Chain Reaction: Urban Politics in “the Age of the Bicycle”

THIS SUMMER’S successful Citibike rollout is remarkable given it is New York City’s first real expansion of a major transportation infrastructure in decades that is not oriented around car usage (besides perhaps, the perpetually delayed and debt-incurring Second Avenue Subway expansion). It also demonstrates what is different about how cities work today: Citibike (as it is, after all, subsidized by Citibank) cost the city little upfront money and allows “users” to take any route they like within the service area and beyond (if they’re willing to pay for it). In contrast to the highly centralized, expensive, and “hard” form of infrastructure represented by the subway and the highway, Citibike might be the perfect form of infrastructure for the contemporary city in this, the iPhone era.

Cyclespace: Architecture & Urban Design in the Age of the Bicycle by Steven Fleming, an architecture professor in avid cyclist in Australia, illustrates a central paradox about biking in the urban context: it holds out the possibility, especially as more people choose to live in dense urban centers, to end our reliance on the automobile and make our cities more environmentally as well as socially sustainable. But many contend that despite biking’s recent embrace by big city mayors, it is actually a small fix at best, one that amounts to little more than the endorsement of a bourgeois hobby, and serves as a smokescreen, hiding more trenchant issues of mobility access, auto-dependence, and income inequality.

Fleming takes a two-pronged approach to addressing his topic: first, a pragmatic approach that recognizes the primacy of cars in what he calls “non-cycling countries” (basically all countries save Denmark and Norway) and, secondly, speculations about how we might build a “Biking Utopia” and a “bicyclitecture” that would improve upon the “carchitecture” it would seek to displace. The book is much more successful on the first front, in part because it is already happening: had it arrived 10, even five, years ago, Fleming’s argument for bike infrastructure in post-industrial areas would have been much more revelatory. Urban design has recently shifted towards adapting post-industrial infrastructure for biking and other uses — the High Line in New York being the famed example, but also the city’s extensive bike trails ringing the formerly industrial waterfronts.

Bikers are already utilizing these areas, along waterfronts and through former industrial areas, as a means of avoiding car-congested routes. Fleming argues for increased bike routes in these areas and suggests planners and architects propose private housing adjacent to these bike paths. By networking these areas together bikers expand their personal “cyclespace” maps across the city while at the same time avoiding the areas that would involve conflict with drivers, who continue to hold the most political influence. Fleming suggests that private development in bike-friendly areas could potentially offset the costs of creating more and better bike paths. His embrace of post-industrial infrastructural landscape is as politically opportunistic as it is pragmatic: in these abandoned spaces bikers can find large, wide open spaces with little traffic, meaning bikers can travel for long distances with minimal encumbrance. He issues a useful challenge to urban designers to consider the next frontier in propelling biking from a marginal to a more practical form of transit.

Although hardcore bike culture is fixated on achieving the dream bike rates of Amsterdam and Copenhagen (where around 40 percent of all trips are made by bike), Fleming sensibly points out that in the United States and elsewhere this might never be attainable. We should instead be concentrating on doubling trip rates – from less than five percent of all trips to somewhere closer to 10, a rate only Portland has been successful in attaining. This is where the bikeshare ought to have the most impact: the more bikes on the road, the safer other bikers will feel against the threat of cars, the more convenient pickup and dropoff, the more likely their use.

Fleming’s Bike Utopia is less practical. He tries to define an architecture based on biking in the same way the car defined architecture, which seems an impossible undertaking. It is a truism that modernist architects worked in response to the automobile, but Fleming has a hard time coming up with more than a few examples of “bikeitecture” (though his argument is that these are the forerunners of a budding field). Of these the two most compelling are buildings by the architecture firm BIG, including Copenhagen’s 8 House2, an apartment building whose design revolves around sweeping inter-connected ramps. The ramps allow residents to ride or wheel their bikes directly to their front door whether on the first or fifth floor – this seems like magic to any apartment dweller accustomed to carrying a bike up several flights of stairs. The Danish Pavilion at 2010 Expo in Shanghai2 takes BIG’s trademark playful irony to the next level. The pavilion offered visitors bikes on its roof, from which they could glide down the building’s ramps to the street. The none-too-subtle political message to China was to cease abandoning its billion bicycles for cars, thereby repeating the mistakes of the auto-centric West.

But a few buildings do not a cityscape make. Fleming seems determined, in Cyclespace, to replicate the project of car enthusiast and architectural history’s self-styled rock star Reyner Banham, and he also replicates Banham’s portrayal of infrastructure and technology as politically neutral. Fleming, like so many of his fellow avid cyclists, especially ignores the relationship between bicycle culture and gentrification, the way biking has gone from a counter-cultural, ecological statement to a luxury item, something not lost on many globally-minded big city mayors such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg and London’s Boris Johnson.  

Flemming’s book seems to suggest a contradiction that might be crucial: the utopian desire of the technology and its rhetoric of efficiency, and the political reality that makes it just that: too utopian. Biking only became a bigger priority to Mike Bloomberg’s transportation policy after his first signature proposal — congestion pricing of automobiles — failed miserably at the hands of an Albany legislature that favors suburban (and therefore auto) interests. Fleming’s utopian project is commendable, but seems misguided given that (as he admits) even if the number of bike commuters doubles in most American cities they will still only account for five percent of all commuters, with the national rate remaining close to one percent.

It is instructive to contrast Fleming’s book with Zack Furness’s One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, which is intent on analyzing the bicycle within the history of its counter-cultural usage. While Furness and Fleming both argue that biking is growing in importance due in part to the political motives of bike riders, Furness goes a step further, suggesting biking is, especially in the US context, inherently political. Furress notes that the bike establishes an important paradox: “The tension between the emancipatory potential of the bicycle and its simultaneous use in the construction of a consumerist, individualist, and disciplinary paradigm of mobility.”

Although much more politically-minded than Fleming, Furness, too, avoids the issue of gentrification, and both miss an important point: that the rise in urban biking in the past few years is directly correlated with the return of upper middle class whites to the city, and a direct appeal on the part of municipal governments to attract more of them. While many, such as Bloomberg, have rationalized the implementation of bike infrastructure as a way of supplementing public transit, it’s not hard to find an ulterior motive. As the urban planning blogger Surly Urbanist has argued recently, there is a direct connection between bike infrastructure and gentrification: “Bicycling’s growing popularity over the past decade or so is due to the fact that a preferred demographic has now pushed for it.” In an interview about his city’s bikeshare program, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said his biggest priority for the project was attracting members of the “creative class,” seeing it as an asset in competing for them with cities like Austin and Seattle. Melody Hoffmann, who completed a dissertation on bikes and gentrification, found that multiple bikeshare programs in US cities have, at least initially, avoided low-income and minority neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are, of course, often the same neighborhoods with limited access to public transit.

While biking still offers great potential as a more sustainable way to get around the city, its embrace by some urban elites raises a number of questions. Is it possible to expand bike infrastructure in a way that doesn’t exacerbate income inequality vis-à-vis gentrification, or, better yet, do so in a way that addresses the transit needs of those who have been historically underserved? How can cities, while facing intense competition and with smaller budgets, develop transportation plans which, rather than merely serving as pro-growth window dressings, address real needs and work to actually curb auto dependence? 


Eric Peterson is in the environmental design program at Yale School of Architecture.