How to plan a city for cyclists

Apartments built for bicycles could have ramps like 8 House in Copenhagen, designed by Bjarke Ingels
Apartments built for bicycles could have ramps like 8 House in Copenhagen, designed by Bjarke Ingels

Architect Steven Fleming promotes utopian design for a new age of bicycle travel at the 2015 AIBC conference in Vancouver

Just as architects Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned cities planned around the car, today’s architects must do the same for bicycling, says architect, researcher and Cycle Space author Steven Fleming. Speaking at the Architectural Institute of British Columbia conference October 30, Fleming said replacing cars with bicycles is healthy for the cyclists and the planet, and since people in the developing world tend to emulate those in wealthier countries, it’s up to those at the top of the pyramid to set an example.

“The first thing you should do in terms of planning is to maximize the mode of maximum benefit to society,” says Fleming. “At the moment we maximize driving.” Most people will only agree to use bikes if bike transport becomes faster and more convenient than driving, but today the car has unfair advantage: the purpose-built driving city. Apart from Dubai, most didn’t start that way, and the purpose-built cycling city could also evolve piecemeal. Fleming suggests starting with the space not currently used by cars: underutilized grey fields and brown fields, strips of land that follow rail corridors and waterways where there could be bike tracks, or the land opened up by the removal of Vancouver’s viaducts.

Similar to utopian visions for the future unveiled at world’s fairs, Fleming suggests architects think about design for a new age of bicycle travel. For example, shops would be farther apart and raised on mounds so cyclists would naturally slow down as they came to them and accelerate away on the down slope. A network of pedestrian walkways overhead would shelter cyclists from the weather. Apartment buildings could be sloped so cyclists could enter and exit via a ramp instead of a corridor. Homes could be designed so cargo bikes could be taken inside to load and unload. Groceries can already be delivered by bike in Vancouver, and carts like the ones in airports could be used commercially. He allows that there might have to be special streets for construction equipment.

“Whether it’s possible is a moot point,” says Fleming. “We can idealize the pedestrian city, but we can’t actually build it. We can build neighbourhoods that are informed by that big picture idea. The idea of a transit-oriented city is just an idea. Even the idea of a driving city, they’ve probably got something like it in Texas, but in most cities it’s like a square peg in a round hole—they’re trying to squeeze it in. None of these utopian grand schemes can actually be realized.”