Urban bicycling: more than meets the eye

By Tom

With my other half at work on Saturday mornings, I often use the time to go for a morning ride around town on my own. The exercise is always good, but that’s not what motivates me. I ride simply for the sheer joy of soaking up the city at the ‘human scale’. Renowned Danish Architect and Urbanist Jan Gehl has built his career around the idea of the human scale, an idea which now permeates the urban planning, design and placemaking professions. Gehl argues the way we design our cities has a huge impact on how welcome and safe, but also how inspired and empowered, we feel in urban places. In the words of Gehl…

[the human scale is] based on Homo sapiens, the speed with which we move, the way we move, how our limbs are organized, how our movement system, how our senses are geared to our being a walking animal, and are geared to see everything horizontally. We see everything horizontally but we see very little up and a little bit more down. We can see when we communicate with people, we have a very, very precise system. If it’s intimate, we are at a close distance.[1]

If that is a little abstract, let me describe two scenarios for you.

In the first scenario, I’m walking down Hunter Street mall, taking in my surroundings – the  scent of coffee, pollen, cooked breakfast; I pass people, faces, stories; people walking, people eating, people talking, people sitting; I hear the sounds of the city, chatter, politics, laughter, birds. Occasionally I gaze upward at those grand old facades–four, sometimes six stories high, there, people on balconies, in windows, or perhaps just curious emptiness. It only takes a few steps and I’m in front of a new shop, cafe, tree or lane. Diversity is not hard to find at this scale.

Contrast this with, say, walking along the Pacific Highway between Kotara and Charlestown. Apart from the occasional view from the ridgeline, the walk is characterised by sameness: pavement, traffic lights, cars and noise. Worse still, the footpath (or in some cases dirt trail) is devoid of trees and shade, ensuring the walking experience all the more exhausting. Most important in this scenario is the fact it takes you a long time to get anywhere of interest. This is because the landscape is designed for vehicles, the movement of traffic. As Gehl puts it, “if you, as a person, are out in a 60 kilometer per hour environment, you have the most boring time in your life”.

So you see now why I like to ride into the city and cruise around. Just as we are drawn to human scale places, the way we move through a place will shape our interaction with it. Just like walking, bicycling at lower speeds lets you move through the city at the human scale. There’s a great image used by Gehl Architects to illustrate how movement at the human scale invites us to be, well, more human. Look at the image below, and think about how you see people, how you relate to people as a pedestrian, as a bicyclist and when driving a car. The pedestrian and bicyclist can easily make eye contact with other pedestrians and bicyclists.

Eye contact, as it happens, is important for how we read people, and helps us empathise. It is much more difficult to relate to people when we drive, which partly explains road rage. Driving also deprives us of the other sensory information taken in when walking or bicycling–most often the purpose is to get from A to B, the world around us as we move through it is irrelevant. It is unfortunate that when we allocate space to enable the unobstructed movement of traffic, it is not only typically at the peril of other forms of transport,but also to the detriment of what David Engwicht in his book Calming the Traffic calls the “spontaneous exchange” of “goods, information, culture, friendship and inspiration”​–the fundamental basis of urban living.

Gehl Architects Social Distances

Image: Gehl Architects - Social Distances

Back to town, I find there is always something happening and something always happens when I venture in, spontaneous or otherwise. This Saturday morning ride I visited the Newcastle Art Bazaar in Civic Park (pictured below). It was great to see so much local talent on show. The maker movement it seems is alive and well.

Art Bazaar

After this I cruised through Wheeler Place, where the Asian Cup trophy was on display to promote the January 2015 tournament, four games of which will be played right here in Newcastle.

Wheeler Place Asian Cup Trophy Tour 2014

Next stop, one of my favourites: Sprocket Roasters on the corner of Hunter St and Watt St. I was sitting back watching the world go by when, just as Jan Gehl would have it, one of my work colleagues out with some artist friends sketching and painting city buildings and vistas, crossed my path. After happily chatting for a bit he continued on his way. Newcastle is full of such serendipitous encounters. I lent back on my Sprocket stool against the cool brick wall and that’s when I thought, I should write a blog post about all this.


Sprocket Roasters

Notes: [1] American Society of Landscape Architects, Interview with Jan Gehl, http://www.asla.org/ContentDetail.aspx?id=31346

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