelmed by the nodes of activity (stray tourists) which they passed through.) Amsterdam, as we discussed, is a multi-lobate concentric city consisting of a dense core and distinct neighborhoods along its periphery. The city is flat and has few tall buildings that stand as landmarks. Because there is an architectural unity to its core, one is easily confused whether they are going north south east or west. Already, I can imagine how the city might benefit from certain cues to improve its navigability. Bollards painted a particular color in certain neighborhoods or in certain directions. Lane painting, lighting, or other architectural details to denote the growth/circulation rings of the city. Perhaps a basic map diagram showing areas of traffic calm conducive to bicyclists, along with colored primary axes.

      Please let me know if you have any other questions or would like any more clarification.

  2. Burt says:

    I will look forward to your regular postings for this wonderful endeavor. Great Hemingway and Lyynch quotes.

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