Nathan Lewis Archives

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"That stripe on my back is where I rode my bike though the puddle"

CityCaucus.com is pleased to present the provocative writing of Nathan Lewis. Nathan is a published author who has also written for Financial Times, Huffington Post, Nikkei Business, Daily Reckoning, Japan Times, among many other publications. Nathan is an advocate for what he calls a "Traditional City" and has written dozens of essays to argue his case. A Traditional City does not have cars. It is a city where people walk. There are no setbacks. No surrounding doughnut of Green Space. No shrubbery in front of the building, and streets are narrow. In other words, everything that North American cities are not.

Given the rancorous debate stirred up by Vision Vancouver over bike lanes, and similar feuds happening across the continent, Lewis' views are sure to stir up even more strong views about the future of our metropolitan areas. The following essay argues why bikes don't have the place in our cities the way some planners think they should. It is re-printed here on CityCaucus.com with the author's permission.

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Once people get into their heads that maybe the personal automobile is not really such a good idea -- in other words, after they have moved beyond the biodiesel/electric car phase, as if the only problem with the personal automobile is the fuel it uses -- they usually fixate on bicycles.

I say "fixate" because this often becomes an eco-fetish like so many other such things, as if more bicycles were better, and if you could just get enough bicycles in one place, you could "save the world."

The focus on bicycles is typically because, in the mind of this person, they still assume that they would be living in Suburban Hell, or perhaps some earlier variant of Suburban Hell (the 19th Century Hypertrophic Small Town America). Of course, if you are stuck in Suburban Hell, with its endless expanses of NoPlace and absurdly long distances between Places, then you would want a bicycle at the very least.

However, in a a properly designed Traditional City, most people don't need bicycles. This is true even today. In cities where people often do not own a car, such as New York or Hong Kong or Paris, these non-car-owning people usually do not own a bicycle either. Or, if they happen to own a bike, they do not use it every day as a transportation device. They get by just fine on foot, and using the transportation options available, especially trains and, if a train is not available, a bus. Occasionally a taxi. A bike is best as a least-desirable option, for those trips that are too long to walk comfortably, and not convenient by either train or bus. Ideally, these would be as few as possible, as a well-designed city should be a place where you can easily walk or ride a train (a bus if you have to) just about everywhere.

Bicycles were developed an popularized in the late 19th century. They predate automobiles by only a few decades. Humans have been living in Traditional Cities for 5000 years, and possibly as many as 10,000 years. So, the no-car Traditional City is also, traditionally, a no-bike city. You can have Life Without Cars and also Life Without Bikes.

streetIt should be obvious that it is better to not need a bike than to need one. If you can, you want to design things so that bikes aren't necessary or desirable. However, many bike fetishists become rather red-faced at this point, as, in their mind, more bikes are better, and anything that is contrary to their visions of As Many Bikes As Possible is to be crushed out by any available means.

This fascination with bikes is really another variant of the My Personal Transportation Device fixation which has been a part of American culture and self-image since about as early as you can go. Before the automobile, before the bicycle, there was of course the horse. I already mentioned the extraordinary proliferation of carriage houses in our typical 19th century American Village, which is completely contrary to any of the European or Asian examples of the walkable Traditional City Village.

So, we should not think about bikes-instead-of-cars, but rather getting over this unhealthy fixation on My Personal Transportation Device, which is of course unnecessary in the Traditional City. I lived in Tokyo for five years without a car, bike, motorcycle, scooter, Segway or skateboard. During this time I went mountaineering regularly, skied many weekends in winter, went backpacking in summer, and generally traveled over the countryside. Rental cars were available for very reasonable prices if, for some reason, you wanted one. I lived about a five minute walk from a car rental agency. I never rented one. Never needed to.

As we think of Life Without Cars, we should also think of Life Without Bikes. Life Without Cars and Bikes.


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