“A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture”, said the historian Nikolaus Pevsner, continuing that architecture "only applied to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal". The world's cyclists might dwell on that for a moment, pondering what if the humble bicycle shed was elevated to architectural status? It's a relevant question today, especially in the UK. Yesterday the British Government announced a white paper proposing sweeping changes to the way planning decisions are made, wrapped in a promise of greener cities, more homes and faster decision-making on changes to buildings and their environment.
Maybe it's about time some of those buildings were designed around bicycles. London Mayor Ken Livingstone recently remarked that London was now a true "cycling city", revealing figures showing cycling up 83% in seven years. Yet London still lags way behind other European cities when it comes to the percentage of total journeys made by bike at 2% - compared to Berlin at 5%, Copenhagen at 20% and Amsterdam at 28%.
I've been trying to understand why. In some ways London should be a good city to cycle in. Despite popular opinion, it doesn't rain much (try living in Manchester). Aside from one or two hills it's pretty flat - and of course there are some great parks, buildings and areas to ride through. But London has a historic ambivalence to the bike, in the way that cities such as Amsterdam don't - and it will be no surprise to Londoners that on the day of the Livingstone announcement, Halifax Insurance group revealed that the number of bikes stolen in central London is more than in the rest of the UK put together. I've lost three bikes in one year, not for lack of a lock, which might have influenced Mark's advice last week to a friend who'd just spent £600 on a new bike that he should have "spent £250 on the bike and £350 on secure storage around London."
Yes that really is a phone box in the middle of a cycle lane
And that's before we get onto the issue of cycle lanes, which are usually shared with bus lanes that aren't actually wide enough for a bus. I can assure you this makes for an experience not dissimilar to jogging in traffic. Yet the willpower is there - Brits buy 13 million bikes in a typical year - but getting them used as part of a "cycling city" needs infrastructure around the bike.
So how would London become a "cycling city"? One place to start might be the introduction of "city bikes" - which are rented and returned at various locations around the city. Already in London as the mobile phone-activated "OYBike", this idea was pioneered in other European cities - notably Copenhagen and Lyon. Copenhagen's 2000 'city bikes' operate in the simplest way possible. Insert a 20DKK coin (about £3.50) into the slot, unchain it, and off you go. It works a treat, but it struck me that this system was made to appeal most to tourists. Can this system appeal to its own city's inhabitants then? Yes - Lyon's Velo'v (french website only) is proof of that. More complex than Copenhagen, "Velo'v" needs a registered smart card to get at a bike. 15,000 are registered to use it though - and the system, with 'rental stations' placed at 250 metre intervals around the city, is a huge hit. The bikes were used 5.5 million times last year.
But there's so much more that could broaden the appeal of this system. Existing rental bike systems might get those unsure about cycling or wanting a bike occasionally into the saddle and out of their cars, but for fashion conscious Londoners the bikes often look like pre-war relics, at best doused in dubious colour schemes. What could really broaden appeal is a choice of bikes - including some for more discerning cyclists. In the same way that Zipcar appeals because one can have a BMW, Ford Mustang or Mini for a few hours at a time, might not bike rental appeal more if you could try out a new bianchi? And whilst we're on the subject of Zipcar - why not integrate bike sharing spots with car sharing locations, forming a system that can be the basis for a city network. Imagine using one 'smartcard' or a mobile phone to zip (sorry) from tube, to city bike, into a (Zipcar) Mini. A to B via C and D - and without having to drop the vehicle back at A.
But the obvious problem with all this is theft and security. OYbike deliberately use bikes that won't appeal to thieves (unless they like Noddy). We're therefore left with a bike that your average Londoner wouldn't be seen dead on. So if we're serious about getting people cycling, and looking after our bikes, is there not something better to store and lock a bike up to than a sad metal hoop, concreted into the pavement?
'Hoops in the ground' take up very little space - but they don't provide any protection - from theft or the weather. So a recent exhibition at the building centre showcased a variety of answers which would seem to solve some of these problems. David Eburah's beautiful floating cycle pods would introduce a strong sense of "serendipity" to the city, according to judge Wayne Hemingway, while Patrick Skingley and Lukas Barry's 'The bike tower' becomes a sort of multi-story car park for bikes. I've long wondered why multi-story bike parks haven't become common yet - it seems like a sensible, obvious solution surely? Turning that idea on its head is a scheme being rolled out in Spanish cities. Biceberg stores bikes in a huge underground hollow, but the only visible manifestation above ground is a small architectural box, taking up less space than a typical car parking space. Biketree is another system that proposed putting the bike up in the air, under an umbrella-like canopy - sheltered from weather and out of reach of thieves. In both of these systems, there is no key or lock involved - the user simply has a smart card, which contains their personal details which the system can recognise - and ensures only that user gets access to his or her bike. Clearly these storage facilities could become one of a network of 'pick up/drop points' for an expanded 'city bike' system.
Above ground manifestation of "Biceberg" bike storage
It would seem that London is ripe for a new cycling eco-system - there are just too many things out of tune. So while cycling grows faster than in any other European city, bike theft feels out of control. Storage and security have never been given attention at the same time. And British flats have never been designed to accommodate bikes. But this shouldn't be a surprise in the city that thinks cyclists should share lanes with 18 metre articulated buses. Bicycles, though they take up a tiny proportion of the footprint of a car, have never been given any space. In a city where the price of land is so high, someone needs to recognise they represent a smart deal.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 22nd May 2007.