day 19 – another utopian vision

Note to the Zero to Hero 30-Day Blog Challenge community: I originally intended to publish this post using the “quote” format but somewhere along the way I lost focus. So here anyway it is, just an old “standard” post. My apologies. – c

I read an article yesterday on the Twitter feed for ArchDaily, an online architecture magazine, critically reviewing architecture firm Foster + Partners’ recently publicized SkyCycle plan for London. Apparently, The Sunday Times among others published the concept recently. While I don’t take issue with the ArchDaily article’s criticism, the author, a bicycle commuter herself, believed the concept flawed because it

“diverts energy and resources from more important projects regarding transport and cycling in London – and from more important projects, period”

and

“may have unexpected, negative consequences.,”

my reaction to the concept was much more akin to a gigantic yawn. Why do we take such concepts seriously enough that we get worked up over them? As a daily rider myself, the idea of soaring above the city on an elevated, single-use bicycle highway completely misses the point of what public infrastructure in cities should be all about, that is moving people regardless of their mode of transportation safely through cities in an equitable manner. Of course, one might say, “Well, that’s what the concept is proposing.” But really it’s not. What SkyCycle today and LeCorbusier’s Radiant City or Robert Moses’ New York proposed yesterday really do is attempt to convince us that compromise is not necessary. A sort of separate but equal for the built environment. The truth is, compromise is essential. In a crowded urban environment, I should no more expect to pedal through a city unimpeded by pedestrians or automobiles than a driver should expect to not have to wait for a person to cross the street. Maintaining an idealized sense of how you think things should work is just that, an ideal. A fantasy. Real cities are much more complex and thankfully better for it. Now, this is not to say that the street infrastructure in most cities today is adequate. Far from it. This is part of the reason why so many people die every day in crashes that are mostly preventable. No, the real solution starts first with acknowledging that everybody has the right to safe transport. We then should design our infrastructure to respond to the challenge of how to safely integrate it all. Because optimizing the whole for the one to the detriment of the other is simply negligent. There is, I suspect, one exception to this – mass transit. Because the capacity to move otherwise unapproachable volumes of people is so important to urban vitality (Note: people are the city’s key ingredient, not cars or bicycles…), efficiency of transit systems either trump that of competing modes or justify extraordinary measures such as New York’s subway, London’s Tube or Bogota’s TransMilenio, if they are to work. So, let us ignore these utopian visions. Cities don’t need them and they don’t work anyway. That’s because cities are not imaginary. They are real, and the only visions worth pursuing are those bold enough to deal with that reality without resorting to fantasy.

What do you think?

If you’d like to read the full ArchDaily article go here.

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