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Steven Fleming continued

Presentation by Dr Steven Fleming continued - part of Australians dream of speed

So let us think this way. Let us take one property of bicycles. We know they don’t have much power so they naturally speed up when they go downhill and they naturally slow down when they rise up. Imagine the places where we want them to go slow, which is around the entrances to buildings and around shops where cyclists are meeting and becoming pedestrians; and imagine an undulating ground plain that harnesses and releases the potential energy of a cyclist without ever really using your brakes, which is very important when you are a mum with a big load of kids in the front of one of these cargo bikes.

We are thinking of the idea of bicycles dropping down into a faster zone using gravity. There is a sweet spot where it works well for people on racing bikes and for people with heavily-laden bikes. The basic idea is that low means go so you bring cyclists down for that lower area, and high means slow. We are looking at high points being places where cyclists slow to the speed of a pedestrian and can mingle with pedestrians and then, when the pedestrians have to cross over, they take a higher route. It’s not strictly segregated, but you are encouraging people to work with the city that way. I have to say that you should not see these as actual designs for any actual city. We are working on it like a kit of tools, like the basic components of an architectural vocabulary, the component parts that you would put together in more contextural and subtle ways than this. It all looks very spartan at the moment.

We are certainly keen on the idea of riding inside. When bikes replaced horses, they were kept outside because their forebears used to poo on the floor. Bikes don’t kick anybody and they don’t poo on the floor. They are no worse than strollers in terms of their impact on the internal flooring. You can bring bikes all the way into your apartment so you can unload your shopping immediately into your apartment. As an architect, my profession, we try to make people live longer by creating buildings that reduce disease. We have done that by bringing toilets and basins inside so that you wash your hands naturally, not because you are a germ-phobe. We think that bikes should likewise be the natural choice and that architecture can incentivise cycling just as at the moment it incentivises handwashing and that that would reduce chronic disease. I am just about to submit a paper to the American Journal of Public Health with colleagues of mine at the Harvard School of Public Health making this point, looking at bike parking inside of buildings and its history.

I think of this as a parent: if I am looking after junior and I can put junior to sleep in the box bike, as many Dutch people do, in the kitchen and ride out to the shops and ride back. I can have the baby sleep while I shop. And especially if the cycling is done under cover, the parents’ life becomes far more efficient than the parents’ life with a car. That’s what we are competing against. Then when I get to the shops, I want to be able to use my bicycle as a shopping trolley as well, not to be forced to leave the bike outside - as the Dutch have done because they have just replaced horses with bikes.

To explain the buildings that are in front of you [referring to physical models] - and again remember they are just ideas for buildings. All architects work with building types and then we translate those into actual buildings. If we are just thinking about the type, one type that is quite well known among architects is the slab block. It’s very efficient. You orient this so that every apartment is licked with a bit of sun each day and there’s privacy - every architect knows about that. What if we took that and tilted it, and have what I am calling a series of slippage manoeuvres where you let each floor slide down until it touches the ground. This means that you can ride your bicycle up a very wide access corridor that is wide enough for deliveries to be made and bring your bike all the way up to your apartment. And every single row, every floor plate (and the top floor plate is a special triple layer one with a central access balcony - what we call crossover apartments), bring them all down to the ground and finally a tongue at the end. It’s a bike access apartment. That’s what we are thinking of.

There’s another type: so the building we have here has two types that we are looking at. We all know a row of terraces. A row of terraces is very practical, high density but not quite dense enough though. Take a row of terraces, put a bit of a slope on it, coil it, pack it down neatly, open it out to the sun and, voila, you have what we call a velo home - a row of terraces you can ride all the way to the top, have a pub at the top, whatever you want. And this is the section through it: so we have a bike track on the inside, a rough textured pedestrian track that the cyclist doesn’t want to ride on, bike parking as well as bike parking inside the apartment, and then the bedrooms cantilevered back out for privacy. The important thing with these, too, is that we are making sure they all comply with the Australian building code, which is actually the most stringent in the world in terms of fire egress and sun access. So if it works in Australia, it will work anywhere. That is the velo home.

Am I crazy? Well the problem is that utopian dreamers have been given a bad wrap by some really crazy utopian dreamers - Paolo Solari with Arcosanti and this guy Jacques Fresco dreaming of a future when we don’t work at all - and in some respects I appreciate that I am a bit like these guys. These guys are being deliberately provocative, and provocation is the starting point. Without provocation, and hopefully one that captures people’s imagination, without that we just keep on doing the same old thing, which is a problem because, if we keep doing the same old thing, we get the same old problems. We know that cars aren’t working for us if we want to bring people together in a city because they take up so much space. The car plus its braking space… if drivers were paying rent for the space they are using, it would be prohibitively expensive.

Then the alternative is transit-oriented development, which has two major problems with it. The Dutch, who have built their country around transit-oriented development, surveyed their population and they find that nobody likes it. That crowding onto the train is horrible, fearful and has all these negative associations. Bikes are the things that people really like.

The other problem with it is that, if we do this sort of spoke-and-hub kind of planning with transit-oriented development, then we are cramming people into trains and we are having them walk there. Walking increases your metabolic equivalent of task three times what it is at the moment just sitting here. Walking up stairs and cycling increases it by an average seven or eight times. It’s the only way as a society where we don’t work physically to make our money any more, that we can burn off enough calories to be able to have a decent meal and a biscuit. That’s why we are all putting on weight because we have built environments that aren’t letting us really burn off those calories.

Knowledge Institute Mobility, 2007, sited in 'Cycling in the Netherlands', Ministerie van Verkeer en Waterstaat, 2009, (accessed 15.8.2013)

I sort of look at it this way - this may be biased - but I look at all the negative associations with driving. You just wouldn’t base a city around driving any more with all of the negatives. Transit has a few negatives: it causes stress, it’s obesogenic and it’s very expensive. Walking is great. It seems to have a clean bill of health, apart from maybe it’s a bit obesogenic, but it certainly has limited range. Walking is fine if you have a city of about 1,000 people but above that it’s just not going to get you to the choice of schools and jobs that you want from a city.

Cycling is really worth considering as the basis for urban development. We know that already there are places where apartments are being built around bike infrastructure and no other form of infrastructure, and they are selling. The Minneapolis Midtown Greenway is the best example of that. So people are voting with their hip pockets and buying this sort of stuff. Architects are excited about it.

I follow these trends in the architectural world: bike focused buildings. The stuff we are looking at here [gesturing to physical models] - my understanding was that the exhibition of bikes that you have was on its way to Fremantle but it works for any large brownfield site. We tested sort of plonking these buildings down on Fremantle. Just north of Fremantle there is a big, redundant, contaminated brownfield site - every Australian city has these. Conventional wisdom would say build a train station here, expect that people want to walk to the beach, have a row of shops in between and the shops might be 30 seconds apart - that would work as the first stroke in an urban design - and then have all the apartments radiate around that. If you look at it though, the bulk haulage routes that made this a really good site for industry are the same easements through the city that make it a really good site to run bike highways - covered, back-drafted bike highways, if you have the money.

I haven’t looked more broadly for other cities other than cities that I have lived in. This is Newcastle where I grew up. You can map it out and look at a broad bicycle plan. I have only really looked at this site [in Freemantle] and its immediate connections. But the basic idea would be to say the shops don’t need to be gathered up because everyone is moving at bike speed, so you spread the shops and the entry foyers apart. They are still only a few seconds apart but, because you are on a bike, you can spread them out, which is nice because you can activate the entire site. You don’t have dead parts of the site and lively parts - it’s all lively.

And then because low means go and the opposite for when you slow down, you raise all those shops up on mounds so that you are slowing the bikes down when they come to those entry points and shops. So you have this field, like mounds of moguls. You work it through providing covered routes to keep the cyclists out of the rain but also great separation for pedestrians so they can stay on the highest slow area. In a very crude model just oriented to the sun you drop these apartments down. The nice thing about this slip block form is that it gives apartments a bit of an outlook even though they are parallel to each other.

Then the next big question is what all of those people aged eight to 80 who can enjoy bicycle transport, which is the widest age range possible as well, think about it really. The next step that Angelina and I want to work towards is getting the public involved in interrogating this and refining it as a collaborative venture. Thanks very much. [applause]