During the many years in which pedestrian traffic was primarily treated as a form of transport that belonged under the auspices of traffic planning, city life’s bounty of nuances and opportunities was largely overlooked or ignored. The terms used were “walking traffic”, “pedestrian streams,” “sidewalk capacity,” and “crossing the street safely.” But in cities there is so much more to walking than walking! – Cities for People
What if bicycle facilities were designed with the same care and attention as a park, plaza, or public square? What if designers began to think about programmed activity when designing for cyclists? To do so would take a monumental paradigm shift in how we think about cyclists, their relationship to others, and what they need from the facilities they use. One might well consider whether we design for a cyclist as little more than a deconstructed automobile, or something closer to a pedestrian. Truthfully, they have characteristics of both: they can move like automobiles but experience the world like pedestrians. While most contemporary bicycle facility design does well to allow cyclists to move like an automobile, little effort has been made to study or understand how to design for cyclists experiencing the world like pedestrians.
One does not generally think of the social needs of a cyclist, yet this is the key to rethinking what makes a complete cycling experience. In response to the Modernist approach to urban design many observed that, when properly designed for, pedestrian activities can contribute to the vitality and livability of a city. Jan Gehl’s critique has been that Modernist urban design – both the architecture and street design – creates a dull urban experience for pedestrians, depriving them of interaction with others, and resulting in lifeless cities where people do not want to live or visit. Through his research, Gehl found that what people want, and is the basis for what creates life in the city, is social interaction. He described this as the need for contact. Thus, designing cities to encourage life between buildings means rich and inviting landscapes that encourage social interaction.
There are two types of social interaction: direct and indirect. Direct social interaction is primarily verbal communication while indirect social interaction is non-verbal. Gehl noted that the latter is of particular importance because it is the most common form of social interaction and the precursor to other interactions. Anthropologist Edward Hall made an extensive study of indirect social interaction, observing that eye-contact, body language, olfactory experiences, or just being in proximity to others are all forms of indirect social interaction. Much of his book, The Silent Language (1966) focuses on how humans use space to communicate. Hall noted that by being in proximity to others a social interaction is triggered, even if it is outside one’s awareness. This means many will not attribute indirect social interactions as a component of livable cities since they do not recognize when it is happening. Still, many of the solutions Gehl developed for creating life between buildings simply aims to put people in proximity to one another.
Those who have cycled in world class bicycle cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Portland (US) understand that there is more to a complete cycling experience than the safety and efficiency of the bicycle facility. Like Gehl’s observation that there is more to pedestrian experiences in the city than walking, there is more to a cyclist’s experience than pedaling – there are social interactions as well. If bicycle facilities are designed with the acknowledgement that cyclists experience the world like pedestrians then they will foster social interaction. While we commonly think of the proven benefits cycling confers to personal health, environmental quality, and even the economy, this research suggests that when properly designed for, cycling can provide the additional benefits of contributing to the vitality and livability of a city.
For a more in depth analysis about this topic and an exploration of how we might design bicycle facilities to foster social interaction, please see the author’s Thesis and the film Cycling on Stage, which was produced in collaboration with the Scan|Design Foundation, The Green Futures Lab, and Gehl Architects.