19 December 2011

A (Very) Occasional Series

Obscure Reasons for Cycling: Number 1

Photo Courtesy of BenettonTalk
I realised today that it has been many days since I was inspired to write anything here. However, this is mainly because most of the things I would like to write about the cycling, infrastructure and the gentle art of persuading the masses that they've got it all wrong is already being written, at this very moment, by much cleverer and erudite folk than me.

Nevertheless, I also thought that the more obscure benefits of cycling to work could probably do with an airing, just in case it gets forgotten that it is the simple things in life that matter. After all, who really cares about how many kilogrammes of CO2 they omit into the atmosphere at any given moment? Or how their long term lifestyle choices will shave 20 minutes off their life expectancy?

No, what we want is the here and now. And I noticed right here and right now that cycling to work has made a dramatic difference in the number of shoes I wear out per-annum, since I stopped walking to work.

I expect a drastic shift from pedestrian activity to the cycling world as soon as news of this dramatic finding gets out. In austerity Britain, watching the pennies is where it's at.

28 November 2011

The Green Grid

We have been doing some research into the way that Cardiff can be read as a city. Our thesis is that the park sof Cardiff are it's key characteristic, and can therefore be used as the structuring element that can organise the whole.

We propose that the main "anchoring" parks of Cardiff can become the attractors at the ends of green fingers that stretch out into the suburbs and beyond. Where an anchoring park is missing, then current landfill sites can be re-imagined as the new urban parks that perform the anchoring role that the great Victorian parks do elsewhere.

These green fingers are mostly already in-situ, and the axial (from outside to centre) connections are strong. Where the connectivity of this network fails is in the radial (radiating out from the centre) direction. The green grid needs to be augmented by creating links, joining pocket parks, greening previously derelict or brownfield land.

This green grid of connected parkland and found green space conveniently forms a new transport grid overlaid over the old and defunct road system, but luckily just for bikes and pedestrians. Here is our initial proposal which comes with a healthy debt of respect to Dr Beehooving at CycleSpace, of course, who is the pre-eminent expert in the field.

Presented at the Welsh School of Architecture, Post-Industrial Seminar, November 2011.

14 November 2011

There is no School Like the Old School

We made a trip to St Fagan's recently - the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff which is one of the most popular open-air museums in Europe.

This building is an old barn where the columns are made of solid massive slabs of slate, and the rear building is made of small pieces of slate laid horizontally like a dry stone wall.

For some reason, this is utterly appealing to architects. Perhaps it is the reassuring idea that the concept of modernism is completely encapsulated by a medieval barn, and is therefore less scary than the rantings of that madman Le Corbusier. In a survey*, the vast majority of architects asked about their favourite building at St Fagan's chose this one. I'm sure there is an essay there somewhere.

*we asked at least 3.

For those bike fans out there, do not fret. Here is a classic cargo bike I found hiding under a pile of tin baths and buckets in the shop that is part of the village grouping at the museum. It should be centre stage, and probably is an a parallel universe where people are sensible and value bikes not buckets. Again, an essay beckons...

31 October 2011

Car Day

This post is in homage to Dave Warnock who has just achieved the milestone of cycling everyday for one year, and whose regular comparisons of his travel experiences cycling and driving are always a good read.

I had a meeting in Swansea last week, for which I had to take the car (issues of meeting clashes and giving lifts to colleagues). On my return, I was able to park in the office car park in the centre of town. I then had to pick up No.1 son from his nursery – barely half a mile away and approximately 7 minutes by bike, whatever the traffic – at the end of the day. I was careful and left a bit of extra time – leaving about 25 minutes for a journey you can walk in about 10. However, I was totally flummoxed by the sheer volume of traffic and so at 10 minutes to six (six is the dreaded cut-off time – otherwise you get fined), I had to ring my partner and beg her to jump on her bike and dash to the nursery as I didn’t think I was going to make it. In the end, she beat me by about 1 minute and I arrived at about 30 seconds to six. She travelled easily twice the distance I had to. I normally arrive to collect my son cheerful, and full of fresh air. This time I arrived completely stressed, panicking and frustrated.

I had time (unfortunately) whilst sitting in a solid jam of cars to reflect on the advertising method of promoting cars as tools of freedom, choice and practicality. Those advertising gurus must be geniuses to have conned so many into believing it. Can you imagine my frustration at being 500yds away from my boy, but with no way to get there and no alternative but to sit it out? If I have to take my car again, I’ll chuck the Brompton in the boot and use that at the end of the day – the car can stay in the car park.

I’m beginning to resent the gas-guzzling, money draining, time wasting appendage outside. But will we have the guts to get rid of it? To be honest, I doubt it. Until transport thinking catches up with the unarticulated desires of (I believe) many people, and starts considering genuine alternatives, once again that is a choice our addiction to the motor car has denied me rather than enabled - the choice to do without.

22 October 2011

Gerhard Richter, Panorama

I was fortunate the other day to be able to visit the Tate Modern in London whilst in the big smoke for a meeting just around the corner.  I was particularly keen to visit, following a review I heard on BBC R4 about the exhibition currently showing the work of Gerhard Richter. I was not dissappointed, and neither was I alone - this proved to be a very popular attraction.

The paintings are a mix of very abstract and very figurative, but alway showing a quite phenomenal understanding of the nature both of paint as a material in itself, but also of the materials being depicted. The very abstract images were interesting, particularly the random colour squares, which your brain is desperate to interpret as a pixelated image. However, there is no hidden image to comprehend and the sense of disorientation is palpable.

I also enjoyed the photographs that have been painted over, blurred and distorted. It is as if they are rushing across the wall, and have just been caught in the exact moment they passed behind the frame - never quite in focus. Their fleeting presence is full of motion and disturbance. It seems as they will be lost again at any moment. There are some hugh images of clouds which you can't quite believe are paintings - the luminosity of the clouds is beautiful and the wispiness of the edges is perfect. But for all the realism, they are scale-less, without romanticism and quite unsettling.

Amongst the very abstract "squeegee" images are some smaller, almost photorealistic, paintings that are remarkable in their sense of materiality. One image - "Betty" is of a girl (Richter's daughter) viewed from behind, her face just turned away. She is wearing a fleece-like jumper that so captures the material you can almost feel it between your fingers. People peer closely at the painting, unable to believe it is made just of paint. There is also an image of a burning candle - a traditional study in play of light - where the sensation of glowing hot wax at the tip of the candle is incredible.

My personal favourite is the huge canvas of paris, which up close appears to be an abstracted jumble of brush strokes and paint texture. Step away, and the discernable shapes of Hausmann's Avenues begin to appear. Step away further and the buildings appear to be in ruinous, post-blitz state, bombed into broken carcasses.

I've heard Richter described as the greatest painter alive. I am in no way qualified to comment on that, but you leave the Tate thinking it is a very believable statement.

Gerhard Richter, Panorama. Tate Modern 6th October 2011  - 8th January 2012. Tickets required.

20 October 2011

Conference Lecture

I am hoping to be chosen to speak at a small local conference event in Cardiff, which is an opportunity for transport experts to discuss sustainable transportation and the ways that infrastructure can be used to promote better development.

I am hoping to present a paper highlighting the ways that cycle infrastructure could be used to improve the quality of the environment, help create pleasant spaces, improve access to services and connect and create more valuable development, I also want to highlight the economic benefits of encouraging cycling (and cyclists).

Here is a copy of the extract - any ideas for my presentation would be gratefully received (full acknowledgment available, obviously...)

19 October 2011

Ignoring the HGV in our Collective China Shop

With apologies to Copenhagenize.

The recent spate of tragic deaths caused by HGVs (and one very lucky escape) seems to highlight an absolute denial amongst many people to consider questioning either;

(a) Why are gigantic powerful vehicles where the driver cannot see the first 3m in front of them (amongst other blind spots) are allowed to freely navigate their way around our cities, or;
(b) Why can't these huge lumbering death traps be designed so that they are not quite so deadly for those unlucky enough to be within a few meters of them.

Stuff doesn't have to the way it is now. HGV cabs could look different. Roads could look different. We are allowed to change things.

By the way, the poster below is not a design solution. It barely qualifies as a sticking plaster (produced by the Road Haulage Association - standard victim-blaming technology):

Label to be added to the backs of HGVs

In the 1920's, gut wrenching and visceral campaigns were run by organisations seeking to try and tame the deadly rise of the motor car in cities. Shocking images were used to portray the trail of destruction that the new-fangled motor car was leaving, particularly amongst the young. It very nearly broke the car industry, who survived in part by becoming heavily involved in safety campaigning themselves and changing the focus by blaming instead the children who were playing in the streets. The ancestors of this paradigm are posters like the one above. However, things are different today and an all-out assault on the government focusing on the unimaginable horror of being crushed by an lorry might prove more fruitful. How tragic that even thinking that way should be required at all.

17 October 2011

Inflation in the Oddest Places

This is concrete (chocolate) proof that inflation has gone through the roof. This is chocolate money, which I'm pretty sure only came in coin form when I were a lad. Imagine my apoplectic rage on discovering that chocolate money now includes notes as well as coins! Up to £50 ones for goodness sake!

No doubt next time I buy some, I'll end up carrying it home in a wheelbarrow. Whatever next.

14 October 2011

Harris Hack

Cardiff launches itself into the CycleChic stratosphere with a Harris Hack this weekend:

Gentlemen, wax those moustaches...

4 October 2011

Private Use of Public Space

There is always a lot of discussion in architectural circles about the "privatisation of public space". I shall illustrate what this frighteningly architectural phrase means, by referring to the example of shopping centres.

Once upon a time, a shopping centre was an easy concept to understand - a place where shops were collected together indoors, and they were equally easy to spot - they often helpfully had the name "shopping centre" stencilled on the outside.

I think this is Edmonton Green Shopping Centre

It was easy to see where they started and where they finished (doors to enter and leave) and it would therefore be reasonable to assume that they were indeed private space. Even if the mall formed an important connection or route within a city, it would be normal to assume it would close at 5.30pm, and reopen at 9.00am. You would not have been surprised to know it was owned by private enterprise, and not the public in the form of the Local Council.

But shopping centre design moves on. Even the name moves on - they are now malls, or arcades. In Cardiff, the people of the capital city are the proud recipients of St David's 2 (the sequel), which has the traditional spine route, covered, on two levels. There are doors to enter and leave and there is an anchor store at the end - John Lewis; thus propelling Cardiff into the big time. All very familiar thus far, but also all very obsolete. Because SD2, as we are encouraged to call it, might be the last hurrah of this now familiar typology. In Liverpool and Bristol, amongst others, new kinds of shopping centre have been developed and they look a lot like any old part of the town. In fact, they look a lot different to what we have become accustomed to believe a shopping centre should look like.

Part of Cabot Circus, Bristol

These new kid on the block have streets, townscape and urban scale. They are open to the elements. They might even have roads with traffic, but they certainly do not have doors to enter and leave. You would be forgiven for thinking that they are simply bits of the city that host them, although with less litter. However, they are not. They are private space. They are controlled by private enterprise, and if you start taking photos, polite well dressed gentlemen with radio earpieces and clip-on ties will appear and ask you to leave.

These bits of city are therefore certainly not bits of city in the traditional sense. So the urbanists and theorists get excited about sanitisation of space, the loss of the right to protest, rights of access, rights of assembly, the impact of private ownership within public space etc etc. But in truth, the ubanists have missed the boat. This privatisation of public space has been going on for years under our very noses with very little complaint. Large chunks of precious public realm have been enclosed and fenced off, with the process starting nearly 100 years ago. The space demarcated for motoring, a particularly private pursuit, has been expanding ever since.

The amount of land dedicated to the private motor car in urban centres, for both its movement and storage, is surely staggering. One only needs to consider the rents that could be achieved on the square footage occupied at present for free. The effect of this "enclosure" is quite debilitating to a sense of community and civility.

What is required is an about-turn in how we think about the use of space in cities. It is simple and obvious; the self propelled citizens should be in the role of the occupiers whereas the motor-powered citizens must be the guests. This is where the role of the bicycle is critical as a tool of radical thinking. You see, by making the effort to make cycling easy, for instance by providing quality segregated infrastructure, a city would  thus overtly state its position that non-motorised citizens (pedestrians and cyclists) are welcomed by right, whereas the motorised are tolerated by necessity. By building segregated cycling infrastructure and all the necessary compromises to the hegemony of cars that go with that, a city will be reclaiming space for all its citizens, for Civitas.

22 September 2011

The Inevitability of Cycling and Taxes

The billionaire Warren Buffet has made some waves this week by pointing out the absurdity, as he sees it, of the situation whereby he pays significantly less tax than many of his far less wealthy employees. He referred to the notion of "shared sacrifice", which boils down to the idea that those with the most should contribute to society to a similar degree as those with the least.

As you might imagine, the right wingers in the USA have really got their teeth into that one - suggesting to many Americans that they should pay more tax is not so much an anathema as a complete and absolute no-go area. It got me thinking about game theory, which is often used to demonstrate how humans can act as selfish individuals rather than working cooperatively, and be worse off as a result. There are several well described "games" that demonstrate how this works.

Game theory also shows us how the framing of an issue can be important. For instance, in a game involving sacrificing some money to a communal pot, the amount donated was significantly higher when the game was called "The Community Game", compared to how much was donated when the game was titled "The Wall St Game". People acted differently according to how the Game was described.

I thought this made an interesting metaphor for those of us campaigning for decent cycling infrastructure in this country. We all know that a significant challenge will be to persuade car drivers (or the agencies that protect their interests) that they should sacrifice some of their road space for others, with the aim of benefitting society at large. It is likely that motorists would conceive of this sacrifice as a tax on a benefit that they currently enjoy i.e. unfettered access to large swathes of our precious urban realm. It is also possible that they might think as "selfish" individuals by believing these sacrifices would make their journey times longer, whereas it could reasonably be said that it might also reduce journey time by reducing congestion. This is a Game Theory classic.

The lesson here for the campaign about cycling infrastructure is that in order to win the game, we need to make the sure game has been correctly framed in the participants minds. If Warren Buffet and President Obama have begun the process of re-branding tax as a worthy sacrifice, then we could jump on that particular bandwagon and do the same when discussing cycling infrastructure.

22 August 2011

It's an It Chair, isn't it?

My ardent fans, i.e. no-one, will remember that some time ago I wrote a post expressing my desire to be the proud owner of an "It Chair"; a wondrous Spanish-made device that allows one to carry ones offspring on a Brompton. I struggled to find one, noting that they rarely even appeared on e-bay. I made a pilgrimage to their Spanish retailer whilst in Barcelona, only to find the stock cupboard bare. I reported that the renowned Brompton up-grader Steve Parry had withdrawn from making his own version due to the potential risk of litigation from anyone who might be hurt whilst using one. In the end, I placed a reserve note with Velorution knowing that they couldn't get them either and forgot about it. The boy stood on the crossbar whilst I wheeled him to nursery - nice, but not as glorious as it could have been. Just imagine us zipping along, the wind in our hair perched together on our steed; the stuff of dreams.

Well, those diligent chaps at Velorution kept their eyes peeled and obviously managed to get their hands on some stock. They put the word out and I jumped at the chance. I know the boy is a bit too big now. I know it was mega-bucks...

But come on, how cool is that?

It is made of steel tubing, with a clamp that joins to the Brompton seat post, with a matching Brompton-style clamp. The other end sits snugly over the top tube, but also has a shaped steel section that hooks under the Brompton's own top tube clamp and keeps the device steady and positively located. You need to provide your own saddle (a bit ridiculous, bearing in mind the ridiculous price) that sits on a cantilever tube projecting from the shaped main section. The child places their feet on the flip-down foot rests, and then holds onto the bike handlebar. A necessary "benign dictator" role needs to be taken by the adult pilot, as the junior co-pilot can sometimes try to choose the direction you are travelling in. This can throw your balance a bit. Pedalling is straightforward, even if a bit "bow-legged" to avoid your knees banging into the passenger in front. A small saddle is helpful, as this makes pedalling perfectly normal once the passenger has disembarked. Folding is ok, even though I still haven't got the technique sorted. I sometimes end up looking like someone struggling with a deckchair, in stark contrast to the 10sec slick folding method I had down to a tee before. The folded package is slightly larger and quite a bit heavier, but acceptable if not carrying a great distance. The bike flexes much more when riding, due to the extra weight. Neither the boy or I are particularly bulky though, so it feels fine. Some may prefer the harder suspension block, which might eliminate some of the flex.

You can have a great conversation whilst riding and the child gets a brilliant view of proceedings. The boy now sings all the way to nursery, so it seems to work for him. He loves it, even if he's not allowed to steer. Yet.

11 August 2011


We were there. During our recent rip to Copenhagen, we were caught in the most amazing deluge I have ever seen. After an amazing trip to the art gallery at Louisiana, where the weather was like this:

We returned to Copenhagen in late afternoon. Arriving at Norreport Station, we stepped off the train and into a storm of biblical proportions. Hiding in the station, we watched as traffic ground to a halt and the skies darkened as though night had come. It rained so hard, for almost two hours, that the station roof started leaking and it rained inside too. I read on Copenhagenize that there were 5,000 lightning strikes those two hours. It felt as though the paparazzi were lurking outside, flashbulbs popping.

Of course, the rain did eventually stop. We were able to return our hire bikes in time (through deserted streets) but the ensuing traffic chaos resulting from the flooding caused us no end of problems - trains were delayed, buses diverted and traffic jams appeared everywhere. How we wished we'd hung on to the hire bikes, as the Copenhagen citizen cyclists kept on rolling.

9 August 2011

the Incredible Shrinking City

More thoughts, slow in gestation, from our recent trip to Copenhagen:

The steady pace of cycling in Copenhagen's cyle lanes, combined with the subjective safety they create in ones mind has the excellent effect of shrinking the city to a different scale. We happen to be well versed in the art of walking around cities and understand the scale and possibilities of distance and time as pedestrians. But this bike contraption thingy shrinks distance and opens up opportunities in an incredible way, when combined with the simple device of a safe, dedicated cycling infrastructure. Freedom from the mysteries of public transport, freedom from the motor car and the niceties of parking, directions, maps and getting lost. This exhilarating sense of freedom in all senses must have been what drove millions of people to take to the bicycle a century ago.

In urban planning, we often see masterplans prepared which attempt to consider the idea of "walkability" - whereby facilities and functions, or connections to other transport opportunities, are designed to be within certain walking times or distances. This is clearly a sensible and laudable way to proceed. But, I wonder what impact there might be on the flexibility and practicality of masterplans were an additional layer of "cyclability" to be added.

If the infrastructure was to be put in to a new development from the beginning, to allow this secondary layer of cyclability to operate beyond the normal walking radii, many possibilites might open up. Putting the car just a stage lower down the mental priority list might also help cut the short, local trips that get in the way of the journeys that the car is clearly very good at - long, fast trips from point to point over a regional scale. Not the quick trip to the shops or picking the kids up from school. And I hold no truck with the idea that just because it hasn't been done before, or done elsewhere that this would be a waste of time. Presumably, the City of Copenhagen started with just one cycle lane somewhere. Look what they managed in the meantime.

With the simple addition of "Cyclability" into the design mix, the Incredible Shrinking City would have neighbourhoods that were more civilised, more attractive and just that little bit more gentle of pace.

29 July 2011

Flashride at Blackfriars Bridge

I support the cyclists campaining for a civilised London, which in turn sets the tone - like it or not - for how civilised we are as a nation. The issue of Blackfriars Bridge has become something of a cause celebre in London, but I know that it means something for all of us, even if we are in Cardiff 160 miles away.

Blogger Cyclist in the City has documented every stage of the debate and describes the proposed design as "a motorway in the centre of town" Here he explains why he will be joining the flashride tonight.

"We've been terribly polite. We've talked to the politicians. We've won over every one of the political parties. It's taken months and months. And nothing is going to change ... I'm not prone to protest. But I've had enough of TfL and its behaviour. I've tried the political approach. And I think TfL has just stuck two fingers up at the politicians as well as me. Blackfriars isn't just about the bridge. It's about how I feel TfL ignores cycling all across London."
I don't want acres of valuable city real estate unthinkingly devoted to an outmoded, inefficient, overly subsidised mode of transport, to the detriment of all of us, so good luck tonight and Monday. This is what it took in Copenhagen to turn the tide against the orthodoxy that car is best (apologies to Copenhagenize):

15 July 2011

God is in the Details

As I have noted before, we visited Copenahgen recently and whilst we there, we hired bikes for a few days - to see what all the fuss is about. We both got "omafiets" style bikes; Raleigh "Hire Bikes" as they were labelled. Unremarkable but sturdy and straightforward machines. One had a Bobike style seat on the pannier rack for carrying No.1 son. They had three hub gears, front pull brake and rear coaster brake - something that I had not used before and which needed some getting used to. The most tricky thing for me was not being able wind the pedals back whilst waiting at a junction to get into the best "launch" position, as I am used to. I did get the hang of preparing the pedals as I came to a stop but a bit more practice is needed.A detail I noticed, which would seem trivial to a Copenhager, was that the reason all the girls look so elegant on their bikes is the excellent riding position they adopt, no doubt as their mothers taught them. Key to this, it seems, is having the seat set high enough so that you get a full leg stretch on the downstroke. For most, this means you can't sit on the seat and touch the ground with your foot, but the low frames make a quick forward dismount easy. Often, I see UK cyclists who have the seat far too low and probably also lack the confidence to ride with this set up - which I presume is more efficient.

We got the hang of the cycle lanes quite quickly. There is a definite slow zone to the right and fast zone to the left (closer to the road), although it seems there are complaints in Copenhagen about the widths of the cycle lanes and the unpleasant sensation of faster bikes whizzing past you with only inches to spare. This is a nice illustration of the difference in emphasis between a mature cycling culture such as that found in Denmark and good ol' Blighty, where the thing whizzing past just inches away isn't a bike, it's a bin lorry or white van going at 45mph.

The cycle lanes are segregated from the pedestrian pavement by a standard upstand kerb and from the road carriageway by a low profile kerb. I was struck by how narrow the residual pedestrian pavement was, with congestion often a problem where shops had displays outside, or lots of bikes were parked.

It took a while to get to grips with the Copenhagen left hand turn (is this called a "box" turn?). To turn left, you raise your hand and pull in to join the queue of bikes waiting to cross the junction in the perpendicular direction, rather than moving across the traffic into the centre of the road and then crossing the oncoming traffic, in the vehicular style. It is a bit slower, having to effectively wait for two sets of traffic lights to turn, but then the pace seems to be that much slower and steadier anyway that it doesn't really matter - not mixing with the traffic means the bike beneath you goes at its own pace. You don't need to attempt to match car-speed to stay safe and consequently you seem to eat up the miles with very little effort.

The system of dedicated bike signals and separated lanes at key junctions is effective, if a little daunting for the newcomer - although it is not designed to make the tourists feel at home, but to be practical and convenient for the (vast) A-to-B brigade. Parking is simplicity itself. Just stop more or less anywhere and there will be some bikes parked. Pull up, drop the kickstand, secure the fitted rear wheel lock and walk away. No hunting for a stand or lampost thin enough to get the D-Lock around. In fact, the hardest part is finding it again in the inevitable sea of identical looking bikes that will have accumulated whilst you were away.

Not all roads have cycle lanes - only the ones where the mismatch between speed of car and speed of bike is at its most. Thus, most residential road are low speed and cycling is on-road. Through Copenhagen centre, the main avenues have the most densely used cycle lanes. This is an interesting contrast to current tactics in the UK, where cyclists are often urged to find circuitous, but quiet, back roads. In Copenhagen, the main roads are the most direct and thus the most used by cyclists wanting a fast route from A to B. So the big H.C. Andersens Boulevard (8 lanes of traffic in places) is also a significant cycling artery, which is completely logical and legible.The experience of cycling in Copenhagen was enjoyable, convenient, safe and instructive. And all the more frustrating for having that kind of cycling culture over there but not over here. Why ever not? I guess it is all in the details.

14 July 2011

A Religious Experience

We are not really religious souls, but Jorn Utzon is a saint of sorts for architects. He is of course mostly and rightly known for his work on the Sydney Opera House, but that story, and the inglorious ending of his commission, overshadows his other work. Although the Opera House is probably one of the most recognised architectural icons on earth, the same cannot be said of any of his other works, magnificent though they are. Although this situation is being redressed gradually, with a recent rush of publications (notably the massive Richard Weston collection "Utzon" - a genuine coffee table book, in that you could actually make a coffee table from it), his other buildings generally remain obscure and known only to the profession itself, and the lucky souls who use them.

As a result, when we decided to take a trip to Bagsvaerd, a suburb of Copenhagen, to see Utzon's fabulous Kirke (church), we were the only tourists making that particular journey.

It was a Sunday, a beautiful sunny morning. We left the rain-battered chaos of Copenhagen behind and braved the long bus trip out to Bagsvaerd. Of course being a Sunday there was a service about to start when we arrived so we didn't have time to properly consider the austere and simple exterior, with the walls clad in a mixture of matt and gloss material - a reminder of the shimmering shell of the Opera House.

We decided instead to sit at the back and take in the interior atmosphere, and were treated to a musical treat as the tiny church choir and musical director lifted our spirits.

The simple rectangular forms of the elevations and plan are contrasted with a flamboyant and organic roof section inside the church itself.

There are hints of a traditional church layout, with aisles formed at either side, but no crossing or vaulted roof. Instead, the roof sweeps overhead like a rolling cloud, swooping up towards a hidden roof light, allowing light to cascade down to the wooden pews that are almost the only decoration. If you ever wanted to explain to a student what Corbusier meant when he described Architecture as the "masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light", then this is the place to come.

I was aware of this project through photos and a general interest in Utzon's work, so I was vaguely familiar with the interior before we arrived. However, those who know this scheme will also know that it is the concept drawings that stick in the mind, with the rolling shapes of the church ceiling drawn in rough axonometric in simple pen sketches. What struck me therefore more than anything was the absolute directness in how the building has realised the power of those sketches. It was not the photos I had seen that meant the building was "known" to me, it was the experience of seeing a concept sketch writ large. This simple church is a genuine fulfilment of an artistic vision, rare in architecture but not in the work of Jorn Utzon.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

1 July 2011

A Pilgrimage

So, as a celebration of moving from a decade recognisable as youthful, to one closer to decrepitude, we have come to Copenhagen. To see what all the fuss is about. To bicycle in splendid isolated and separated safety. But, we have been here a few days now, and the magic that we saw now seems everyday. The amazement at the silent swish of the hordes sweeping by has faded. We look to our right as we get off the bus and step onto the cycle path, knowing the kind cycling souls have stopped anyway...

So, to get my perspective back, I checked up on the backlog in Google Reader. And there it all was; At War With The Motorist eloquently raging. Crap Waltham Forest just keeping on undimmed, Low Fidelity gently prodding with the rapier. And now I see it all again afresh. The chain driven, diamond-framed miracle before my eyes. It is truly stunning.

Oh, and in case the waxing lyrical has got a bit much, let me point out in no uncertain terms that the bloody segregated infrastructure and absolute commitment to the complete priority of non-motorised means of transport is the reason why.

Everybody cycles. The men are tall and handsome. The girls are beautiful. Coincidence? I think not.

21 June 2011

Don't Trust the Figures

We don't have to believe what the cold hearted rationalists tell us will happen, and has to happen, when it comes to traffic modelling. They like to massage the figures too it seems:

Legal threat to consultant as toll road traffic fails to materialise

Engineering by Numbers

I have been impressed by several blog posts lately, but particularly the work of Joe Dunckley at War on the Motorist. I like the post about the DfT because it seems to justify all those secret thoughts that there is just something wrong with the way things are done, but no obvious way of proving it. Now we know that the DfT is simply using stupid maths to justify its own preconceptions of how things ought to be. This seems to me to underline the notion that engineering is at its worst when solutions are arrived at by calculation alone. The rational mathemetician, unencumbered by the petty annoyances of the real world, can arrive at a clean and beautiful solution, which all adds up. However, a bit like painting by numbers, the result will be dull, lifeless and completely miss the point. The problem with seeing things through the prism of statistics is that it removes the opportunity for the beautiful mistake, or the unexpected incident. It misses the chance to grasp the brilliant dirtyness and unmissable messiness of (real) life.

Engineering ought to have design at its core. When it does, it can be fantastic, lyrical and stunning. As an example, the renowned structural engineer Peter Rice was a great exponent of this mix of the poetic and the practical. Renzo Piano, the Italian architect with whom Rice collaborated on some of the most imaginative buildings of the past 25 years, said Rice designed structures 'like a pianist who can play with his eyes shut; he understands the basic nature of structures so well that he can afford to think in the darkness about what might be possible beyond the obvious.'

Engineering should not be purely about reason, but should also be about art.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

26 May 2011

Humble Apologies...

Apologies to anyone stopping by, posting has been somewhat irregular recently due to pressures of work. I am working up construction drawings for a new house by night, and looking after a major planning application by day. Plus trying to grow a new lawn from seed, and having anxiety issues due to the patchiness of the grass - is that normal (the patchiness, not getting anxious about lawns)? Either way, things will be back to normal soon. Thanks.

16 May 2011

Getting Better by Design


Interesting article written by a colleague from the Design Commission for Wales Review Panel, which appeared in today's Western Mail - health section.

The Bicing on the Cake. Viva Espana, Part 3

We were in the Catalan capital this week whilst Marga was invited to teach at the Barcelona School of Architecture. I continued to be impressed and amazed by the transformation of Barcelona into a cycling city, led by the immensely popular bike hire scheme – Bicing. There are over 6000 bikes and more than 400 stations spread across the more central part of Barcelona – the Barrio Gotica, Eixample and Gracia. I was even more delighted to hear that my family members who live in Barcelona use the system, even though they are normally car users, as it is as fast as driving from A to B in the centre, but without the parking problems. The classic Copenhagenize theory of a-to-bism in fluid motion.

Sadly, due to our working schedule and location I was not able to try out the system – although that is easier said than done, as tourists are perhaps discouraged from using the bikes by way of the registration process and need for a Catalan address. I am luckier than many, having access to a membership card, so next time I am determined to give it a spin. The family currently live just off the Avenida Diagonal at the Zona Universidad end. I would love to give it a go down the arrow straight cycle path that runs for several kilometers along the Avenida Diagonal at the upper end, and also along the lower end to the sea. Two bicycle carriageways, completely separated from traffic and also with dedicated traffic signals. And very, very popular.

So popular in fact that we've had to air-brush out all the cyclists just so you can see the view

9 May 2011

Damn You, Johnny Foreigner. Viva Espana, Part 2

Here is a nice photo of No.1 son on the lookout for some exemplar cycling infrastructure and the signs of a maturing cycling culture. Even at his tender age, his continental blood makes him inherently more sensitive and understanding of urban design and the nuances of public/private space. That and having his parents blather on about it more or less constantly. Poor little thing.

But success! Even in the unprepossessing sea-side town of Sitges, near Barcelona, some plucky planner (probably an architect, let’s face it) has had the guts and gumption to address the problem of finding space for cycling infrastructure head-on. They were not content with sitting back and relaxing in the knowledge that if you can’t find space for bicycles in the leafy avenues of a world class capital city like Cardiff, how could you possibly do it in the cramped medieval streetscape of a small Spanish beach resort. Unless you take away space from the cars of course...

Yes, damn you Johnny Foreigner with your suave easy urbanism and slow, silky football skills. There are rules about this sort of thing you know, and this is not the done thing. OK, so it's not the best (the trees and bollards are a slight inconvenience), but the shocking truth that you can choose which transport methods get priority in an urban area, rather than it being an unquestionable unchanging reality, is what I'm getting at here.

4 May 2011

Viva Espana, Part 1

We've been away in Spain, where we took a trip out of Barcelona - where Marga is currently teaching at the School of Architecture - to Sitges. This was a renowned centre of counterculture in the past, which continues into the present in the form of a Carnival and film festival. Proximity to Barcelona means it is a popular weekend day-trip for the citizens of Barcelona, and the  admirable attitude to city planning that we all know from Barcelona is of course present in Sitges too - as it is all across Spain. I was struck by the simple example of the car park we parked in (there were 9 of us in the car, so an attempt to make an efficient journey was made). The car park has been excavated beneath an existing street, on several levels with simple access ramps, lifts and stairs arriving at pavement levels above - where the street has been re-instated over the parking bays.

I realise it may be heretical for a cyclist to wax lyrical about a car park, but I believe the approach in Sitges to this simple intervention belies a more mature and long-term approach to urban thinking than has ever been the case in the UK. It would be highly unlikley for a similarly sized seaside town in Britain to fund an underground carpark of this scale, preferring probably the above ground or multi-storey approach. And yet this solution in Sitges re-instated and significantly improved the public realm, left the scale of the area intact, hid cars away out of sight and ensured that the people were made to feel important, rather than overpowering them with a massive visible sign of car domination.

What a tragic lack of confidence we have in our own rights as citizens that we don't seem to demand the same quality of urban spaces and experiences that are common in Spain for instance. We deserve better, but we will never get it unless we believe we deserve it.

20 April 2011

The Vale Says NO!

Fracking doesn't actually seem to involve slicing immense setions of the earth's crust away.

For some reason, I am sure we are all amazed when a global news issue arrives at our doorstep, although presumably every global news issue is at someone's door step at some point. However, that doesn't stop ot feeling odd when it is ours.

The issue that has arrived near Cardiff (Llandow in the Vale of Glamorgan actually) is a proposal to carry out some test drilling relating to shale gas extraction, using the method commonly known as "fracking". There are loads of sites and loads of information about this seemingly mad plan, in particular a vivid and award winning film - Gasland - which includes some already infamous sights (setting fire to tap water being the top-trump).

Sadly, it seems that Goverment is well behind the curve here, but no doubt helpful "industry lobbyists" will be on hand to fill the knowlledge gaps - see this article in the Guardian for the sort of thing happening right now.

A protest group is in full swing in the Vale of Glamorgan. Their laudable aim is for the Government to impose a moratorium until more knowledge is available and more research has been done. Obviously, this might indeed involve test drilling and monitoring somewhere, but this protest seems to be based on a straightforward and clear request from a concerned public.

In theory, fracking could open up all sorts of "local" reserves in places which might well be filled with desirable housing and relatively wealthy, educated people and where the "frontier" feel of more traditional resource extraction is another world away. The gas energy companies are of course looking at this as a panacea, thinking that nuclear is now a busted flush. So will policy-makers step up to the plate in a responsible fashion, or is the threat of the lights going out in the UK a bigger concern? It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

14 April 2011

The Welsh Riviera

I recently spent a couple of days in North Wales on Design Commission for Wales duty, and this involved a visit to the seaside town of Llandudno, with its amazing Victorian stucco sweep around the bay. I was so lucky with the weather  - it was more Riviera than Rhyl.

I also visited the Mostyn, which has recently been refurbished by Ellis Williams Architects. The main internal orientation space, described as the "tube" is a tour-de-force in poured concrete, and was wonderfully tactile and very nicely lit from above. There is a full review in the Architect's Journal here.

30 March 2011

A Coalition of the Willing

There are many obstacles to the goal of seeing separated infrastructure along the lines of the Dutch model here in UK towns and cities – ranging from economic issues to political problems. People often focus on the spatial issues, or the seemingly prohibitive costs, but I’d like to focus briefly on the technical challenges, as I believe this is another critical front in pushing the cycling infrastructure debate forward.

My proposal is that as well as building political will and social acceptance, building technical capacity is crucial. As might be imagined, highway engineering and design is a highly formalised and codified activity – this is not surprising. But what might be more surprising to some is the degree to which this comment also applies to urban design, architecture, masterplanning and landscape architecture – roles which might be traditionally regarded as somehow more artistic endeavours.

When embarking on a masterplan project, it is the connections which become one of the primary building blocks for the designers. Even at concept stage, with pencil in hand, designers need to be mindful of technical best practice and regulations, particularly when looking at public realm design, paths and roads. Vision splays, turning circles, fire appliance access – like them or loathe them, these are the ground rules of any scheme. There are a few key documents to refer to, notable amongst them the Manual for Streets and Manual for Streets Part 2 (particularly on residential or urban schemes).

I see an incredible opportunity in bringing the immense database of knowledge available on building cycling infrastructure in Holland – collected in large part on the Fietsberaad website – to a wider technical audience in the UK. Indeed, I see the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain as being the fundamental conduit for this to happen. The process is already underway with the development of the CEGB Wiki. I can imagine this developing as published design guides and easy-to-read factsheets on best practice, which would be available to all designers and masterplanning professionals.

The idea being that by influencing those who set the ground rules with pencil in hand, then you make it easier to make space for suitable and excellent infrastructure from day one.

I believe architects, urban designers and masterplanners will be open-minded to this kind of information, and they can in turn pressurise other design team professionals on design teams to push this agenda forward. At the same time, I can see the CEGB building alliances with the professional institutions such as the RIBA, RTPI and CIHT, who can in turn influence the preparation of technical guidance. For instance, the CIHT were authors of Manual for Streets Part 2 – this was not a “Government” publication handed down on tablets of stone, but rather a document prepared by a learned institute. It is that learned institute we need to influence and persuade as much as any politician or economist.

The Manual for Streets already pushes the boundaries of what many typical municipal highway engineers might have thought reasonable and acceptable just a few years ago. It is already allowing us to discuss in meaningful terms a rebalancing of the urban spatial environment in favour of pedestrians and non-motorised transport. By building a coalition of the willing and giving them the tools to deliver, who knows how much further we can go?

22 March 2011

A New Wonder Material for Paving

View down from Capital Tower, onto Greyfriars Road
Not a very remarkable image - although it does include a (blurry) citizen bicyclist, which is fairly remarkable in Cardiff sadly - but why not click on, to see it enlarged?

Can you see the millions of tiny white dots all over the road and pavement? Chewing gum. When you think about the sheer number of times used gum must have been gobbed out to create this urban patchwork, it is quite disgusting.

However, of more interest to me are the surfacing possibilities here - I mean, just look at this stuff, it is completely impervious to weather, traffic, cleaning, it doesn't rot (does it?), it won't discolour, it has great grip and a pleasant minty taste. It looks like the age of tarmacadam is over.

18 March 2011

Crystal Ball Gazing

We are pleased to have come across this site CFhub.org.uk, which is a forum to bring together everyone in Cardiff who has an interest in environmental issues. This seems like an excellent example of network building, with a extremely sensible and useful summary of events going on in Cardiff. Hats off to the clearly enthusiastic and passionate work of the organisers.

From this new (to us) site, we were reminded about the Retrofit2050 research project run by our friend and colleague Prof. Malcolm Eames. We did some architectural type research related to this back in 2005 at Gaunt Francis Architects, when we produced an imagined image of what Cardiff might be like in 2055, related to the Council's celebrations for 50yrs as a Capital City. I'd like to think that we anticipated many of the issues that have since come to the forefront; retrofitting, hydrogen, water transportation, green infrastructure - although the cancelling of the Severn Barrage was not one we got right; perhaps it will come back another day?

We also stupidly missed the inevitable return of mass cycling, heralded by a new appreciation and knowledge of cycling infrastructure, the seeds of which have been sown at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain with their growing wiki; http://www.cycling-embassy.org.uk/node/226

17 March 2011

Wrong Signals?

Clas Ohlson, the trendy hardware store, has opened in Cardiff City Centre – another milestone in our quest to become a “world class capital”, no doubt.

I was initially pleased, then a little depressed, when I noticed there was a bike-stuff department, only to quickly  realise that it was stocked full of hi-viz reflective everything – hi-viz goggles, hi-viz gloves, hi-viz underpants (probably). Remember folks, cycling is dangerous – be prepared, and shoulder some responsibility for your reckless cheek in being on the road!

To be fair, I have checked their catalogue and they do stock a bike horn in the classic style with squeezy rubber bulb at one end, and mudguards and stands (which ought to already be on everyones bikes anyway), so all is not lost. However, any small green shoots of emerging cycle-chic are soon stamped on when you spot the reflective hi-viz pram cover. Start ‘em young with the crippling paranoia I say.

3 March 2011

Monorail planned for Cardiff

Monorail planned for Cardiff - Business News - Business - WalesOnline

Came across this story about a monorail planned for the city centre, linking Cardiff Bay with Cardiff Central station. Classic pie-in-the-sky stuff, but whenever this kind of story rears its head, I can't help but think of...

 Marge v The Monorail.

One technician suggests cutting the power, but alas, the monorail
is solar-powered.  (``Solar power.  When will people learn?'')
But miracle of miracles, Springfield suffers a solar eclipse!
The train grinds to a halt, and all celebrate.  The eclipse
ends, and the train speeds off again.

There truly is a Simpsons episode for every occasion.

2 March 2011

Licence to Speed?

I have just been "spammed" with an intriguing email from a company who offer insurance for drivers who lose their licence for speeding, either through an outright ban or "totting up". The insurance would cover the costs of alternative means of transport, possibly including a family member being employed as a chauffeur. The costs are not excessive (under £150) and the cover seems to offer reasonable recompense (about £15K for a 12month ban, maximum). I think this may have been around for some time, but I have only heard of it now.

I can't believe this is real, but it doesn't seem to be a scam. This is basically saying that drivers can, for a relatively small sum, buy the right to ignore the consequences of their actions. The company "blog" even says:

"Just think what would happen if you lost your driving licence? You could lose your job! how could you pick up the kids from school? how could you do your shopping, this list goes on and on, so just think about it."

Surely, just "thinking about it" is what keeps us one step away from total chaos and carnage on our roads. The Brazilian Critical Mass incident is testament to what can happen when consequences are forgotten. Also, it's nice to see such a positive spin put on the idea of thinking about alternative transport solutions...

How about considering the speed limit? That might work even better than insurance.

23 February 2011

Joining the Dots

“Personalised Travel Planning (PTP) seeks to challenge habitual use of the car, enabling more journeys to be made on foot, bike, bus, train or in shared cars. This is achieved through the provision of information, incentives, and motivation directly to individuals to help them voluntarily make more informed travel choices. PTP forms an important part of national, regional and local transport policy contributing to the suite of tools promoted under the general heading of Smarter Choices.”
I noted this news story recently from WAG, which heralds the award of a contract to Sustrans for rolling out a programme of personalised travel planning, helping people make more informed decisions about their regular journeys. I think this is a brilliant idea – my favourite public transport factoid is that when people who don’t use buses are asked about their local bus services, they don’t rate them highly, but when people who do use the buses are asked the same question, they tend to think there is a good service. So opening up people’s minds to alternatives seems like a sensible way to achieve modal shift.

I do worry however that when it comes to encouraging cycling, this travel planning exercise will fail to achieve any permanent change, even though it is a vital cog in the machine for achieving a widescale take-up of cycling as an alternative to car use. For all the discoveries of back routes and quiet roads, people will eventually look for a safe, convenient and direct route, probably from the suburbs into the town centre. When they realise there is, at some point in their journey, no alternative but to mix it with the cars, initial enthusiasm will wither in the face of a heartfelt perception of danger.

I firmly believe that segregation in the form of purpose designed separated infrastructure for bikes is what will make urban cycling a mainstream and accepted mode of transport, but I equally don’t see this as some kind of blanket solution with total nationwide coverage as an alternative to every road in the land.

It is clear to me that the separated infrastructure bit needs to be applied to key strategic routes within and between cities, acting as a collector for all the local quiet routes and cut-throughs, which eventually have to be joined up – it is, after all, how the efficient dendritic pattern of a highway hierarchy tends to work. This is where the segregation idea will pay off, but only as part of a wider, and deeper set of principles.

The wider and deeper set of principes needs to cover all the different strands leading towards developing a cycling culture – cycle chic, fashion, bikeability, travel planning, strict liability, cycle to work schemes, improved parking facilities, bike access through one-way road closures, 20mph zones, shared use streets, ride to right, child safety, stakeholder cycling groups commenting on local plans etc etc etc. But, without the separated infrastructure on key strategic routes to physically and metaphorically “join the dots”, it will all be for nothing.

18 February 2011

A Crack in the Armour?

Spot the Difference...

I have developed the not-so revolutionary theory that when the majority of the open civic space of a city is devoted to the motor car, the guardians of that civic space effectively become the Highway Engineers. Highway Engineers are interested in ideas such as flow, speed and control. Pedestrians need to hemmed in and contained – led like sheep through the danger. Cars need to be regulated and rules imposed – opportunity for decision making and risk assessment need to be reduced and even removed entirely. Traffic lights sprout like unwelcome weeds. Tarmac and white lines are the limited palette.

Modes of transport that do not quite fit the engineer’s vehicular model become problematic in this world order. Skateboarders and cyclists for instance are too slow to be really classified as vehicles, but too fast to sit comfortably with pedestrians. As these modes of transport are therefore considered outside the “mainstream” they naturally evolve to suit their non-mainstream label – subcultures are created and they develop to suit this particular niche. Cyclists thus become the pavement-riding, red-light jumping wiry anarchists we’ve all heard about, weaving through traffic on their fixed wheel tool of protest.

Meanwhile, those citizens dutifully occupying the actual and metaphoric “middle of the road” go about their business, snug inside their cars, sitting in splendid isolation amongst the walnut veneer and hi-fidelity sound, whilst they are whisked efficiently and quickly from A to B without risk or danger thanks to the sound principles of highway design promoted by the engineers.

Except we’re not whisked anywhere are we?

Congestion is the norm everywhere now. The term “gridlock” entered the lexicon as long ago as 1980. Car journeys across town are a slog of queues, traffic lights, junctions and more queues. To cross Cardiff from Roath to Canton – a journey of about 3.5 miles, you have to negotiate about 25 sets of traffic lights – about 50% of the journey time must be spent completely stationary.

According to James Norton writing in “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City”, the combined motoring interests in the USA became extremely concerned in the mid 1920’s about the impact of “saturation” on the potential market for new cars. The problem of saturation came about due to a combination of safety concerns, congestion due to lack of traffic rules and a growing second hand market. Together, these all served to depress demand. Motordom sought to solve this by re-defining the safety problem to get other users off the road, to control traffic by introducing traffic regulation and, most successfully, by encouraging cities to literally make more space for cars by building more roads. However, saturation in terms of space in cities is once again becoming a real problem, but this time there is no more room for more roads – we’re full.

Is this the crack in the armour of motordom we have been looking for? Can we use the saturation situation to resurrect the arguments that motordom sought to crush back in the 20’s? The one that really used to hurt was the idea of efficiency. In our cities, space is a scarce resource. It needs to be allocated according to the common good and laid out for the benefit of all - that is after all the basis of why civilised cities were founded in the first place. The thing is, cars are extremely inefficient occupiers of space. They need a lot of road space for a very small number of passengers, they spend large amounts of time needing to be stored somewhere, and they don’t pay their way (economically or spatially). Is it time for a re-allocation of space in our cities where efficiency is the measure of appropriateness? That would give a whole new meaning to “hierarchy of provision”.

If only there was a space efficient, lightweight, non-polluting, simple, cheap, easy to park, go-anywhere, do-anything mode of transport that we could turn to in our hour of need*

*Motordom wants us to think small electric cars are the answer to this question. I beg to differ.