cycle space - architectural and urban design in the age of the bicycle by steven fleming. softback nai010 publishing (rotterdam) 176pp illus 19.50 euros

cycle space

"Places have more life, not less, when cyclists are encouraged to ride to them and through them; and they threaten nothing."

many years ago, i had a gentleman visit the office on behalf of some well-meaning and well-funded access group to enquire after my thoughts on cycling facilities on islay. considering, at the time, there was pretty much only me riding the highways and byways around the principality, not only did i think it an unnecessary question but was more than intrigued that they were asking it at all. though there has been an increase in the numbers visiting whisky heaven in the intervening period, a busy day on islay would look like an empty street on the mainland; aside from the odd idiot in a motor car, it's a perfectly safe venture to go bicycle riding on islay.

not unnaturally, i informed the young gentleman that i could think of nothing that i thought necessary to ease the pain and suffering of the indigenous or visiting cyclist, an answer that was apparently not in the plan. this i assume because he then offered a number of suggestions as to what might be just what i was looking for: cycle paths, specific signage and one or two other alternatives. not wishing to be held responsible for having money spent on unnecessary bits and bobs, i assured him that it would be better placed at the disposal of those who truly had need of specific facilities.

i have no idea whether this advice was heeded, but thankfully, no additional cycle facilities ever appeared (though the council did, for no good reason, erect a couple of cyclists dismount signs at the tiny bridge in port charlotte).

the good that came from this meeting, though not of a tangible nature, was that it was really nice to know somebody had my best interests at heart, even if only because there was a budget that had to be spent in order to justify its existence in the first place. in a world in thrall to the motor car, the fact that anyone with even a modest degree of clout would consider placing the bicycle first was, at the time, something of a revelation. yet here we are, perhaps less than a decade later, and architect steven fleming has put together a particularly thought-provoking book about the relationship between buildings and bicycles.

cycle space

'Pedestrians too look at cyclists with envy. How could they not, especially when they see us in these revamped former industrial parts of our cities that are so inviting of cycling!

i confess at this point to having prior prejudice regarding the architectural profession, and not of a particularly positive nature. in my art college days, the latter shared campus space with scott sutherland's school of architecture, a building which could almost be seen from the art school. other than that, we of superior artistic powers had little to do with the envisioners of our concrete future, apart from the few occasions on which we shared lectures in the larger theatre across the grass and behind the trees. the display cabinets that lined the outside of the lecture theatre were filled with imaginative technical illustrations of futuristic buildings, yet the figures, cars, bicycles and trees were all applied letraset.

basically speaking, architects cannot draw, leaving us, so we thought, occupying the artistic high ground.

fleming's book cycle space is subtitled architecture & urban design in the age of the bicycle and narrates an enlightening and intelligent treatise on how modern cities pay scant heed to the needs and desires of the commuting cyclist. however, in the process of providing his experienced thoughts on the subject (fleming is a senior lecturer at the school of architecture and design at the university of tasmania where, amongst other architecturally related subjects, he lectures on architectural theory) he seems less well disposed towards the similar needs of the average pedestrian, perhaps encapsulated in chapter one's title why stroll when you can roll?

each lengthy chapter is interspersed with what could conceivably be referred to as case studies depicting how well or poorly cycling has fared in some of the world's major cities such as amsterdam, new york, paris, portland and singapore amongst others. these are not only finely observed, they are also appropriately illustrated.

cycle space

"I appreciate that in poor, lawless cities criminals have been known to push cyclists onto the ground, with the bald aim of stealing their bikes. However, this book is not addressed to such contexts."

honourable and well-intentioned though fleming's treatise might be, and it is a particularly cleverly thought out and supported encapsulation of his ideas, i can't help feeling that steven fleming lives in a world of make-believe. by his own admission, the world of architecture is still heavily influenced by the needs of the motorist and the space required by the motor car, yet each proposition as to how the humble architect may start to disarm this perhaps necessary obsession seems fraught with obstacles. for a start, it would need a high level of international co-operation between highly individual firms of architects. though it is not unusual for an entire street or housing development in even mid-sized towns to be designed by a single practitioner, even fleming must surely be aware that rarely are adjacent tower blocks in a city brought to singular fruition.

i think it more likely that the needs of the motorist, cyclist and pedestrian are shaped by those in the planning offices responsible for each metropolis, while the adjacent buildings have to slot in where required. though the architect can undoubtedly lay claim to influence in the right places (witness the 2010 danish pavilion in shanghai, designed to allow cycling from top to bottom), that is no guarantee of any joined up thinking across the city. for fleming envisages egress and access to modern buildings via cycleways that integrate with a citywide network; surely pie-in-the-sky for even the most vociferous bicycle advocate?

We know this ascension will happen, because cycling addresses so many challenges facing humanity. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions, traffic congestion, traffic accidents and the cost of medical treatment associated with today’s sedentary lifestyles. Compelled by these obvious benefits, cities across the industrialized world are developing plans that will make cycling a key plank of their transport strategies."

cycle space

though i'd love to believe that last statement, i have my doubts.

those with whom i share an office would be up in arms if aspects of their motoring centred life were cast aside or modulated to allow for the easier perambulation of the cyclist. i am in the minority as a cyclist, and i have no illusions that this is a situation that will change in my lifetime, and though it may not truly be the case, fleming comes across as one who thinks most of society shares his enthusiasm for bicycle transport. to that extent, there is more than just a touch of the fairytale about cycle space, case studies such as portland, oregon notwithstanding.

however, at the end of all his theorising and postulating, in the final chapter he offers some particularly adept observations as to how we currently design cities to a whole different set of criteria
'The cyclist’s point of view speeds up as it goes downhill, decelerates as it rises, leans as it turns and when at speed sees fine-grain detail as merely a blur. Pedestrians plod along at roughly the same speed all the time, regardless of gradient. When designing for people who will be view- ing the world from a bike we can start with the assumption that riders will move on a ground plane designed to optimize the cycling experience. Road design guidelines and even guidelines for the design of bicycle infrastructure are not as concerned with optimizing the cycling experience as with merely making bicycling possible in a world that has been overrun completely by cars. Spaces that are purpose-built for the pure joy of cycling, like velodromes and BMX tracks, provide a more joyful lead to thinking about cyclescapes.'

however, i think it less than likely that architects currently design transport routes to even favour the perspective of the motorist. it would be more realistic surely to accept that things are as they are; cars drive through it, cyclists cycle through it and pedstrians walk through it 'A piazza in cycle space would be shaped like a basin. Freestanding buildings would be located on mounds (doubly useful, as the waterways and flatlands I am proposing we develop for cyclists are often flood-prone). Streets would be U-shaped in section, naturally slowing cyclists as they veer towards the edge and bringing them back to speed as they rejoin bicycling traffic.
We would be looking at a ground plane with no parallel in the history of architecture.

cycle space

it cannot be denied that all across the world the bicycle is beginning to engender greater influence than has been hitherto the case, therefore if changes are to be made, they have to start somewhere, and someone is going to have to be the first to put their hand up. in which case, i am rather glad it is steven fleming. and it is to his great credit that these ideas for change seemingly pay scant heed to current practicalities and embedded ideologies. rotterdam's nai010 publishing are to be congratulated for giving them houseroom, but i would be even more fulsome in my praise had they paid a touch more attention at the proofing stage.

fleming seems hell bent on proving that not only can architects not draw, but they can't spell either. when describing a steel bicycle of lugged construction, he seems convinced that the joining process is akin to that of cooking beef. richard sachs, to my mind, would never braise a frame. nor are they insalubrious while feeling the lour of former industrial zones. there are others, repeatedly employed, dashing all hopes that they may be singular examples and simple errors. proofing errors such as the above are compounded in the urls listed in the margins. http://www. watch?v=i99MzGa3Vec contains spaces that ought not to be there; copying this from the e-book version and pasting into the address bar of your web browser will result in an error 404. file not found. not everyone is going to take a second look and amend accordingly.

if you want to believe in hope for the cyclist of the species, particularly offered by one in a position to influence those who may well be able to achieve it, this is a thought-provoking and delightful book. spelling errors aside, it is well written, if a trifle obscure and self-absorbed at times, but nonetheless well constructed and argued. much of the content is theoretical and is likely to remain so, but every now and again, we need someone in our midst to reach for the stars.

'Cyclists could be directed with signs, while drivers would be the ones who are made to fumble with maps – a reversal of the situation at present. If I lived someplace cold, I would be witnessing snow being ploughed from the bike tracks and onto the roads. Then I start imagining bike routes that are weather protected, with solar powered fans ensuring we never know headwinds.'

cycle space

friday 14th december 2012


top of page.