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.