Hosted by dérive - magazine for urban research, the 5th annual Urbanize! festival wrapped on October 12, 2014. The theme of this year’s festival was “Safe City”, and Smarter Than Car was invited to conduct a group bicycle ride exploring the theme from our perspective. Measures to increase urban safety tend to be superficial and rarely question underlying systems, such as when security patrols are hired to drive up and down “neighborhoods” stripped of life by designs, plans, and policies that misunderstand or outright ignore the needs, preferences, and behavior of actual human beings.
Vienna is built closer to human scale and moves closer to human speed than most modern cities (thanks largely to the persistence of its pre-modern qualities), and yet what sociologist John Urry refers to as the “system of automobility”, and what the auto industry itself referred to as “motordom” as early as the 1920s, is so embedded in our collective consciousness (not to mention our daily practices) that we fail to seriously question it. The primary source of danger and insecurity for cyclists in Vienna is the domination by motor vehicles of roughly 75% of total street space despite the fact that only about 25% of trips in the city are made by car, yet improving safety for cyclists more often than not means altering a traffic signal or painting an intersection instead of addressing the unbalanced allocation of space (and speed).
dérive takes its name from the French Situationist movement, and so we thought it appropriate to attempt a psychogeographic cycle ride. The participants each took turns leading the pack, and when confronted with a choice of routes they were to select the path that felt most inviting. Afterward, we would discuss the factors that influenced each leader’s decision in order to examine the impact of the cycling environment on cyclists themselves. This approach probably would have worked fine with a small group, but with nearly 35 riders our single-file line of cyclists quickly morphed into a Critical Mass. It was a bit of a wild ride at times, but illuminating nonetheless.
Reasons for path-selection varied greatly. Some people chose the path that appeared to be more physically inviting, but many chose the path that seemed clearer to understand. The lack of clarity concerning rules & regulations and the difficulty in crossing car-dominated spaces informed the decision-making process as much as the desirability of available paths.
Cycling is social. The line did not remain single-file because cyclists naturally want to speak to each other and ride alongside each other. We make cars and public transport and sidewalks wide enough for people to sit, stand, or walk next to each other, so why shouldn’t cyclists receive the same treatment?
The behavior of cyclists is highly variable—rather than suppressed, this needs to be accommodated. In mediated traffic paradigms like ours, cars are required to follow a strict set of rules. Given the danger their combined speed and mass poses, such mediation is logical (if not the only effective form of management). Pedestrians, in contrast, are highly anarchic in their movements, governed by immediate negotiations more than rule-based technical systems. This, too, makes sense, given the minimal risks posed by human speed and mass. Cyclists comprise a third category, however, and while the logic that governs their movement overlaps with that of both the car and the pedestrian, their is ample space in between that tends to be inadequately incorporated into either infrastructure or traffic policies.
Vienna (like most cities) does not take cycling seriously as a form of traffic. Despite the fact that the city has been increasingly active in expanding and improving its cycling infrastructure and wayfinding systems, these same systems were completely overwhelmed by a group of 50 cyclists. Imagine if the streets were brought to a standstill every time 50 people in cars decided to go in the same direction at the same time.
There is a difference between law and practice. On one particular section of our ride there was no dedicated cycling infrastructure. The law states that in such situations cyclists have the same legal right as motor vehicles to use the roadway, though they must stay as far to the right as conditions safely allow. Since we were a group of 50 cyclists, we filled most of the right-hand traffic lane. The impact on traffic was minimal—for the three minutes or so that it took us to complete this section cars could either slow to our speed (approx.10 km/h) or move to the left-hand lane and pass us. Despite our legal right to ride on the road and the brevity of our incursion into “car territory”, drivers of motor vehicles honked, yelled, and even tried to force their way into the middle of our group.
The core issues are space, speed, and interaction. Greater consideration of how we allocate space, how fast the users of those spaces move, and the ways in which different users at different speeds interact is of the utmost importance. Urban mobility and sociability are complex topics that are unlikely to be properly handled only through segregation and single-user-type approaches.
Article: Joshua Grigsby | Ride concept and facilitation: Florian Lorenz and Joshua Grigsby