Are bikes the Vehicle of the Future? What a "Velotopia" could look like
WIRED magazine does an impressive job covering the culture, science and technology of the future. In a recent piece Clive Thompson declares the Vehicle of the Future. And it is not self-driving cars, drones or hyperloop tunnels - the future of transportation has two thin wheels and handlebars.
Modern tech has transformed the humble two-wheeler, making the bike-share model possible: You check out a bike from a docking station, use it for an hour or so, then return to any other docking station. The concept was tried back in the ’60s but failed miserably because no one could track where the bikes went.
Today, that’s been solved with smartphone-ized tech: GPS, Bluetooth, RFID, and mobile-payment systems. And bike sharing has unlocked a ton of American interest in navigating cities on a bike: Usage has grown from 320,000 rides in 2010 to 28 million in 2016. In China, where gridlock in cities like Beijing is infamous, the trend has grown even faster.
But cooler tricks are possible. We’re now seeing dockless bike sharing, where all the tech is crammed into each bike, eliminating the need for docking stations. When riders are done, they just park and lock the bike and walk away; the bike simply awaits the next user. This makes the systems cheaper (those docks cost a lot), so dockless bikes can be rented for as little as a buck an hour.
Dockless also creates something like self-governing internet logic, with bikes as packets routed where they’re needed, rather than where docks will fit. This seems to make bike sharing more fair: Seattle city councilmember Mike O’Brien has observed anecdotally that dockless bike sharing is used by a broader demographic, in part because it’s super cheap and the bikes can circulate outside the well-off downtown neighborhoods.
Want even more inventiveness and innovation? Behold the next phase arriving in a few years: dockless electric bikes. Batteries are cheaper and lighter than ever. One US firm, Jump Bikes, has custom-designed dockless ebikes sprinkled around San Francisco and Washington, DC. CEO Ryan Rzepecki suspects they’ll eclipse the appeal of regular bike sharing, because you could arrive at work without being drenched in sweat. “The number of people who are willing to ride electric bikes is probably 10X that of people who are willing to ride a regular one,” he says.
Thompson also admits that the bike-share revolution has limits. The schemes don't work well outside urban areas and users don't always leave the bikes in the ideal places for other riders to start their journeys.
When two duelling companies pushed some 1.5 million bikes onto the streets of Shanghai alone, the battle for market share left mountains of castaway bicycles in fields near Shanghai and places like Xiamen in the south-east. Although this could fairly easily be avoided if cities decide to limit the number of dockless bikes.
Another quite substantial limitation is the current design of our cities. Our cities are designed for cars - not for safe, healthy and sufficient bike riding. If the vehicle of the future is the bicycle, surely the future infrastructure of our cities must be build or rebuild with that in mind. So what would the perfect cycling city look like? Do we look to the Danish and the Dutch who like no other represent the prime of urban bike culture?
The architectural historian, author and urban planning philosopher Stephen Fleming believe we can be much more ambitious and visionary than that. He is (also) the founder and director of Cycle Space, a consultancy helping cities around the world with bike-centric architecture and urban planning approaches. Cycle Space's working title is "The city of the future should not have infrastructure for cycling. It should be infrastructure for cycling".
In a interview on Citylab Fleming talks about Cycle Space's most recent projects and his newest book "Velotopia: The Production of Cycle Space in Our Minds and Our Cities" in which he imagines a "pedallers paradise".
The renderings of Fleming’s cycle-centric designs, posted at the Cycle Space website, are indeed quite different from the narrow streets and busy storefronts that typify a certain kind of bike-lover urbanism—the kind that looks to Northern Europe for inspiration. Instead, proposals such as the Chelsea Bike-Lovers’ Houses, which he puts forth as a re-envisioning of apartment blocks in that Manhattan neighborhood, are imposing and blocky buildings. I asked him, via email, if this monolithic treatment might not be daunting to pedestrians.
“The building types I've been developing are relevant to an era of monolith building on huge redevelopment sites,” he says. “And I'm fine with that. I'm not nostalgic for 19th-century buildings and streets. They're infinite supply, so are in the process of becoming upper-middle-class ghettos. That's just as well because they cost so much to maintain. The cost of rubbish removal, lift maintenance, and a lot of environmentally desirable systems, are better shared by 300 households than just 10 or 12.”
Fleming adds that if people are passing along Velotopic streets by biking rather than walking, it takes only a short time to pass by their uninterrupted façades. “Their problem is they leave the scenery unchanged for minutes at a time when you pass them on foot,” he says. “Minutes become seconds when cycling.”
Such hypothetical concerns, he adds, pale in comparison to the everyday reality in auto-centric cities. “I'd be more concerned about the monolith under our feet, all of that relentless engineered asphalt filling our eyes, and we never complain,” Fleming says. “Two-thirds of that could be used for playgrounds and farming if we swapped car transport for cycling.”
Designing cities around the bicycle, Fleming says, would allow for all the advantages of 21st-century urban life as we know it—except with healthier activity levels, less pollution, and more human connection.
“The beauty of the modern city is it gives people access to jobs, school, and markets, but only with wheels,” says Fleming. “Having all your needs met within a walkable radius is the beauty of the village—something that might as well have fields or an ocean around it. So planning for cities means planning for a wheel-based mobility platform of some kind. We used to choose them like toys. But the stakes have been elevated and we need whatever system delivers on four major fronts: public health, emissions reductions, social inclusion, and the true speed of connection.”
The somewhat intimidating renderings on his company’s site, he says, are just a backdrop for the kind of human city that would emerge if bicycles became the default mode of transportation. “We've deliberately refrained from softening our renderings in the way that architects do in their snow-jobs,” says Fleming. “The salient aspect of our work is that it is typologically and morphologically unique, not that it is has this or that kind of fruit stand or jazz band. Users bring that. Our contribution is conceiving the stage.”
More info (and pictures) on Velotopia and other innovative projects from Cycle Space on their website.
Fleming and Cycle Space's ideas are brilliant, although could be even better with some focus on those who can't easily get on the two wheeled versions of bikes - people with disabilities, very young and very old people who would benefit most from this revolution. What special designs could be imagined for them? How about collaborating with those already working to remove barriers to cycling such as the UK-based charity Wheels for Wellbeing? It makes for an interesting design challenge!