urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Tag Archives: Biking

The Original High Line

This past weekend I took a day trip to Lucca, a small city about an hour northwest of Florence, Italy. The city’s history is visible everywhere and legible even to an uninformed outsider. The shape of the ancient Roman amphitheater has been maintained in the shops and homes that ring the central square, the meticulously-planned Roman street grid is preserved in sharp contrast to the surrounding rabbit warren, and the medieval defensive walls, Lucca’s claim to fame, are 100% in tact and crucial to the city’s functioning as a tourist destination.

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For me, however, the walls were a spectacle because they were not simply an historical vestige, but a functioning part of the modern city. In 1818, during Napoleon’s occupation, the walls (12 curtains and 11 bastions) were converted into a distinctly stunning urban park that runs the parameter of the city.  City planning is a product of zeitgeist, and much like fashion, cuisine, architecture, and music, trends are revived and recycled with each new generation.  As I biked atop the walls on a well-maintained recreational path, I was reminded of more recent urban repurposing projects—Lucca’s Parco del Muro (Wall Park) is the predecessor of New York’s High Line, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, and Seattle’s Pike Place Market

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Each of these projects required a willingness to think outside the box (a railway became a park, a port became a community market, etc.) as well as a conscious decision to preserve history in the urban landscape. Records from the post-Renaissance era, in fact, prove that there was a conscious effort to restore and modernize rather than raze and rebuild. This mindset was absent during the post-war boom and obsession with progress, but thankfully has been restored to modern planning conscience.     

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The Psychology of Urban Culture

I recently read an intriguing post on This Big City called How London Tried (and Failed) to Become a Cycling City. The author makes the argument that part of the reason for this failure may be the attitude towards bicycling fostered during World War II, thus providing a psychological explanation for the disappointment of the city’s cycling initiatives. In the Netherlands, the occupying Germans stole thousands of bicycles from the residents, depriving them of their primary mode for short, efficient travel. In London, on the other hand, World War II brought unprecedented bicycle use out of necessity because of strict gasoline rationing. By the end of the war, the Dutch could not wait to get back on their bikes while the British quickly readopted the automobile. 

The post also supplements the explanation of London’s failure (specifically to meet its 12% bicycle modal share by 2012) with spatial and infrastructure-based reasoning, revealing the challenges in having an extremely concentrated financial district and a lack of small mixed-use developments. But overall, I was completely fascinated by this connection between historical events and culture. Can the perspective-changing, culture-defining role that World War II has played in the urban imaginary of European cities be justifiably used as an explanation for behavior patterns–and their stubborn stagnance?

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Newton’s law is convenient here: we’re all taught that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Amsterdam was stripped of its bicycles, and thus jumped right back on them as soon as they could, reinforcing their thriving bicycle culture. London was bound by scarcity, and thus adopted the car in a frenzied postwar attempt to demonstrate progress. If these cities were defined by their deprivation, is America a nation defined by being deprived…of everything? Is our insatiable thirst for consumption a remnant of our immigrant past and contining immigrant reality, driven forward by the desire to acquire houses, clothes, food, gadgets, vehicles–in essence, lifestyles–that weren’t available in our countries of origin? 

The tendency of people to react with consumptive tendencies in the face of scarcity is natural, and given a traumatic era like that which spanned both World Wars, explosive growth in automobiles before another war came around does not seem out of place. What is unnatural, though, is our clear ability to consume (pioneered by Americans, but proving increasingly contagious) even when we know that it is in our best interests to restrain ourselves. It is interesting to factor in this psychological component of historical deprivation because it provides an explanation that goes beyond individual greed to create a collective experience of absense or shortage.  

This isn’t to say that artificial actions will produce the reactions we desire. Urban waste won’t be solved by confiscating peoples’ compost bins, nor will shutting down homeless shelters produce an inevitable upsurge of community activism. Solutions to urban problems surely involve education, regulation, an proactive policies. But above all, they require understanding, and examining the historical underpinings of local resistance to behavioral change is a useful and informative exercise. 

On The Road On Two Wheels

In New York (and everywhere else, I’m sure), one of the biggest arguments against the growing movement of biking around the city was—and, no doubt, still is—safety.  Pedestrians, city officials, and drivers alike have complained about the rising number of cyclists that have shown up over the years to compete for coveted space on the streets.  They criticize the cycling culture, stating that cyclists are hazards not only to themselves, but also to everyone else.  Although I am a supporter of the biking movement and believe that biking is a viable alternative in a city as congested as New York, I can understand where the opposition is coming from.

Perhaps it stems from a lack of knowledge and information, or just complete disregard for others; but a number of cyclists are not following the rules of the road.  I see it a lot in the city: people riding their bikes on the crowded sidewalks and crosswalks (when there are clearly marked bike lanes on the street), causing vendors and pedestrians to jump out of the way.  There are cyclists who do not wear helmets and reflective gear.  There are those who do not make hand signals to show which way they are turning or who do not call out to make their presence known.  There are those who do not stop at red lights and stop signs.  And there are those who ride against traffic on a one-way street.  These cyclists are making it very difficult for other people to accept and take seriously biking as a form of transportation.  Instead, those who do not follow road rules just add fuel to the opposition’s fire.

The same things happen right here on campus, too.  I’ve seen people riding their bikes in the arcades at the Main Quad.  Cyclists go against the turnarounds at White Plaza and near the Clock Tower.  And in the lot between Tresidder and Florence Moore Hall, I’ve seen cyclists blatantly ignore the brightly and freshly painted signs that the pathway there, flanked by hedges, is now intended for pedestrian use only.  This would be a tad less huge of a deal if there weren’t also newly marked bicycle lanes right beside this pathway.  How many injuries and collisions need to occur before people pay attention to the signs?

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As I mentioned, it might just be an issue of outreach and education.  If that is the case, in order to gain more supporters, cyclists must give less reason for the opposition to complain by following vehicle laws, riding safely, and being aware of the signage and the layout of the road.  Stanford University’s Parking and Transportation provides a wealth of tips on its website.  They also offer bike safety classes.  Everyone should take advantage of these resources and perhaps we can all create a more positive image of the biking movement.