Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Stephen Fleming’s Velotopia concept envisions a perfect bike city.
“Flat, dense, permeable, car free.” That’s the profile of the bicycle-friendly city advanced by Stephen Fleming, author of the book Cycle Space, which argues that cities could be improved with bicycle-specific architecture.
Fleming’s vision, which he promotes through his consulting firm, Cycle-Space International, goes way beyond conventional bike advocacy models, most of which point to old European cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam as the cycling gold standard. He would like to see modern cities radically change the way they’re built—to make cycling, rather than driving, the default mode of transport.
In fact, the Australian Fleming has written that the Dutch bike model is wholly inadequate to spur the kind of modal revolution he believes is necessary and desirable:
In cities where there is the option of driving, replicating Dutch infrastructure will not induce enough cycling to have a noticeable impact on global warming, public health, or an economy.
Instead, Fleming believes in aiming for a cycling utopia—a Velotopia, to use his his word for it. In the world, gradients are designed to optimize efficiency for people on bikes; cycle paths are covered to protect bikers from the elements; and apartment blocks, offices, and retail outlets are designed so cyclists can ride right in:
[T]hese days wheelchairs and children’s strollers go from the street into buildings and nobody minds. So why don’t we take our bikes inside too? Imagine the advantages to a parent. He or she would be able to ride from inside their apartment directly to the cold food aisle at the back of the supermarket. With a cargo bike they could take their sleeping baby along for the ride and use their bike as a trolley.
The bike advocacy community, writes Fleming on his blog, is “aiming too low”:
Holland’s hopelessly uncompetitive bike infrastructure … [is] only the best in the world because the rest of the world hasn’t tried yet. [As long as] Dutch bike infrastructure is held up as a model, the rest of the world will not take bicycling seriously. Why would the US, for example, invest in a mode that is only going to get them to work sopping wet? They have already invested in a mode that gets them there dry. Why would Australians want their taxes spent building bike tracks if the prize at the end is commuting long distances on horrible Omafietsen?
It’s a radical viewpoint, but perhaps it makes sense that someone from a nation that has a relatively low rate of cycling would be looking for radical solutions.
The renderings of Fleming’s cycle-centric designs, posted at the Cycle Space website, are indeed quite different from the narrow streets and busy storefronts that typify a certain kind of bike-lover urbanism—the kind that looks to Northern Europe for inspiration. Instead, proposals such as the Chelsea Bike-Lovers’ Houses, which he puts forth as a re-envisioning of apartment blocks in that Manhattan neighborhood, are imposing and blocky buildings. I asked him, via email, if this monolithic treatment might not be daunting to pedestrians.
“The building types I've been developing are relevant to an era of monolith building on huge redevelopment sites,” he says. “And I'm fine with that. I'm not nostalgic for 19th-century buildings and streets. They're in finite supply, so are in the process of becoming upper-middle-class ghettos. That's just as well because they cost so much to maintain. The cost of rubbish removal, lift maintenance, and a lot of environmentally desirable systems, are better shared by 300 households than just 10 or 12.”
Fleming adds that if people are passing along Velotopic streets by biking rather than walking, it takes only a short time to pass by their uninterrupted façades. “Their problem is they leave the scenery unchanged for minutes at a time when you pass them on foot,” he says. “Minutes become seconds when cycling.”
Such hypothetical concerns, he adds, pale in comparison to the everyday reality in auto-centric cities. “I'd be more concerned about the monolith under our feet, all of that relentless engineered asphalt filling our eyes, and we never complain,” Fleming says. “Two-thirds of that could be used for playgrounds and farming if we swapped car transport for cycling.”
Designing cities around the bicycle, Fleming says, would allow for all the advantages of 21st-century urban life as we know it—except with healthier activity levels, less pollution, and more human connection.
“The beauty of the modern city is it gives people access to jobs, school, and markets, but only with wheels,” says Fleming. “Having all your needs met within a walkable radius is the beauty of the village—something that might as well have fields or an ocean around it. So planning for cities means planning for a wheel-based mobility platform of some kind. We used to choose them like toys. But the stakes have been elevated and we need whatever system delivers on four major fronts: public health, emissions reductions, social inclusion, and the true speed of connection.”
The somewhat intimidating renderings on his company’s site, he says, are just a backdrop for the kind of human city that would emerge if bicycles became the default mode of transportation. “We've deliberately refrained from softening our renderings in the way that architects do in their snow-jobs,” says Fleming. “The salient aspect of our work is that it is typologically and morphologically unique, not that it is has this or that kind of fruit stand or jazz band. Users bring that. Our contribution is conceiving the stage.”