Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bike Storage Wars

Now I understand that not everyone in the world will adopt a cycling lifestyle. Not everyone will agree that cycling is the most efficient form of transportation. Or, that cyclists and motorists should share our public right-of-ways. But I was shocked to read a diatribe posted by David Smith from the Affordable Housing Institute.

Mr. Smith is obviously no fan of cycling. Which is too bad, because much of what he talks about when it comes to leveling the playing field for housing and infrastructure development should be equally applied to cycling both in the U.S. and elsewhere.

While I could probably dissect his diatribe against urban cycling and bikes line by line, I’ll try to focus on just a few points.

1. The loss of common space to bike lanes.

The idea that our world outside of homes and businesses is common space is nothing new, but like all common space, there are those who feel they have more rights than others. Mr. Smith not only believes that bicycles don’t belong in public spaces, he relegates them to the level of satellite dishes.

That bicycles are used exclusively in public spaces, not private ones, further marks them as urban infrastructure.  Like other forms of private infrastructure such as satellite dishes, they raise tricky questions of urban property rights, imposition on the public realm, and who pays for the externalities.”

Not only does Mr. Smith put bikes in the same realm as satellite dishes, he also seems to believe that the cyclists are out to take away the rights of other users of public space. Now I can only assume that he’s referring to all the space that drivers are losing to bicycle lanes, but I can’t help but think that he’ll be targeting pedestrians and how much public space that sideways are taking away from “other people’s public space” next.

Back in America, as is so often the case, we are much more willing to take away other people’s public space for bicycle lanes than to surrender our own private space.  (That’s a good illustration of political dynamics at work; taking someone else’s street benefits my constituency and costs me nothing.)  Personally, I think bicycle lanes a dubious bit of urban planning because they consume a common resource (street space) for a minority use (representing well less than 1% of all urban vehicular traffic).”

2. The value of parking spaces.

When Mr. Smith starts in on bicycle parking in residential buildings he tries to take a purely economic tact to his argument that bicycles are invading the public and private realm. By breaking down a building into three primary functions (Utility and structural core, Revenue producing space, and Non-revenue common areas) he attempts to show how bicycle parking falls in the the non-revenue category and is therefore wasteful for developers to consider including.

When designing structures, developers hate that third category of space, because it adds nothing to their pro-forma and yet is not justified by necessity.  It’s discretionary, hence questionable – and developers wrack their brains seeking either to minimize the physical non-revenue space or to maximize the revenue they get from it (e.g. by renting out the clubhouse or charging for storage).  Thus developers hate unfunded mandates like this one:

What strikes me as ironic is these very arguments were expressed nearly 100 years ago when the automobile started to become common place. Developers were faced with the very same challenges in meeting the demands of buyers and renters to provide new space for cars. One might argue that cars had a greater impact on taking away public space then bicycles ever will.

The public works of Robert Moses, in New York City and the Hudson Valley are prime examples of projects that took great swaths of public space and funding away from other users for the advancement of automobiles and automobile users. But possibly, Moses had a vision and understanding where our society was headed in the mid to late twentieth century, and may have ultimately shaped not only our past but present development strategies. And maybe contemporary planners have a similar vision and are designing the next form of urban landscape that will last for the next century.

In any case, there is little doubt in my mind that at some point there was a writer and thinker who expressed a similar dislike for automobiles, as Mr. Smith does for bicycles.

3. What makes a good cycling city.

Finally, Mr. Smith wraps his critique of cycling by attempting to make judgements on what makes a good cycling city. Of course, he ignores the obvious fact that most cities have been designed to exclude cyclists (and horses for that matter) for the past 80 years, but I’ll let him draw the noose around his own rantings.

“Not every city works as a bicycle town.  You need a temperate climate (bicycling in the snow sucks), a largely flat topography (you can bike in San Francisco but you’re an athlete to do it), a central city that lends itself to hundreds of short (under one mile) point-to-point natural transits, and a downtown that can readily exclude trucks and transport (which beat up city streets and disrupt traffic flow)..”

Whether bicycles should be part of future urban transport is a debatable proposition, since bicycles are an inflexible mode of transport (one person only), useful only to a small subset of the urban population (basically, healthy people between 20 and 60, traveling alone), with limited cargo-carrying capacity, and physically risky.  (At least two of my friends have been doored, painfully if not worse, while riding through the city, and I myself went head-over-handlebars one rainy weekday morning in Amsterdam forty years ago.) “

I know that my words have been harsh and I’m not very excited to put out such a critical post about another bloggers work. Especially, one that I admire so much for his work in housing. But cycling is important to me. I’ve ridden for leisure and commuting for nearly thirty years now. I love my bikes and love the freedom they have afforded me since childhood. And, maybe I am taking up public space by asking for equal access to the roads and streets that I have and will continue to pay for like everyone else with or without a car. I only hope that others like Mr. Smith eventually see that sharing our public space really isn’t an imposition. They may even realize that the lessons they learned in kindergarten about sharing and tolerance are the best lessons ever.

Best aye,

Dave

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