Thursday, January 03, 2008

Pedaling some thoughts

While cycling is often considered to be a form of physical exercise, I often find it to be more of a place where I do a lot of thinking and relaxing. Some people head off to yoga classes after work. I just jump on the bike. In both cases the increased flow of blood through the body can awaken the mind and senses. The bike is one of the few places in my life in which I have almost no distractions – there is no radio or TV soundscape, no work colleagues or flatmates to bump it to, its just me and the road ahead. While I’m aware of the traffic around me there is an preconscious dimension of cycling in which you control the bike and react to your environment without having to think. This leaves plenty of time just to relax and think about other things like this.

Several years ago I remember hearing a lecture by Professor Peter Newman on the importance of transport in terms of reflective time. He talked about the Marchetti constant which is the time budget we give ourselves to moving each day. The idea is that we have a time budget of around an hour each day and our transport habits are almost always structured within this period. According to Newman:

The reality is that you need about an hour a day as a reflective restorative time. It seems to be a biological principle. This is a real limit to how we build cities, because what it shows is that cities are one-hour wide everywhere. Walking cities will be only five to eight kilometres across. The early pictures of Sydney right through the 19th century show that. The transit city - and you had a picture up to 1947 with a city that was about 20 or 25 kilometres across - this is still the one- hour wide city, with the trams and trains taking people further out…. The automobile cities which we have been building for the past 50 years could spread 50 to 60 kilometres and still be within that one-hour wide city.

In Sydney, it would seem that many people have extended themselves well beyond the 1 hour limit of the Marchetti constant. Somewhere there is a tipping point from which the enjoyable ‘time out’ of transportation had moved into a negative territory of stress and frustration. Is it any wonder people can become so hot headed about being stuck in traffic or on having to wait for public transport? Car designs have capitalised on these dilemmas but turning into mobile living rooms with amazing sound systems, computers and other electronic devices to be distracted with. If Newman is correct in identifying the centrality of the Marchetti constant, then one the main concerns of transport planning should be on providing a quality experience of time within the limits of say 30mins. As bicycles engage the body in an active way, they are surely a winner in this regard as a from of stress free transportation. But not everyone sees it this way. Cycling is always regarded by non-cyclists as too hard and too dangerous.

Perhaps, the critical issue for promoting cycling then should be making it more enjoyable. This shouldn't be done by fantasizing about a city with bicycle lanes like Copenhagen, but by equipping urban spaces in a way that normalizes cycling as an everyday activity. Of course we need an improved bicycle lane network, but this is only one part of the equation. We need to do other things like changing the design of buildings. Think about what happens when you build a flat building. There is usually a giant underground carpark but no space for bicycles. You can be caught having to carry your bicycle up four flights of stairs when there could be a secure communal bicycle depot on the ground floor. At the workplace, the train station or shopping mall, if there are even any bicycle racks they are often hidden in poorly accessible places where they are more likely to be stolen. If your lucky and your workplace has a shower , it probably won't have a locker. Many cyclists are often afraid of wanting more infrastructure (particularly bike lanes) because those who already cycle have already ‘evolved’ to the environment and have seen how all the positives overcome some setbacks. This may be good for us, but what about everyone else? What will be their tipping point?

If comfort is one important part of the Marchetti constant, then time and space (urban geography) must be the other dimension. While one may enjoy riding a bike or catching public transport within certain times and spaces, clearly such means of transportation can be inadequate for many others. Consider if one is living in Blacktown and working in Manly. Its easy for cyclists to moralise against dilemmas by saying that all people should simply move closer to their place of employment, but such claims seem to be oblivious to the complex matrix of labour markets, housing and wealth that structure Sydney’s social geography. In my mind, more equitable housing policy could be the elephant within the room of the wider sustainable transport debate. It doesn’t strike me as a mere coincidence that cities and countries which strong cycling cultures (Denmark, Holland, Germany) also happen to be the ones that have more equitable forms of housing policy. Repositioning housing in more equitable ways can allow for different experiences of transportation and mobility within the city. For many years the 'solution' to housing affordability has been to build cheap houses out in the autopic suburban fringe, while in the inner city, urban consolidation policies have often been touted as the solution in terms of sustainability. However, there little evidence that urban consolidation has done anything in terms of providing housing equity catering mostly for the young, rich and cosmopolitan. It seems to me that the sustainable transport debate needs to move beyond its focus on different transport modes, and come to consider what are the everyday and varied time-spaces that we inhabit as different people who move across the city.

No comments: