Thursday, July 19, 2012

Biking America's Metropolis

[one of the new protected bicycle lanes in Buenos Aires; here you can also see evidence of one of the three great problems with cycling in the city- the sorry condition of the roads owing not just to a lack of maintenance but to a seemingly wanton agglomeration of paving materials]

Three or four years ago it seemed like every big city in the US and Europe was ramping up a major effort to encourage cycling as a major mode of transportation, in addition to a recreational instrument. Being NYC-centric we wanted to attribute this primarily to the influence of the visionary pragmatist heading the DOT, but it likely had at least as much to do with the concurrent rises in gas prices and acceptance of hipster culture by the unwashed masses.

At this same time metropolises throughout the Americas were launching their own initiatives to tackle climate change, surging populations, stagnant economies, and the apparent ineptitude of the Westphalian nation-state (ie, the federal government) to deal with any of these issues in a meaningful way. Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles- all notorious for their traffic- all developed and began implementing a bicycle network meant to encourage cycling in the city as a mode of transportation, and in each case these efforts are imagined as a diversification in modes and forms of urban communication, cultural production at a metropolitan scale. Having been to, and hated, all of these places- and being a bicycle commuter- I was intrigued to see what was actually taking shape on the ground.

It is only fair to say that the bicycle network is small and frail, and its continued existence seems a bit perilous. This is the second of the three main problems facing potential cyclists. The areas it connects are largely limited to the downtown and northern areas of the city, and they are only connected with single routes every ten blocks or so. This wouldn't be such a big deal- providing a protected main route to a neighborhood and then let people make their way from there is a strategy that has worked in other cities and may work here. However, the third main problem may complicate the situation: the general level of sensory assault you are exposed to in the street.

This is always at issue on a bicycle, where the fact that you carry no armor with you while all other entities move faster and outweigh you by orders of magnitude is one of the biggest consistent discouragements to many people. The generally chaotic traffic patterns of Buenos Aires are nothing that can't be solved with a simple protected bike lane like the one shown above. Rather, it is the city buses, that supposed bastion of low emissions transit plans that pose the biggest problem. In short, there are tons of them, they are constantly swerving over to the curb every couple of blocks, and most of them belch huge plumes of diesel smoke laden with heavy particulates every time they accelerate away from the curb which a cyclist would be immediately exposed to over and over. Few things are more dangerous and annoying when there is a bike lane than being forced from it and in to the flow of traffic.
[a plan of the protected cycling lanes in Buenos Aires; yellow indicates those already completed, green shows those that are under way; the two large green spaces are the Bosque de Palermo to the north and the Ecological Reserve to the east between downtown and the Rio de la Plata]

All that to say, there are some issues for weaving bikes into everyday traffic space in Buenos Aires. But there are a number of promising developments. The bicycle lanes are not extensive but they are a network, offering multiple pathways to multiple destinations. This is anchored by the two largest public spaces in the city- the Bosque de Palermo and the Ecological Reserve which are adjacent to two of the largest and most heavily trafficked zones in the city.

In addition, the use of smart simple details, like the curb in the image above shows someone is thinking about patterns of use and material practices. In this case the curb is nearly vertical on the car side while offering a slope to cyclists that serves as a transition and warning without being so severe as to hurl you off the bike if you hit it. These are essentially modified roll-stops: modular and easy to install. And anecdotally a friend of ours living in the city said that all of the designers in his small landscape architecture office are now biking to work when the weather cooperates. The city is not too hilly and maintains a very lively street culture. It seems possible that cycling as a mode of transportation could grow here. We'll be interested to follow this, and would love to hear from any readers in other big American cities, or in Buenos Aires, about how the new efforts to encourage commuting by bicycle are failing or succeeding in interesting ways.
 

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